My mother was a woman of modest but comfortable means. In some ways she was
ahead of her time, returning to work in 1963 at age 52 after taking 20 years out of
the workforce to raise her children.
Decades later in retirement, as she was discarding one of the endless unsolicited
invitations she received to become a member of the AARP, she unexpectedly lit
into the organization. She explained that she viewed the AARP as existing for one
purpose alone -- to lobby shamelessly, relentlessly and irresponsibly for benefits
for their membership, frequently at taxpayer expense. More was better, enough
was never enough. She held firmly to that belief until her death at the age of 84,
steadfastly refusing to become a member.
Nothing seems to have changed. Recently, the organization launched a shocking
new ad campaign more befitting the NRA than the AARP. In an ominous, indeed
threatening tone, the ad targets the budget supercommittee and those intending to
run for election that are considering cutting Social Security or Medicare. The AARP
spokesperson promises that its 50 million members will see to it that any who "even
think about" cutting benefits will hear from their membership on election day.
That's precisely the uncompromising single litmus test thinking that has played such
a prominent role in creating the paralysis that envelops our political process. It has
been perfected by the NRA and Grover Norquist's "American's for Tax Reform," each
of whom advocate that only one issue matters.
As any actuary will tell you (and we all know in our bones), if we don't intend to
bankrupt our nation, changes need to be made to Social Security and Medicare. No
one likes the idea, but unfortunately it's undeniable. It's simple mathematics, and
we've known it for more than 30 years. John Anderson ran on that platform in the
1980 presidential election!
As a result of our past unwillingness to address the problem (due in no small part to
organizations like the AARP lobbying hard to keep Social Security as the third rail of
political debate) promises have indeed been made that as a society we simply don't
have the resources to keep. The time is here when we must either take our long
delayed medicine or face the music of radically worse and unintended economic consequences for all.
Of course, it isn't the only change we need to make if we are to secure our future,
and retirees and future beneficiaries aren't the only ones who will have to sacrifice --
we must all bear our share of the burden. Taxes will have to be increased and other
expenditures will have to be reduced. But it is irresponsible and simply false (and
frankly, no longer acceptable) to feed the delusion that Social Security and Medicare
programs can remain untouched.
Instead of using their political clout to threaten to defeat any candidate that "as
much as talks" about cutting retiree benefits, the AARP has an alternative. They
could use the considerable power of their "50 million strong" membership to
embrace the opportunity to lead a responsible debate. They could offer to engage in
a meaningful dialogue about how we can begin to address our long term problems
in a manageable way that will demand compromise and sacrifice from all of us,
yet protect those who truly need a safety net. Surely Social Security and Medicare
shouldn't be singled out, but it is equally certain that these programs must be
brought into actuarial balance as part of a broader program to right our broken
Regrettably, they have chosen once again to use the strength of their membership to
selfishly demand more. They suggest it's OK to cut waste and fraud (who among us
isn't against sin?) but tread on the other guy if you must, just "don't tread on me."
For the past 12 years, the AARP has been sending me the same invitations to join
that my mother was receiving a generation ago. She was right. I think I'll do the
same thing she did with them, so please AARP, do us both a favor. You save the $.44,
and my mailbox will have just a little less clutter. Now that's a win-win we can both