Selfish baby boomer claims

May 24, 1999|By Eugene Steuerle

MOST BABY boomers, no matter what their politics, once identified strongly with John F. Kennedy's dictate to "ask not what your country can do for you."

Now that they have come into full power in the labor force, business, Congress and the presidency, it is ironic that their legacy could well be a federal government almost solely devoted to meeting their retirement needs, at the expense of other national priorities.

This legacy is as firmly rooted in the Republican Congress' budget proposals as it is in the president's or current law.

Under all, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid expenditures would rise from about 40 percent of federal revenues today to almost 80 percent in 50 years. Much of the growth in Medicaid comes from projections of nursing-home costs for the aging population.

And those numbers exclude the tab for civil service and military retirees, Supplemental Security Income for the elderly, proposed drug benefits for the elderly, proposed and (long overdue) relief for poor widows, or revenue losses resulting from any significant tax cut.

Nothing left over

In effect, almost nothing would be left over for education, the environment, justice, welfare, highways -- most of what we traditionally have considered the principal purposes of government.

Economic growth is often touted as the engine that will put new steam in these other programs. But retirement-centered programs are scheduled to grow about as fast or faster than the economy, no matter what its growth rate.

In fact, the primary budgetary decision made by the president and Congress during the last few years was by default -- to let the promises of benefits to future retirees swell.

We now owe several hundred billion dollars more than we did just a few years ago, leaving little for boosting spending on education or crises in Eastern Europe or tax cuts or anything else the public might want or need.

But won't the surplus make up the difference? Alas, the future projected deficits of Social Security and Medicare dwarf any temporary surplus.

The president and Congress are negotiating how to spend some of the projected surplus now and oblige future presidents and Congresses not to spend any more of it.

Down the line 10 years, baby boomers start retiring and government retirement programs quickly move toward a perpetual deficit.

If today's elected representatives succeed, future generations at best will have lighter interest payments to bear temporarily, but the share of revenues and of national income now promised to future retirees will remain huge and hugely unfair.

What makes those costs rise so high? In today's dollars, a typical baby-boom couple is scheduled to get about $650,000 of benefits in an annuity and health-benefit package that lasts for almost a quarter of a century or until both die.

A higher-income couple such as the Clintons is scheduled to get closer to $900,000 (roughly half Social Security, half Medicare).

A more important reason for the anticipated budgetary shortfall is that Americans are living longer and having fewer children.

In our system, children pay taxes to support their retired parents at ever-rising levels of assistance, so fewer children and more retired parents mean less well-off children. Also, if proportionally fewer adults work, remaining job holders shoulder a greater share of the burden of education, defense and other societal needs.

The public debate over Social Security swirls around the issue of whether to save more in the federal budget or in individual accounts.

But the dust it kicks up blinds us to reality: There is no way that politicians can cajole or force us to save enough to support close to one-third of the entire adult population on Social Security for one-third of their adult lives.

Nor should we let stock market returns become to the Social Security debate what the promise of eliminating waste, fraud and abuse historically has been to the deficit debate: a way to put off harder choices.

It's not too late for baby boomers who grew up embracing the idea of service to one's country to reattach themselves to their moral roots.

Sole priority?

Do they really believe that their own retirement needs should be the federal government's sole priority? That all the blessings of longer life should be paid for mostly by others? Or that their generation -- my generation as well -- can rightfully deny the next the freedom to spend government resources as it sees fit?

Clearly, answering Kennedy's question affirmatively means being willing to work a little longer, becoming dependent upon others for a shorter period and, in the process of paying taxes on additional earnings, sharing more in the burden of government.

Politicians sometimes discuss an increase in the retirement age in negative terms, but most sensible people recognize it positively as nothing more than the responsibility that comes to those lucky enough to have longer lives and better health care -- and want a government devoted to somebody besides themselves.

Eugene Steuerle is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington and co-author of "The Government We Deserve." He wrote this article for Newsday.

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