FUN TIMES IN WONK CITY, U.S.A.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – I got a call the other day from a fellow at a think tank here in town. He said he had some "good news": His organization was holding a daylong seminar on "free-market-based solutions to the Social Security funding crisis." He paused for my reaction.
I reached deep into my soul, trying to summon the slightest suggestion of a pretense of a hint of interest in the subject. I failed. "Ah," I said.
You have to understand: In Washington, think tanks hold seminars on free-market-based solutions to the Social Security funding crisis at least once every 36 hours. This is wonk city, after all. If they're not holding a seminar on Social Security, it's because everybody's gone off to the seminar on extending the debt service for graduated nonrecourse loans for rural electrification. We Washingtonians like to keep busy.
But then the fellow did grab my attention. "And we were wondering," he went on, "if you'd be willing to give kind of a humorous speech on the lighter side of the issue."
It was my turn to pause. At last I said, "You want me to give a humorous speech on the lighter side of free-market-based solutions to the Social Security funding crisis?"
"Exactly!" he said. He sounded so cheerful.
I told him I'd think about it, and rang off to savor this only-in-Washington moment. For only here in my adopted city would someone concoct a request containing so many self-canceling elements. Funding crisis? Humorous? Free-market-based solutions? Lighter side? (As in, "The coroners' convention is in town, and we'd like you to do a whimsical look at autopsies.")
I could scarcely imagine where to begin a comedy bit about Social Security. "So these two actuaries walk into a bar ... and the parrot says, 'You forgot to cross-tab the regression analysis on the mortality tables!' "
Even so, I was tempted to accept the offer, and not merely because I love a good, tough intellectual challenge. I hate a good, tough intellectual challenge. But the fellow had told me that the audience was to be composed of summer interns, a Washington breed for whom I have always had the greatest sympathy. Each summer they arrive from their respective colleges by the train-, plane-, and bus-load, to work in congressional offices or think tanks or the sweatshops of activist ideologues, and you see them at receptions or seminars, fresh-faced and eager and earnest, straining to get a starstruck look at some hero of theirs. Oh God, it's...it's Orrin Hatch! You won't believe it--Mickey Kantor said hello to me! I thought I'd die!
Once they arrive in this, their city of dreams, the innocents are often treated shabbily. "Scut work" doesn't begin to describe their daily labors. I know of one congresswoman who deputizes an intern to greet her as she deplanes at National Airport; she has him kneel before her at the gate to fit bedroom slippers on her feet. A nationally syndicated columnist--you'll think I'm inventing all this, but I'm not--has asked his interns to run his stool samples back to his doctor's office. A talk-show host of my acquaintance commands his interns to arrange the pens in his briefcase by size and ink color. If they botch the job, they're blowtorched by his famous temper.
And I know what's going through their minds as they feel his wrath: "Sure, I have to rearrange this psycho's pens all day. But at least I get to go to the Social Security seminar this afternoon. A guy's going to tell jokes about the funding crisis!" How could I possibly deny them this small pleasure?
There was also a generational pull. I just turned 40, which puts me midway between the 20-year-old interns who worry about Social Security and the 65-year-old retirees who are spending the kids' FICA taxes on greens fees and lawn ornaments. The kids are right to worry. According to some actuaries, the Social Security trust fund will be going bankrupt by 2015, just as today's interns are entering their 40s. This is pretty scary--even scarier when you consider that the "trust fund" doesn't really exist; it's an accounting fiction. And the kids, of course, have figured all this out. A by-now-familiar poll shows that more young people today believe in flying saucers than in the possibility they'll get back their contributions to Social Security.
I was much moved by this poll finding. It's absurd to believe in flying saucers, of course, but I'm a baby-boomer. I used to believe lots of crazy things. I used to think leisure suits were sporty. I used to think Mao was an agrarian reformer. I used to think Bob Dylan could sing. I used to think Yoko Ono could sing. By comparison, flying saucers don't sound all that unreasonable.
In the end I decided to decline the invitation, and tendered my regrets. But in the days since I've had second thoughts. The speech might have been my chance to bridge a great generational divide, to end the cynicism of our young people. "Kids," I might have said, "I want to reassure you that your elders have taken your worries to heart. Our policymakers in Washington will resolve this crisis in good faith, and preserve for you and your children a publicly financed retirement system that is fiscally sound and built on the highest principles of fairness and equity." I could have had them rolling in the aisles.