The massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 created a long-term hazard: the threat of radiation leaking from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant. Months after the earthquake, the New York Times reported on the heroic efforts of Japanese elders volunteering to do the strenuous and harmful work of repairing the plant’s crippled reactors.
Why would hundreds of Japanese in their 60s, 70s and even 80s enlist in an undertaking for which younger, stronger people were better suited? To spare their fellow citizens from unavoidable danger and relieve future generations of a lethal burden.
Given a similar situation, American seniors would do the same. “We have to contain this accident, and for that, someone should do the work,” Yasuteru Yamada, a 72-year-old retired engineer who led the volunteer effort, told the Times.“It would benefit society if the older generation took the job because we will get less damage from working there.”
The United States faces its own long-term economic hazard from runaway debt. Avoiding the danger requires some sort of reform of entitlement programs — a point about which there is no factual disagreement. “Both Medicare and Social Security cannot sustain projected long-run program costs under currently scheduled financing,” the Social Security and Medicare boards of trustees warn in their latest annual report,“and legislative modifications are necessary to avoid disruptive consequences for beneficiaries and taxpayers.”
As recently as last year, President Barack Obama acknowledged the imperative of entitlement reform.“If you look at the numbers, then Medicare in particular will run out of money and we will not be able to sustain that program no matter how much taxes go up,” he said at a press conference in 2011.
That was then. We’ve just completed a campaign in which Mediscare — the despicable effort to frighten older voters into believing that even modest reforms would leave them destitute — was a key feature of the Obama campaign.
With the election over, President Obama is still in campaign mode, demanding higher taxes and offering no direction of his own on entitlement reform while baiting Republicans to take the lead — and the blame. Groups such as AARP and the Gray Panthers are defending the broken status quo, admonishing the president and Democrats in Congress not to make entitlement reform part of any budget deal and warning members that “a ‘grand bargain’ could jeopardize Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi took to the op-ed page of USA Today last week with more Mediscare, telling seniors that reforms would leave them“at the mercy of insurance companies.”
Former Sen. Alan Simpson, the co-chairman of President Obama’s debt commission, is 81. He has a different warning — for younger Americans. “These old coots will clean out the treasury before you get there,” Simpson says in a video for his new advocacy effort, “The Can Kicks Back” — a reference to the need to stop kicking the can down the road on the national debt and entitlement reform.
This need not be a generational conflict. Even the Medicare reforms proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan would not affect anyone over the age of 55. Society benefits by making Social Security and Medicare sound. As the U.S. economy heads toward a debt meltdown, no one is asking American seniors to martyr themselves. No one should.
It would be sufficient if the groups and politicians who claim to represent their interests simply stopped scaring them with falsehoods, made the issue of entitlement reform less radioactive and allowed the nation to get on with the business of relieving future generations of a lethal burden.
Ending scare tactics would be a good start