Sunday, December 25, 2005

The U.S. economy speeds toward a brick wall. But instead of trying to stop or even slow the fiscal train wreck, many senior citizens want to push hard on the accelerator.

Nothing was more evident at the recent 2005 White House Conference on Aging than the palpable greed of seniors. Perhaps they see it as getting even with their Baby Boomer kids for how we aggravated them in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Whatever their motives, they are not very realistic. As U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, the chief federal auditor, made clear, our country can’t afford existing programs for the elderly, such as Medicare. If more benefits are piled on, as many conference delegates demanded, we face economic disaster.

Policymaking in Washington is often nine-tenths political theater and one-tenth deliberation. The Conference on Aging was no exception.

A week before the proceedings, I was invited to participate in a telephone conference call hosted by an official of the National Council on the Aging (NCOA), a leading advocacy group. After a few minutes, I realized my invitation was probably a mistake and quietly hung up the phone. The host already had announced with great satisfaction that some 125 conference delegates — about 10 percent of the total — were drawn from NCOA and its constituent groups. In other words, the conference would be dominated by interest groups.

The announced purpose of the aging conference, a once-a-decade event, was to help policymakers and institutions serving senior citizens come to grips with the next great social upheaval facing America: the retirement of the 77 million Baby Boomers born from 1946 to 1965.

Though much has been written about the Boomers, there is little evidence Washington has any real clue how life will change when the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll generation trades in work clothes for rockers and walkers. Nor did the majority of conference delegates seem to care.

The postwar Baby Boom generation — for all its counterculture rant — is actually the best educated and wealthiest in U.S. history. John Haven and Paul Schervish of the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy estimate “intergenerational transfers” of wealth will amount to some $41 trillion during the first half of this century, fourfold the current U.S. gross domestic product. This money will not come from nowhere.

Education and wealth are just two factors. Policymakers also need to understand what Boomers want and need when they retire, how the market is likely to respond, what Boomers expect from government and how capabilities of local government and nonprofit agencies stack up against future needs. Then this must all be weighed against the resource crunch the country will face when millions of today’s most productive workers and highest-earning taxpayers stop drawing pay checks and start drawing Medicare and Social Security.

Does Washington know the average net worth of Baby Boomer households? Average retirement savings? What percentage of Boomers intend to continue working after they are eligible for Social Security (and for how long)? Has Washington considered the number of Boomers in second and third marriages with significantly younger or older spouses, and the problems this creates? Do they know how many Boomers plan to sell their equity-loaded homes and move to Arizona, Nevada, the Carolinas and other lower-cost states? No such information was offered, or evident, at the aging conference.

If there are any real heroes in the aging-of-America story it is not the greedy geezers from the interest groups that dominated the White House conference. The heroes are the volunteers who deliver Meals on Wheels each day; the husbands, wives, children and paid caregivers who feed and bathe Alzheimer’s patients and other frail oldsters who can’t care for themselves; and the thousands of men and women who administer local government and nonprofit aging programs that are invariably understaffed and underfunded.

Before acting on any of the initiatives urged by aging conference delegates, lawmakers need to ascertain if they represent legitimate needs, if the marketplace can better meet those needs and if government at all levels can take on even more when it can’t pay for what it’s doing now.

Herb Berkowitz, a media and communications consultant in Wilmington, N.C., was a North Carolina delegate to the Dec. 11-14 White House Conference on Aging.

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