One Nation Under AARP

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Social Security (Flickr: sagesnow)

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Frederick R. Lynch, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, talks about his new book, One Nation Under AARP: The Fight Over Medicare, Social Security, and America's Future.

On Friday, AARP stunned many by backing off from its staunch defense of the status quo for entitlements for senior citizens. Policy chief John Rother told the New York Times that AARP was open to modest benefit reductions for future senior recipients.

Professor Lynch explained that the organization is evolving to be more inclusive and multi-generational, and is finding as it does that its priorities are shifting. 

They’re having kind of an identity crisis, I think, as a result of the Friday fumble, flap, whatever you want to call it, and that is: whose AARP is it, anyway?

Part of that inclusiveness has lead AARP from strictly defending entitlements onto looking at the consequences of current fiscal policies on younger generations. Lynch sees trouble in the new conflicting roles of the organization.

They’re looking very much at the long-term sustainability of Social Security. They’re using a lot of phrasing about how AARP is for everyone who has a birthday, and we’re interested in all generations, so I think there’s a question of focus here. Are they for seniors? Are they for everyone who has a birthday? And in whose interest are they operating?

AARP seems to be concerned that the current question of entitlements for seniors might turn into something of a war between generations, and an act to protect seniors now might alienate future seniors. Lynch said they are very sensitive to criticism that they are the “greedy geezer” organization, lobbying for white, middle class older people that don’t really represent the political interests of older people. The organization is trying to adjust politically, Lynch said, adopting more of a stewardship sensibility toward the nation.

[It] is very welcome, very admirable. We could use a lot more of that, you know, what is good for the nation, but I think in this fight they have to think, well, are we fighting for the interests of the nation as a whole, or do we really have to double down and protect seniors?

Despite the AARP’s nonpartisan approach, conservative talk show hosts sometimes rail against AARP as being a liberal organization, even going so far as to encourage their listeners to join alternative senior organizations with conservative politics. Lynch said to some extent it comes down to AARP’s split identity as both an insurance company and a lobbying organization.

It ‘s a really unique little model that they’ve got going there. It’s both a [non]profit and for profit model. They sell a lot of services to seniors, a lot of products, particularly insurance, and that really was the original mission of the organization…but the other side of the organization is nonprofit,, and that includes political advocacy and a certain amount of charity work, free services for seniors and so forth.

This clash was particularly evident following the Affordable Care Act.  While the AARP fought for what they saw as good policy for their seniors, many members of the organization were alienated by perceived partisan support. Membership in the AARP dropped from around 40,000 to 37,000 members. Despite this defection, conservative groups set up as alternatives to the AARP haven’t become large enough to gain any traction.

These conservative groups have simply gone nowhere…They seem to get animated when a Medicare change or a Social Security change is coming up. Their funding sources sometimes aren’t clear, a couple of them are rumored to be heavily funded by the pharmaceutical industries, but nevertheless, they simply have not taken off and AARP remains the nine-hundred pound gorilla in terms of senior politics.

Liberals have problems with the AARP at times too, and were unhappy with the deal struck surrounding prescription drugs in the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act. Lynch explained that AARP was taking what it could get, and that the health insurance overhaul legislation was an opportunity to improve that situation.

AARP may be the only major force out there that can put the brakes on what seems to be a gathering coalition to really cut into Medicare and to really cut into Social Security. I think one reason that Rother may be offering compromise at this point is I think it’s kind of lonely out there being the tribune of the people.


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Comments [8]

henry from somerset

For some time now the media including WNYC have busied themselves discussing how the damage to the economy resulting from the 2008 crash can in part be repaired by undermining socially supportive programs like Social Security and or Medicare.

Notwithstanding the 'greedy geezer' crusade of that sour clown Alan Simpson many seniors have lost a great deal in this financial economic debacle. Many of them did not return to the market after losing a large part of their invested savings and are now deprived of any substantial income from such investments as CDs etc due to the 0 interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve. This is an ongoing problem.

Brian Lehrer has neglected this issue in the past. I wish he would give this letter some thought.

Jun. 22 2011 12:48 PM

Mr. Lynch was a fine guest & not as ideologically RW as I expected from the Claremont group of colleges.

Jun. 22 2011 11:54 AM
Hugh from manhattan

I think it is hard for the AARP to talk about these issues since it teamed up with United Health Care to sell Medicare Advantage programs. United Health Care has raised regular health insurance premiums shamelessly. And since I joined Medicare, the deductibles on the Advantage program have gone up. It is a never ending cycle.

Can someone tell me how Social Security is unsustainable when it has produced almost 3 trillion dollars more in revenue than the program cost over the last 25 years? I guess that means the US gov't is not sustainable. Perhaps it should all be privatized. As for Medicare, the problem of ever increasing costs is happening throughout the health care system, the whole thing is unsustainable.

These programs ought to be improving. At the least, stop taxing SS benefits. I'm still working but I am paying both payroll and income tax on my benefits. Let people on to Medicare at a younger age.

I have worked for 47 years. At what point have I done my part?

Jun. 22 2011 11:52 AM
Robert from NYC

One of my favorite AARP portrayals is the South Park show that deals with the organization. When the driver's licenses of the town's seniors are taken away from them, AARP senior members parachute into town with semi-automatic weapons to take over and protect the town's seniors. It's one of South Park's best.

Jun. 22 2011 11:48 AM
Smokey from LES

Medicare (and all health care) are a big financial problem! But not Social Security! The fix is obvious and simple - raise the limit for contribution! I've read if we moved the limit from about $100K to about $170K the whole problem would be solved. Why do people making over $100K need a break from contributing?

Let's separate the problems with Medicare and Social Security - they're completely different!

Jun. 22 2011 11:40 AM
Lonnie from Brooklyn!!!

Let's be clear-- the AARP is NOT my representative or ANYONE who is over 50. The AARP is an INSURANCE CO and Senior Service referral Company Masquerading as an Advocacy Group. My Local Representative whom I VOTED for is My rep-- Not the Corp-Speak AARP.

Stop calling the AARP an Advocacy Group. They Don't ASK ME what I would Like or want. They just let people like your guest PRESUME they speak for us.

Jun. 22 2011 11:39 AM
Marianne from Staten Island, NY

AARP is notoriously playing to the hands of corporations, instead of demanding for high earners to pay their fair shares in increased taxes.
Last time when the Medicare drug negotiation issue came up in the Bush administration, AARP got on the side of Big Pharma so the government cannot negotiate for cheaper drugs with Canadian drug companies. (I just paid $158 for a very small tube of prescription cream which wourd have cost half on the Canadian side...!)
We dropped out of AARP then as a protest but in the last 2 years rejoined as they were supportive of Obama's health plan.
We might drop out again if they keep hitting Social Security instead of the aformentioned sacred cows.
People should protest against Walmart, Target and others by boycotting them. This is the only way corporations will change their tunes, including AARP.

Jun. 22 2011 10:21 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Great topic ! Good writer. Will there be a fight over what's left of our (declining) economic wealth (and available health care resources that will shrink under Obamacare) in the coming years between "greedy baby boomers" and the younger generation now in the workforce? There will be finite recources no matter how much you take from the rich (or cut defense spending)......and intergenerational conflict could get ugly because everybody can't have everything. It will be interesting to see what Mr. Lynch thinks AARP will do to maintain comity on the Left as this tension grows.

By the way, I read Mr. Lynch's book "The Diversity Machine" in the run-up to the 2003 Supreme Court (non)decisions on the 2 University of Michigan affirmative action cases, and he was fairly even-handed (ie not dogmatically politically correct) in his thesis.

Jun. 22 2011 09:21 AM

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