Save Social Security with killer incentives?

"Boomsday" book cover

KAI RYSSDAL: Foreign policy in scandal have been sucking up most of the oxygen in Washington for a while now. So we haven't really heard much about the President's old domestic priorities, like the debate about what to do with Social Security. Even if Congress in the White House are busy with the war and what to do about the US attorneys' scandal, baby boomers aren't getting any younger. And some people are thinking about how to keep the program and the US government's solvent. Author Christopher Buckley is one of them. Welcome to the program, Mr. Buckley.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Good to be here.

RYSSDAL: This is an interesting proposal you have, sir. Describe it for us, would you?

BUCKLEY: The proposal is that the government incentivize suicide among retiring baby boomers in order to save the Social Security System from a collapse.

RYSSDAL: Suicide?

BUCKLEY: Well, we don't call it that. We call it voluntary transitioning. We think that is a more palatable term for mass suicide. But if you wanna prefer to call it mass suicide, go ahead.

RYSSDAL: Well, I and certainly, many others will. How would you incentivize people to do this?

BUCKLEY: Well, Kai, the idea is fairly straightforward if you pledge to voluntarily transition at say, age 65. The government offers tax incentives. For instance, you would be exempt from the stage tax. The later you agreed to transition, of course, the fewer incentives the government can offer. Now, I'm frequently asked what happens if people who will agree to transition, then (UNINTELLIGIBLE) when they turn 65 or 70, say no. You know, I've changed my mind. So the proposal does have substantial penalties for refusal to withdraw.

RYSSDAL: Play out for me the larger economic effects of what might happen. You pass this law, what happens to the stock market the next day? I bet it drops 10,000 points?

BUCKLEY: Well, no. Actually, Kai, the whole idea is to preserve the economic system. 77 million baby boomers are going to start retiring in 2008. That's going to have a calamitous impact on the Social Security System. Additionally, I mean, and the government finances this by borrowing from overseas banks. The moment those banks decide they have bought enough US debt, then we're in bad trouble. So the voluntary transitioning proposal really is designed as a solution to all that.

RYSSDAL: We should probably, right about here, let you off the hook, don't you think? Would you feel better if we do that?

BUCKLEY: I sure would. I'm sweating. Volunteer. Do you think people are actually gonna think this is serious?

RYSSDAL: But you did a great job. And you are, of course, Christopher Buckley. You have a new book coming out called Boomsday, in which you satirically propose this. I guess the heart of all good political satire is an element of truth. That there's some big, you know, problem coming our way when all these baby boomers retire.

BUCKLEY: Well, yeah. The hardest part of writing satire in America is that you're in competition with tomorrow's front page. And who's to say someone won't actually propose something like this? But the plot of the book grew out of genuine concern about our government's refusal serially to address this fiscal insolvency. And this thing is gonna bite us in the you know where if we don't do something about it. This novel is sort of an attempt to, I don't know. Well, actually, it's gonna attempt to pay next month's mortgage. So that's really the best argument for writing a book. But it, you know, it is a common novel about Social Security reform.

RYSSDAL: I'm reading the about the author page of the book I have in front of me here. It says Christopher Buckley is born in New York City in 1952. That means, if I do the math right, you get to retire in 2017. I mean, this is, you know, you're on a voluntary transition, I think, you might say it. You know, you're a part of the problem, I guess.

BUCKLEY: Yes, Kai. Because see, here's the really clever part, if millions and millions of people buy this book, I might be able to retire sooner. And if that happens, I hereby pledge to forego my Social Security payments. So I think, you know, the whole country really should pull together and buy this book, and solve at least one part of the Social Security crisis.

RYSSDAL: Christopher Buckley's latest book is called Boomsday. It's a novel. I'll say that again. It's absolutely fiction. Mr. Buckley, thanks a lot for your time.

BUCKLEY: Thanks for having me, Kai.

RYSSDAL: Think about the date, everybody, we're a couple of days early but happy April Fools all the same.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, the most widely heard program on business and the economy in the country.

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