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Proud to be AARP. Kinda.

By Edward Zelinsky


Receiving my AARP membership card was one of the truly traumatic events of my life. I had marched for civil rights. I had protested the war in Vietnam. I walked the streets for Gene McCarthy. I was a legitimate Baby Boomer. How could this have happened to me?

My wiser and more self-confident spouse took it in better stride. Doris quickly became adept at pulling out her AARP card and demanding old-age discounts, as I stood sheepishly aside.

My personal disquiet about my AARP card reinforced my deeply-seated, policy-based misgivings about the AARP. President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich could have emulated President Reagan and Speaker O’Neill by negotiating a reasonable, bi-partisan approach to Social Security. At that time, increasing the retirement ages for Baby Boomers and other similarly modest measures would have brought Social Security’s projected payments into line with its expected revenues, with only minor impacts on future retirees.

There were many reasons such a deal didn’t happen during the Clinton years, but the AARP’s strident opposition was chief among them.

As the financial problems of Social Security and Medicare became more acute, I became increasingly troubled by the AARP’s refusal to address them. The AARP’s effective opposition to reforming these entitlement programs has implemented perfectly the ethic of Baby Boomer narcissism.

I was accordingly surprised and reassured to learn that the AARP has at last acknowledged the need for us geezers, i.e., its members, to reform Social Security benefits for the financial sake of our children and grandchildren. As a mushy moderate, I am convinced that there is a balanced package of tax increases and benefit reductions which can allow the Baby Boomers to retire without bankrupting our offspring.

It is good news that the AARP has belatedly recognized this reality.

Medicare will be tougher to reform. It is now finally sinking in that the Independent Payment Advisory Board President Obama and Congress created as part of the health reform package will effectively ration medical care through its control of Medicare’s payments to health care providers. This should surprise no one: Rationing is how government outlays are controlled. Medicare’s outlays must be controlled.

The same is true of the consumer-driven approach to controlling Medicare expenses proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan. The Ryan plan would place greater responsibility on Medicare consumers to control costs. This approach is also going to be necessary to control Medicare outlays.

Determining the right mix of these two approaches is going to be a difficult task. Regrettably, neither Republicans nor Democrats are now prepared to undertake the serious enterprise of governing.

It would be good for the AARP to also raise its voice on behalf of the cause of Medicare cost reform.

However, for now, I’ll take what I can get. It is progress for the AARP, however gingerly, to acknowledge that Social Security entitlements for the elderly must be curbed in the interests of national solvency and the futures of our children and grandchildren.

But I will still step aside while Doris demands the elderly discount.

Edward A. Zelinsky is the Morris and Annie Trachman Professor of Law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University. He is the author of The Origins of the Ownership Society: How The Defined Contribution Paradigm Changed America. His monthly column appears here.

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