By Samuelson, Robert J.
Byline: Robert J. Samuelson
Cassandra Devine knows how to solve the coming "entitlements" crisis, preordained when the 77 million baby boomers begin hitting 65 in 2011: pay retirees to commit suicide, a program she calls "transitioning." Volunteers could receive a lavish vacation beforehand ("a farewell honeymoon"), courtesy of the government, and their heirs would be spared the estate tax. If only 20 percent of boomers select suicide before the age of 70, she says, "Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid will be solvent. End of crisis."
OK, Devine is a 29-year-old fictional blogger in Christopher Buckley's new satirical novel, "Boomsday." Infuriated at the injustices awaiting her generation, she becomes an instant media celebrity with a gift for incendiary rhetoric. "Someone my age will have to spend their [sic ] entire life paying unfair taxes, just so the Boomers can hit the golf course at sixty-two and drink gin and tonics until they're ninety," she tells one TV reporter.
Her plan, once in cyberspace, incites spontaneous uprisings. In Florida, "several hundred people in their twenties stormed the gates of a retirement community ... Residents were assaulted as they played golf."
Buckley, born in 1952, is a boomer himself, and his novel is in the best Swiftian tradition (that's Jonathan Swift, 1667-1745, who once proposed relieving an Irish famine by eating the young) of using the absurd to discuss moral outrages. Buckley's comic tale revolves around two truths usually buried in our dreary budget debates.
First, a generational backlash is inevitable. It may not come as attacks on sunbathing retirees, but the idea that younger workers will meekly bear the huge tax increases needed to pay all boomers' promised benefits is delusional. The increases are too steep, and too many boomers--fairly wealthy and healthy--will seem undeserving.
Consider: In 2007, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid constitute 44 percent of the $2.7 trillion federal budget. To pay all future benefits could (depending on assumptions) easily require tax increases of 30 percent to 50 percent by 2030. Many retirees are quite comfortable. About 42 percent of Americans 65 to 75 have assets (homes, stocks, cash) worth $250,000 or more; 23 percent have annual incomes exceeding $69,000, says the Employee Benefit Research Institute.
Second, boomers will want even more benefits. Buckley imagines them clamoring for subsidies for Botox, grandparent day care and "giant flat-screen plasma TVs (for Boomers with deteriorating eyesight)." Their actual demands may be less exotic and more expensive: closing the "doughnut hole"--a gap of coverage--in Medicare's drug benefit; more lenient tax treatment for retirement accounts; more payments for nursing homes. …