The greedy AARP

Posted: Dec 07, 2004 12:00 AM

 If any more confirmation were needed, we've just received it: The AARP's most fundamental principle is "Get all you can, while you can -- young people be damned."

    The nation's largest seniors organization has just sent its 36 million members a scorching message opposing private Social Security accounts, raising the prospect of benefit cuts, Wall Street profiteering and mayhem just short of the apocalypse. The blast is prompted by Bush's endorsement of Social Security reform and proposals to allow younger workers to voluntarily divert some of their payroll taxes into a private retirement account.

    There is nothing about these accounts -- the AARP used to signal its approval for some form of them -- that would necessarily mean benefit cuts. But the AARP invokes cuts as part of what is standard operating procedure in senior-citizen politics -- present seniors with some outlandish scenario (typically a very frightening one), and hope they are just credulous enough to believe it. It's roughly the same theory that Publishers Clearing House operated on for years as it gulled seniors into thinking they were just a couple of magazine subscriptions away from winning millions. Publishers Clearing House's pitch was, "You Are Already a Winner." The AARP and Democrats tell seniors constantly, "You Are Already a Loser."

    It seemed things might be different when the AARP endorsed a GOP prescription drug bill a year ago. AARP representatives met with White House aides, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert and dangled the possibility of a new era of AARP-GOP cooperation. Nothing came of it. The group, as is its wont, took the money from the drug bill and ran.

    The AARP knows that, in the end, the Democrats are the most reliable party of government giveaways. Also, the Democrats savaged the AARP for its treasonous endorsement of the GOP proposal. The Democratic House leadership lined up its members against the bill, and the last thing it wanted was the AARP telling seniors that Democrats had opposed a law beneficial to them. So, AARP officials did the least they possibly could to promote the law once it passed, slyly reinforcing Democratic complaints about the law's deficiencies and complexity.

    There are a couple of wrinkles here. One is that -- despite the AARP's reluctant advocacy -- the prescription drug bill is a good deal for seniors (giveaways usually are). Any Medicare recipient who doesn't call 1-800-Medicare to check it out is making a mistake as a matter of sheer self-interest. The second is that the costs of the law -- originally pegged at a low-ball $400 billion over 10 years -- are spiraling higher. The program contributes to the budget deficit, which makes fixing Social Security -- which will probably require more government borrowing -- politically more difficult. The drug bill thus doubly served AARP's interest.

    Behind the group's savage opposition to reform, most fundamentally, is its belief that if young people get a taste of private accounts, they might like them and want something better than a 70-year-old government program. But the AARP is actually being shortsighted. As Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute points out, what is more likely to create a revolt against Social Security is ever-higher payroll taxes funding an ever-worse deal for younger workers as they support more and more baby boomer retirees. This is precisely the AARP solution to the program's looming financial problems: Lift the cap on the amount of wages to which the payroll tax applies from $88,000 to $140,000. For the AARP, piling more taxes on people who aren't retired -- i.e., working people -- is always the best option.

    Seniors tend to be opposed to change, and they don't, for understandable reasons, care about Social Security's dismal rate of return for workers who will retire decades from now. Fine. Preserve the current system for seniors, but let young workers experiment with private accounts. Who can object to that -- with the exception, of course, of a certain greedy, scaremongering, reactionary lobby group?