Why I won't be joining AARP ranks, thank you


I turned 50 last month, and AARP was on me like a stalker.

"Dear Mr. James P. Hancock,

"Our records show that you haven't yet registered for the benefits of AARP membership, even though you are fully eligible."

Dear AARP: Thanks for the reminder. I am also fully eligible for the Hair Club for Men and the frequent-gambler program at Harrah's, but I haven't yet registered with them, either. Because the benefits of AARP membership appear to include bankrupting the country on my behalf, I must politely decline.

The organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons has become the nation's most powerful political lobby. Baby boomers like me are the biggest demographic group. Medicare, the federal health program for seniors, is the most out-of-control fiscal program.

Together they make trouble. If you think Medicare is a sacred cow and the nation has budget problems now, wait until AARP and the boomers become one.

AARP already has 35 million members. That's more than Canada has citizens or the AFL-CIO has union members.

If we believe the Census Bureau's estimate that 70 percent of those 55 and over voted in the last election, almost one voter in four is an AARP member. Thousands of them are trained to rain "pro-senior" opinions on Capitol Hill at the drop of a Geritol bottle. AARP claims its magazine is the most widely read on the planet.

The group is closing in on $1 billion in revenue - almost double since 2000, when it boasted that, "as it should be, membership dues ... were our single largest source of revenue."

Not now. Dues are dwarfed by royalties AARP gets for allowing its brand on insurance plans, mutual funds and so forth, which makes it look like Citigroup with a lobbying wing. The extra money finances more muscle to promote programs the country can't afford.

Many AARP products are aimed at baby boomers, who can be counted on to do the same thing for AARP's membership that they did for marijuana sales and real estate prices. There are more than 80 million of them, if you count immigrants of the same age.

AARP acknowledges that aging boomers may render Medicare as we know it unsustainable. But it downplays the arithmetic and says "the health care system as a whole" is the problem, not Medicare. That's classic political temporizing, a rousing call to inaction.

The reality is that boomers will stress the system far more than most in Washington want to see, and AARP is distributing the blindfolds.

The first boomers become eligible for Medicare in 2011. Between 2011 and 2030, the number of Medicare participants will increase 70 percent, to nearly 70 million.

Even if cost increases moderate slightly from present rates, the program will consume an amazing 22 percent of the nation's economic output by 2050, the Congressional Budget Office calculates. That's more than today's entire federal budget.

We would pay the bill with much higher taxes, huge federal borrowing or both. Either way, it's terrible news for our children and grandchildren.

The national debt is already more than $8 trillion - $27,000 for every American.

Interest on the debt cost the country $350 million last year.

Credible projections show cumulative Medicare deficits heading into the scores of trillions in coming decades.

It can be fixed

For these reasons, Medicare is a far bigger problem than Social Security, which could be easily fixed if anybody had the political guts. Medicare can be fixed, too, but it would take even more guts, and pain.

It would require ceasing coverage for drugs and treatments that don't work or don't work well. It would require more cost-sharing with patients and other incentives to economize. It would require stopping expensive efforts to prolong life by a few months. About a fourth of Medicare costs are incurred within a year of patients' deaths, studies show.

Some good work

AARP does some good work. Blocking private accounts for Social Security was for the best. The group helps seniors take care of themselves and works to keep them from getting scammed.

But on the whole, what AARP wants is not what the country needs.

So this boomer says "no thanks."

On the other hand, if someone starts the American Association for the Advancement of Generation Z, I'll send a check.


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