Wednesday, November 16, 2005

AARP's $25 Million Well Spent

In his column in today's Washington Post, economist Robert J. Samuelson declares that "AARP has become America's most dangerous lobby." The organization's crime? Failing to offer what Samuelson considers a serious solution to the entitlements dilemma.

Obviously that's not much of a crime. It seems churlish to attack a membership organization simply because it has failed to solve a problem that the Bush administration and many other allegedly serious policy experts have failed to solve. So Samuelson shifts his ground, complaining about AARP's supposedly deleterious effect on the public debate:

This year AARP spent $25 million, mostly on TV and print ads, to defeat President Bush's proposal for "personal" Social Security accounts. The punch line of one ad is revealing: "If you have a problem with the sink, you don't tear down the entire house." Translation: The problems of today's retirement programs resemble a clogged sink; "personal accounts" are a radical solution, akin to demolishing the house. Only modest tinkering (fixing the sink) is needed. Brilliant imagery -- and totally misleading.

Like AARP, I oppose personal accounts. But I do so because they divert attention from the basic problems and don't do much to solve them. It isn't just the sink that's clogged; the roof is leaking, the porch is sagging and the wiring is faulty. Unless we renovate the entire house, it will become uninhabitable. That is, we need to rewrite the social contract to reflect improved health and longer life expectancies: Americans need to work longer, eligibility ages for Social Security and Medicare need to be raised gradually, and benefits for wealthier retirees should be reduced.

Hmmm. So AARP's real crime, then, amounts to (1) comparing Social Security to a faulty sink rather than a leaking roof and a sagging porch, and (2) opposing Bush’s personal accounts (which Samuelson also opposes!) for the "wrong" reasons. Hard to see how this makes AARP "America's most dangerous lobby." (Wouldn't the NRA be a more logical candidate? Someone I'm sure has calculated the number of deaths attributable to the their anti-gun-control campaigns.)

Thank God the folks who run AARP (supported in part by my membership dues) didn't listen to the counsel of people like Bob Samuelson. They understood that, in the first half of this year, the urgent need was to expose Bush's "plan" (which of course was never actually fleshed out into the form of an actual proposal) as the fraud it was, a veiled attempt to undermine Social Security and put it on the course to extinction. Their ads helped to do that, thereby averting an imminent threat to the program.

Only once the Bush plan is finally dead and buried--which probably means after Bush is out of office--will it be safe to have a real debate about the future of old-age entitlements. As AARP knows, before you focus on planning the house renovation, you'd better get the blow torch away from the neighborhood arsonist.

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