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In the Times today, Bill Keller has a longish column about how selfish the Baby Boomers are for wanting their Social Security and their Medicare and even their Medicaid. I'm not sure why he lumps Medicaid into it, as if poor people have a choice, but he does. Keller's argument isn't novel. He links to a Paul Begela Esquire article that made the esthetic anti-boomer case at the turn of the century. The Begala piece, now 12 years old, is a fun read, if only to see how much has changed and how little has changed in more than a decade.
Keller's economic argument is all about cutting entitlements, not for future generations, but for the generation retiring now. He doesn't mention that this generation has scant savings over Social Security and pensions (to the extent that they still even have pensions). Instead, he prefers the Alan Simpson method of making it seem as if these people are all financially secure and that their promised Social Security and health care benefits (which, let's not forget, they've been taxed for throughout their working lives) are luxuries rather than necessities.
The Boomers are not, of course, some sort of massive leisure class. This is a generation that has worked decades as globalization sprang up around them, eroding their wages and demanding every greater productivity for every hour worked. If the Boomers were rich, we'd probably all be better off. But, it turns out that the Boomers are just normal, working people. Their sin, it seems, is that they have grown old (though I doubt anybody asked them if they wanted to age).
Are the Boomers selfish for wanting the benefits they were promised (and that they paid for?) To say yes, you have to take a pretty wide view of selfish where it is always selfish to take what was promised to you. People who believe that the Boomers are selfish will tell you that by taking what they have been promised now, they are robbing their children and grandchildren.
Well, if the Boomer answer is that they get their benefits but all future benefits are cut then, yes, that's selfish. But if their answer is, "no cuts," it's not selfish at all. Instead of thinking of a Boomers as a great grazing beast out to clear the field of grass, what if we think of them as a labor union? Because, when a labor union makes concessions now, that is not always good for future generations of workers in that field. Those concessions become baked into the industry. To prevent the erosion of working standards over time, sometimes a union has to refuse to make concessions right now. Sometimes the union has to say, "No... there are minimal standards and we have reached them."
In short, the best way to protect Social Security for the children of the Boomers is for the Boomers to reject cuts right now. As the great Boomer starship Captain Picard said in a fictional future: "The line must be drawn... hee-yah!"
Because we have been down this road before. We cut Social Security benefits in the 1980s. The result of that was supposed to prevent the discussion we're having now. And yet, here we are. It kind of makes you suspect that any cut now will simply lead to suggestions that we cut more in the future.
And the truth is that Social Security will be more important to successive generations than it was to the Boomers because of the death of pension plans. Those of us born after the Baby Boom are truly on our own when it comes to retirement. If anything, the current level of benefits is too low to meet peoples retirement needs. That's the crisis that needs addressing. Cuts aren't going to help with that.