With fiscal cliff, is AARP too firm on Medicare?

Protecting Medicare benefits has to include figuring out a way of actually paying for them, not just lending moral support for them, Rogers writes.

Photo/Jacquelyn Martin/AP
AARP CEO Barry Rand speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, after a meeting between President Barack Obama and a group of civic leaders to discuss the fiscal cliff. AARP has to do better than take a 'just say no' position on Social Security and Medicare reform, Rogers writes.

I’ve long thought of AARP as an “old people’s” organization, which might be enough reason to resist joining despite the attractive discounts and other benefits.  (Who wants to admit they’re now a card-carrying “old person,” after all?)  But for most of my adult life I have also thought of AARP as an “angry” old people’s organization, because I’ve found quite unappealing the “age-ist” attitude that they seem to promote–a sort of “us against them” (”them” being all the non-old people) demeanor that comes through in their emphasis on how special old people and old people’s benefits are.

I first received an invitation to join AARP in the summer of 2011 when I was still 49.  (I think the official floor is still 50.)  Coincidentally, I got my invitational membership card at the same time that AARP’s then-policy director, John Rother, had seemingly brought AARP to its senses on Social Security reform. That led me to post this pat on AARP’s back and a more serious contemplation of my personal relationship with AARP–that I might actually join.  But I thought about it long enough that within a few months John Rother was leaving AARP and (probably not coincidentally) the association had reversed course and launched an angry ad campaign to oppose Social Security and Medicare reform, which I was not too pleased about.  Inching closer to age 50, I continued to avoid committing to membership.

Then a few weeks before I turned 50, I posted about how I was (still) “Not AARP”–challenging the organization to better live out their mission statement:  

If today’s AARP is really about helping those “50 and over [to] improve their lives” but also to encourage in the 50+ crowd the kind of “independence, choice and control” that could be “beneficial and affordable” to “society as a whole,” then AARP needs to break out of their old habit of automatically demanding that the retirement-age federal benefit programs not be modified to reflect the new characteristics of their no-longer-so-retired membership…

Bottom line is that with all of us living longer, at least some of us will choose to work longer.  As tough as it is to generalize with one-size-fits-all eligibility rules, does it really make sense to keep our rules fixed at where they were decades ago, back when 50 or 65 was a lot closer to being “almost old” or “old” than it is now?  I know many AARP members view their roles as parents or grandparents as their proudest achievements, and their kids’ and grandkids’ well being as what they care most about.  That makes me wonder if the AARP leadership even recognizes that and knows what the organization is doing when it simultaneously claims to have a mission to benefit “people age 50 and over” and “society as a whole” and opposes reforms to benefit programs that would raise eligibility ages.

So, I turned 50 on March 2nd and still did not join AARP.

Nine months since, and we’re fretting about the “fiscal cliff” and hoping we get a “grand bargain” for some “go big” solution to the longer-term fiscal (un)sustainability problem, and AARP wants us to know they’re holding firm on their age-ist stance, according to an article in today’s Washington Post with a title (in the print version)“AARP flexes its muscle in debt talks.” According to the article (written by the Post’s Michael Fletcher and Zachary Goldfarb):

Under the slogan “You’ve earned a say,” the group has been building opposition to entitlement changes. A recent poll by the organization found that 70 percent of Americans 50 and older think Medicare and Social Security shouldn’t be part of the upcoming fiscal debate.

“We’re fighting to stop cuts to Medicare and Medicaid that will hurt beneficiaries,” said AARP’s top lobbyist, Nancy LeaMond. “We want to ensure that Social Security is not part of this deficit discussion.”

Defending themselves against the critique that they’re engaging in intergenerational warfare that pits current retirees against future generations, the article goes on to explain (emphasis added):

AARP argues that it is protecting benefits vital to both current retirees and younger Americans. With the demise of guaranteed pensions in the workplace and the inability of many workers to save enough for retirement, Social Security and Medicare are increasingly indispensable.

“You have people in their 40s and 50s who are cascading toward a terrible retirement,” said Eric Kingson, a Syracuse University professor who co-chairs Strengthen Social Security, a coalition that has joined AARP, organized labor and others in opposing any benefit cuts in the program.

But “protecting” benefits has to include figuring out a way of actually paying for them, not just lending moral support for them.  If AARP disagrees with approaches within the Social Security and Medicare programs to reduce overall federal budget deficits (even over the longer term), does the AARP endorse alternative spending cuts or specific ways of raising revenues?  The obvious implication of resisting reforms to Social Security and Medicare is that tax reform will have to carry even more weight and raise even more revenue than otherwise.  Which is at least mathematically possible and a fine stance to take for some people who support both larger government and the higher taxes to pay for it, but are we sure that AARP–and all 37 million of its members–overlaps much with this (I suspect small) subset of people?  If AARP does support certain kinds of tax increases that would make reforms to Social Security and/or Medicare unnecessary, they should speak up about those tax proposals and use their powerful lobby (which both Democrats and Republicans aim to please) to break the current impasse on the fiscal cliff and longer-term fiscal sustainability issue which is largely hung up on tax policy, after all.  (Note that absolutely none of the current fiscal cliff debate is over what should be done with Social Security–so it seems what AARP is really trying to say is “yeah, you all better keep NOT talking about Social Security reform.”)

If AARP members don’t really like the idea of tax-only solutions, maybe AARP needs to be careful about what the basic math applied to their absolute “hands off Social Security and Medicare” position implies.  They may be implicitly endorsing tax increases that not even a majority of their 37 million members would support.

The Post article goes on to mention John Rother’s post-AARP perspective, consistent with the position he (bravely, or naively?) took while there (emphasis added):

[Rother] says it’s important for AARP to advocate for its position but also to be flexible.

“You want to be perceived as being a strong advocate, but at the same time your long -term interest is in solving a problem,” he said in an interview. “The art, if you will, is to make sure that you are operating and messaging in such a way as to get the best possible results for your members within the context of solving the problem.

It’s been my opinion that AARP has to do better than take a “just say no” position on Social Security and Medicare reform.  There has to be something that actually solves the fiscal problem that they’re willing to very clearly say “yes” to.  (And saying “yes” to “economic growth” and “yes” to “slowing the growth in health-care costs”–as many of the “Strengthen Social Security” folks typically “recommend”–do not qualify as proposed solutions without the specific policy recommendations that would lead to those good outcomes.)  Otherwise, what AARP is really saying is to just let our kids figure it out, because it’s really going to be way more their problem than a problem for any of us “old people.”

I’m still not joining AARP.

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