Satire lowers the boom on Social Security

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Perhaps it takes a baby boomer to pull off the unimaginable: a comic novel about Social Security reform.

Humor writer Christopher Buckley hopes the "modest proposal" contained in his new satire, Boomsday, will catapult the topic onto the nation's talk shows.

The problem: The first of 78 million Americans will start collecting their full Social Security benefits in 2011. How will the country manage to pay for a huge old age that may last 30 years past traditional retirement?

In Boomsday, Congress is ready to place the financial burden on the boomers' children -- that is, until the kids revolt against bankrolling the "Ungreatest Generation" they've also dubbed "Wrinklies."

Cassandra Devine, a 29-year-old member of Gen W (Generation Whatever), gets particularly riled when the Senate votes to raise payroll taxes 30 percent for everyone younger than 35. Using her blog to foment a revolt among twentysomethings, she suggests her generation stop paying taxes and start protesting at golf courses and gated retirement commu- nities.

It's not long before the nation is discussing the inequities of Social Security debt -- which is Devine's plan. She captures even more headlines by suggesting that federal entitlement programs could remain solvent if retiring boomers elected to kill themselves at the age of 70 for tax credits.

The title for such civic-minded suicide? "Voluntary Transitioning."

In her scenario, baby boomers who choose to commit suicide at age 70 would be spared estate taxes and gain the eternal appreciation of their country and their heirs.

"When Social Security started, there were 15 workers for every retiree. Now there are three workers per retiree. Soon there will be two," Devine tells a reporter. "It means someone my age will have to spend their entire life paying unfair taxes just so the boomers can hit the golf course at 62 and drink gin and tonics until they're 90. What happened to the American idea of leaving your kids better off than you were?"

What happened, indeed? asks Buckley, who bolsters his character's criticism with real numbers.

The 54-year-old author is alarmed about the debt his generation has helped accumulate. And, just as he skewered the "culture of spin" in his best-selling satire Thank You for Smoking, the Washington-based writer is again using the power of humor to hoist an issue. Along the way, his novel provides hilarious portraits of politicians, Washington insiders, lobbyists and reporters as well as baby boomers and their offspring.

"I've always been a deficit hawk," Buckley says. "When I was working at the White House in the early '80s, [as a speechwriter for then-Vice President George Bush] I thought 'Wait a minute. We're Republicans. Shouldn't we not be doing this?' as the deficits were growing.

"And here we are with this monstrous deficit coming down the pike."

The reality of Social Security seems almost as outrageous as that portrayed in Boomsday. In its 2006 annual report, the board of trustees for Social Security placed the program's unfunded obligations at $4.6 trillion in present value dollars. And economist Joe Gribbin, a professor at the Erickson School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, expects that figure will rise when the new report is issued this month.

"There are those politicians who say there's no rush to fix this. Instead of averaging the pain, starting now, they say, 'Let's ride this out and in the year that the trust funds become insolvent, we'll simply raise taxes year by year to meet the payout requirements," says Gribbin, who has worked as an associate commissioner at the Social Security Administration.

"Anyone who tells you we have lots of time is dead wrong. It's costing our children megabucks every day that we delay fixing the program. This is an issue of the transfer of debt obligations to future generations -- and it has moral as well as economic overtones."

"I have a 19-year-old and a 15-year-old and we're basically passing the bill to them," Buckley says.

Son of conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr., the writer edits ForbesLife magazine, entertains "drowsy masters of the universe" on the speech circuit and somehow finds time to roll out the books. So far he has produced 12, some created while commuting to New York from Washington on the Acela train. (He calls himself the "unappointed Nazi of the quiet car.")

And how does he feel about boomers?

"I'm a boomer. Some of my best friends are boomers," he says. "We do have our attractive qualities. For instance, I think we may be more attentive parents to our children. But that can also get out of hand: Soccer moms and dads getting into screaming matches with the ref, parents not letting their kids walk across the floor without putting bicycle helmets on them."

And unattractive qualities?

"Materialism covers a pretty big waterfront," he notes. "It's like the motto on ABBA [his fictional lobby group Association of Baby Boomer Advocates]: 'Ask not what your country has done for you. Ask what your country has done for you lately.'"

Boomsday teems with boomers of a certain income who drink 30-year-old Scotch and occasionally ponder their bygone youth.

As one middle-aged spin doctor puts it: "The anthems from my revolution are now background music in TV commercials for cholesterol pills, onboard navigation systems for gas-guzzling SUVs and hedge funds. Everyone sells out. Boomers just figured out how to make it an industry."

Buckley hopes Boomsday encourages more twenty- and thirtysomethings to realize the pressing need to fix the system -- and to act upon it.

"In my own very modest way, I'm trying to get the younger people mad," he says. "This is your money we're spending."

linell.smith@baltsun.com

FROM THE BOOK

A Boomsday excerpt from a speech that the fictional Sen. Randolph K. Jepperson delivers to ABBA, the Association of Baby Boomer Advocates, on behalf of "voluntary transitioning":

"My fellow Americans, we are all of us going to make The Great Transition. We can inject ourselves full of drugs, have doctors replace our organs, change our blood, become bionic Frankensteins. But we were born with expiration dates stamped on our DNA. We can fool some of the diseases some of the time, but we can't fool all of them all of the time. ...

"And just as this generation has always contrived to get the very best from life, so too can it aspire to wring the best from death. As Country Joe and the Fish, balladeers of our youth, put it so memorably, albeit in a slightly different context, 'Whoopee! We're all gonna die!' Indeed. So I put it to you: So why not do it in the way we've lived our lives - on our terms?"

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