Op-Ed: Boomers, Give Up On Entitlements

Read Bill Keller's Op-Ed, "The Entitled Generation"

Boomers, New York Times columnist Bill Keller has a message for you: It's time to bite the bullet and cut spending on Social Security and Medicare. In an op-ed, Keller writes, "It's not our fault that there are a lot of us, but we have resisted any move to fix the system."

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

And now the Opinion Page. And baby boomers, it's all about you. Well, isn't it always? In the New York Times this morning, columnist Bill Keller argues it's time for the generation that fought in and against the war in Vietnam, the generation that gave us flower power and credit default swaps to step up and take one for the team. Medicare and Social Security spending has to come down, he argues, and boomers need to make entitlement reform, quote, our generation's cause. It's not our fault there are a lot of us, he writes, but we have resisted any move to fix the system.

So, baby boomers, we want to hear from you. What do you owe the next generation? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Bill Keller, the former executive editor of the New York Times, now a columnist there, he joins us from a studio at the newspaper. And nice to have you back on the program.

BILL KELLER: Oh, thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And I have to begin by saying I know this is an actual, for real, authentic Bill Keller column because I read it in an actual copy of the New York Times.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLER: I can't imagine what you're referring to, Neal.

CONAN: There was an incident over the weekend where someone from WikiLeaks posted a fake Bill Keller column that got everybody pretty excited there for a little while.

KELLER: Yeah, well, we think WikiLeaks - WikiLeaks tweeted saying - claiming credit for this fake column, but we don't know if WikiLeaks' tweet was a fake too. So, you know, the social media hall of mirrors.

CONAN: Hmm. Getting pretty meta here.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLER: I don't know. You know, I'm sort of torn between thinking that this whole episode was a colossal waste of a Sunday afternoon on the one hand, and on the other hand, kind of admiring the way the whole sort of social media community conducts forensics. I mean, they, you know, I watched this fraudulent email posted, tweeted, retweeted, and then it was unmasked and then it was diagnosed. And people were figuring out that they'd set up a, you know, a false New York Times domain, and somebody analyzed that and people were passing judgments on it. It all took, you know, a couple of hours. So it was a kind of amazing spectacle to watch.

CONAN: Editorially, though, what did you think of the writing?

KELLER: I have to say I was a little insulted. I mean, you know, bad parody is a waste of ink or a waste of pixels in this case, and I would've liked it more if it had actually been funny. It was a little ham-handed.

CONAN: It was in support, as you can imagine, reluctant support to make it, I guess, more credible, of WikiLeaks. But let's get on to the actual column that was in the actual newspaper today. You're on the spot. What cuts are you willing to make?

KELLER: Well, you know this whole area is a minefield, and I've been - I've drawn a fair number of comments along the lines of that elitist hack Bill Keller wants to take over your Social Security, which, for the record, no, he does not. But what provoked the column specifically was a new report that just come out from a centrist, democratic group called Third Way. Being a centrist is probably that one thing these days that's less popular than being a boomer.

But - and they graphed, over about 50 years, the percentage of the federal spending that goes to investment, not just salaries but in things like infrastructure, basic research, education help, investment in our future, and things that go to the safety net, to supporting, you know, people who are needy or poor or old. And the trends are kind of a slap to the face, I think. In 1962, about 32 cents of every dollar went to investments and 14 percent, 14 cents, to entitlements. Then the lines cross. Today, we spent 15 cents on investment and 46 cents on entitlements. And if the trends continue, by 2030, when the last of us boomers has joined Social Security, entitlements will be consuming 61 cents of every federal dollar. And that's squeezing out the stuff that we need to do to build a future for our children. So...

CONAN: And you look back to 1962 when things like the interstate highway system and the space program, these were the kinds of investments you're talking about and you say built our prosperity for the remainder of the century.

KELLER: That's right. And, you know, the counterparts today would be things like affordable energy or, you know, a more reliable power grid. I mean, there are lots of things that you can imagine - the kind of basic research that government does because the private sector won't, because it's either too risky or the payoff is too long-term for the private - for private enterprise to get into it.

CONAN: So there is the rationale, there's the reasoning behind it. So what do you cut?

KELLER: Well, you know, first of all, I would not take the Republican approach, which is to - I say the Republican approach; it's mainly the Paul Ryan approach, which seems to have the blessing of Mitt Romney, and that's to move towards privatizing both Social Security and Medicare. Social Security by creating these private investment accounts where you take control of your own retirement fund, sort of like 401(k)s, and Medicare through voucher programs that would replace, you know, the more conventional insurance that it is - program that it is now.

I am very suspicious of that program. I think it amounts to just an outright cut. And I don't think there's much evidence that, except on the margins, that if you give people charge of their own money, they'll manage it better, they'll find themselves a better deal. So that's the way I would not go.

CONAN: You did say that at least the Republicans do have a plan.

KELLER: At least they have a plan. I think it's a bad plan, and it does not, by the way, entail taking any of the savings from these cuts in entitlements and putting them into government investment. So it - in my - by my standards, it fails on two counts.

The Third Way - and people like Alan Simpson or Erskine Bowles, who did the Simpson-Bowles Commission Report, had a whole menu of more incremental things that you could choose from.

Personally, I would look at two things as my kind of main targets. One of them would be assuring that the people who - people like me, who have ample resources of their own, either pay more or draw less on these programs. So means testing is, I guess, the term of art for that. And there are lots of ways you can do that. Robert Reich, who is nobody's idea of a heartless conservative, proposes raising the amount of pay that's subject to the Social Security payroll tax by a significant amount. And in that way...

CONAN: So if you earn a lot of money, you will still continue to pay the taxes on Social Security; the cap is lifted.

KELLER: Yeah, that's right. That's right. Then the other thing, which is something people talk a lot about in connection with the Affordable Care Act, which I support, is controlling health care cost generally, which as we're constantly reminded, are about the highest on Earth. There are two. There are lots of things that you can do moving away from the fee-for-service approach to paying doctors and hospitals, which creates at least a subliminal incentive to do unnecessary and duplicative treatments. You can, again, do more means testing. Personally, I think there's a strong case to be made for tort reform because there's a lot of defensive - unnecessary defensive medicine that gets practiced, and so on.

There's a long list. Some of those - another one is encouraging doctors to have end-of-life discussions with their patients.

CONAN: Ah. Death panels.

KELLER: Right. It's, of course, like so many of the things in this area, a political untouchable because it's been caricatured by Sarah Palin as a...

CONAN: Its opponents, yeah.

KELLER: Yeah, as a - as some sort of, you know, Dr. Kevorkian will now take over your care. What it really means is talking to people about whether they should have a living will, because by some estimates, a quarter of all of our health care spending goes into the last year of life. And a lot of that goes into sustaining - keeping people alive for days that are hardly fulfilling final days.

CONAN: Well, let's get some callers in on the conversation. What do you baby boomers owe the next generations? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Aaron's on the line with us from Tucson.

AARON: How are you guys doing today?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

KELLER: Good, thanks.

AARON: Good. I'm always informed when I read Bill Keller's columns. I respect them, but I think that the idea of moving the finish line as people reach it, especially in a country where many of the people only have Social Security as their lifeline, is a bit unrealistic. Further, to say it's baby boomers' responsibility when unlimited increases or many increases were given to the best generation, the greatest generation is also, I think, a little bit unrealistic. Needs to be rethought, but don't move the tape as the people reach the finish line. That's all that I'm really urging.

CONAN: So the retirement age when you get full benefits, now 67, don't raise it to 70 as somebody is 65 years old.

AARON: Or don't tell the people, oh, you were going to retire at 62. Let's decrease that 62 right now, which is I suspect what some people would think, especially on the Ryan side.

CONAN: Bill Keller?

KELLER: Personally, I mean, there is a case for moving the retirement dates a few years later. I mean, the case is that people live on average, I think, 14 years longer than they did when Social Security was introduced, was - when it was signed into law by FDR. So these payments have ballooned purely through the fact of longevity. But I would - most people who propose raising the retirement age propose doing it for people who are, you know, much younger now so that you're not moving the goal post just when people are about to cross the line.

CONAN: So move it for people who are now 30, not people who are now 60 so... all right.

KELLER: Exactly.

CONAN: Aaron, thanks for...

AARON: That has some sense and some intelligence to it as versus a clean cut for everybody. Thank you, Mr. Keller, for writing intelligently.

KELLER: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: And thanks very much for the call. Don't you - all those calls that begin with "with respect," then you know something is coming.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Here's a tweet from Janice: What? When my 20-year-old son starts to pay his share of rent, et cetera, then maybe I can break even. Bah, they owe me.

We're talking with Bill Keller...

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...a columnist for The New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And by the way, there's a link to Bill Keller's column, "The Entitled Generation," at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go next to - this is Mary Jo(ph). Mary Jo with us from Columbus.

MARY JO: Thanks. I agree with a lot of what Bill has said, but I have a different perspective than all the career-oriented men who are talking about this. I left being an actuary to take full-time care of my parents for over a decade. And I hope to get the same care from Medicare, the same good care that my parents got, but not just for my sake, for our children's generation because I was able to live my life and be so much less stressed during the times when Medicare took good care of my parents. When there were cuts in Medicare or in nursing home coverage, that's when the pressure on me was enormous, and I couldn't live my life. And I haven't seen that perspective anywhere.

KELLER: Well, I certainly hope that our kids would want to take care of us in our old age, but they certainly shouldn't have to. I mean, the point of fixing these entitlements so that they're sustainable in the long run is that we don't end up sticking the younger generation with even more of the burden. We're doing this for them, and part of that is that if Medicare remains, you know, as I would advocate, intact for the people who need it most, then you're not going to have, you know, us becoming an even greater burden on our kids.

CONAN: Mary Jo, thanks.

MARY JO: Thank you.

CONAN: And here's an email we have. This one from Rick in San Jose: Social Security and Medicare need to go back to the original intent, that's to provide a safety net for people who don't have other means. I have a pension, a 401(k), and I've made some sound investments to plan for my future. I and those like me should be means tested. We should forfeit some or all of our contributions based on need. It's just like any other insurance policy. I pay for fire insurance. But if I never have a fire in my home, I lose those contributions. These should be looked at as an insurance policy in the event of. This could be the great sacrifice of our time to provide for our posterity.

And, Bill Keller, in something of a, I think, of a joking sense, I mean, you cited a lot of the criticisms the baby boom generation has received, and perhaps deservedly so, over the years. But that's in terms of lining up a call for sacrifice.

KELLER: Yes, it is. And by the way, I not only agree with everything that that last listener wrote, I have to say that he writes a lot better than WikiLeaks.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: From the former editor of the New York Times. For example, you said - who was it in - I'll just - see that's the problem with the paper. I can't find anything. If I digital search on this...

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...I could get it. Even though the caricature is way too easy, it has stuck. This was - was it Begala's criticism...

KELLER: Yeah.

CONAN: ...of the generation?

KELLER: Exactly, Paul Begala, who worked for Bill Clinton and is now a pundit on CNN. He wrote...

CONAN: Here it is. The baby boomers are the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history.

KELLER: Right. I should say, Paul Begala was born in 1961. And by the Census Bureau's counting, he would be part of the boomer generation. But like President Obama, also born in '61, they tend to style themselves post-boomers.

CONAN: Here's Wendy in San Francisco: There are boomers and then there are boomers. Since the early '70s, wages adjusted for inflation are about even. Most boomers, even talented ones, did not get jobs in their youths that paid in the six digits. Many of us haven't inherited anything from our parents and, in fact, had to take care of our parents and college costs at the same time. With the gross inequities of our society, branding a whole generation as entitled is unfair.

KELLER: Well, and those boomers, and not just boomers, those who don't have enough to make do when they hit retirement's age, they're the ones this program should be saved for. Those of us in the boomer generation who have the means should be willing to forgo the advantages of those programs and rest on our own resources so that people like those that your listener referred to will be taken care of.

CONAN: Bill Keller, thanks very much.

KELLER: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bill Keller, a columnist for the New York Times, former executive director of that newspaper. His column "The Entitlement Generation" ran in today's editions. We posted a link at npr.org. He joined us from an office there at The New York Times.

Tomorrow, Ted Koppel will be with us for a look at the many possible outcomes in Syria and why so very few of them look positive. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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