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Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson On The Problems With AARP

Thursday, February 24, 2011
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HH: Robert Samuelson is the wonderful columnist for the Washington Post and Newsweek. He’s the author of The Great Inflation. He’s been a guest on this program before talking about that book, about the great inflation that has and could again visit itself upon the United States. Robert Samuelson, I wanted to talk to you today about your column on Monday, February 21st in the Post. How much dust did that kick up inside the Beltway?

RS: Well, there was more than a normal response to it, and I was surprised, at least in the emails that I received, I would say the reaction to it was roughly split. Half the responses said I didn’t know what I was talking about, and the AARP was a good bunch of people, and the Social Security benefits, everybody ought to get what they’ve been promised, and the other half said we’re on a path that’s unaffordable, and we need to ask questions about this, and thanks, you know, for raising the issue.

HH: Well, I’m in the latter. I have been blasting AARP for many years. I’m a big proponent of alternatives to AARP like AMAC, the Association of Mature American Citizens. And I just don’t think AARP represents the best interests of what they say are their 40 million members. Do you really think they’ve got 40 million people, Robert Samuelson?

RS: I did get an email from somebody who, and I haven’t talked to this person, who said that he had worked for AARP for a while, and he said that their membership is exaggerated, and they can’t really justify 40 million. And I cannot tell you whether that’s true or not. On the other hand, they do have an awful lot of members.

HH: And they’ve got a lot of power.

RS: So supposing it’s only 25 million, just to take a figure out of the air, that’s still an awful lot of people.

HH: And I think one of the points in your column on Monday is that Congress and the Executive Branch are afraid of AARP, because they do wield the big club inside of Washington, D.C. Did anyone go on the record and talk to you about that?

RS: You know, I have to say, it’s not a question I asked people. I am myself 65. I’ve been writing about these issues for more than thirty years, I’m sorry to say. I have formed some opinions based on my reporting over that three or more decades of experience. So there’s some opinions that I put forward in that piece which are based on my own experience and reporting over many decades. And my own view is that it’s the specter of what they think might happen that terrifies most politicians. They don’t know whether it would actually happen, but they’re worried that it might.

HH: You’re right.

RS: And they want to insulate themselves against the possibility.

HH: Do you think AARP represents you as someone who is 65 years old, Robert Samuelson?

RS: Well, I have not signed up for AARP. And so it certainly does not represent me. And if they began hewing what I consider a responsible line, which is these benefits should go to people who need them, and who are needy, but we need to redefine who gets them and why. And we need to at least raise these questions, and we need to raise the eligibility age, and we don’t need to wait forever to do it. And we need to cut back benefits for people who are wealthier. And by wealthier, I don’t mean having a million dollars of income. But I think people who are over $50,000 or $60,000 thousand dollars worth of income as retirees, you have to begin questioning at some point not whether they deserve, don’t deserve some benefits, but whether they could easily get by with a little less than they think they’re going to get.

HH: Now what’s interesting to me, Robert, is not so much any of those specifics, but the presumption that AARP speaks for seniors. On the big Obamacare debate, they came down heavily in favor of a bill that was deeply opposed by senior citizens who spoke out with very great majority against Obamacare in November. I think they perpetuate an elite, and that it’s just kind of a gilded lobbying society. Do you think they actually try to represent people? Or do they simply impose their personal views on what they think the senior citizens of America should want?

RS: I think it’s a bit of both, to be honest with you. I think there is a strong bias in favor of expanded government at AARP. On the other hand, there was an episode over twenty years ago now when the Congress actually adopted a catastrophic health insurance that would be an add-on to Medicare. And as I recall, it would be financed, to some extent, by cutting back the benefits for wealthier retirees that they received. So what happened, and it was a huge backlash. And AARP had favored that kind of trade-off, and it was a huge backlash. And I am told, but I really don’t know, but I am told that that created an enormous amount of caution inside AARP, that they never really wanted to get ahead of their members.

HH: Oh, boy, did they get ahead of them on Obamacare. To your knowledge, have they ever been the subject of a searching investigative report on who runs it, how much they make, how much they spend? Has anyone ever dug into AARP? Because this is sort of…

RS: Well, I have on my bookshelf a book called The AARP by Charles Morris, who is a well-respected, I have to go look and see when it came out. I think it came out about ten or fifteen years ago. So there’s at least that book. And I do think there have been some journalistic stories, though I couldn’t point to them.

HH: Now in terms of going forward here, does the community in Washington, D.C. feel like they can withstand the popular revolt that is brewing, that we see in the streets of Wisconsin, Robert Samuelson, that we see in Ohio and Indiana, and in other places, and in which we see in the opposition to AARP that’s sprung up across the country? Does the deep elite, I’ll call it, of the Beltway think they can just ride this one out?

RS: Well, I would have to say, just looking at what’s going on in Wisconsin and some of the other Midwestern states, it’s not clear what the revolt it. I mean, you have union supporters who are objecting to the cutbacks that are being proposed in these states. And then you have people who are in favor of the cutbacks. So I think in Washington, what they want to do at the moment is avoid backlash of any sort. And you know, I think you’ve got an awful lot…and I would exempt the House Republicans for this. And I don’t agree with everything they’ve done, but they’ve certainly taken a lot of political risks. But in general, I would say, the attitude here is let’s not stir the hornets nest too much.

HH: Yeah, I think what November was, was a big blowback, and that despite the crowds of people in Wisconsin, the public opinion polling for Gallup and for Rasmussen, et cetera, shows that it’s an era of restraint, and the big special interests have to get used to it.

RS: No, but there is this fundamental contradiction. And at some point, we’re going to have to deal with it. The contradiction is if you ask people whether they’re worried about the deficit, and worried about excessive spending, they say so. But if you ask people whether or not they want to cut back Medicare and Social Security, they don’t. And those are the big programs for government. Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid together represent more than 40% of total government spending. And then when you throw in interest on the debt and national defense, that’s basically most of the budget.

HH: It is, and I really believe that seniors, especially, are ready to see serious reforms, and they’re ready to overthrow AARP. And I think you may have struck a first blow, Robert Samuelson. I appreciate the column. It’s linked at Hughhewitt.com.

End of interview.

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