The ldquo;modest proposal” in Christopher Buckley’s comic satire, Boomsday, is a direct descendant of the famous “suggestion” made in a 1729 treatise by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) that the Irish take care of their starvation problem by selling their children as food. Swift, of course, did not mean it to be taken seriously (although some critics did), and neither does Buckley’s central character, Cassandra Devine, when she proposes that retirees from the baby-boom generation be offered government incentives in return for voluntarily undergoing suicide (she calls it “transitioning”) at age seventy or earlier.
Although treated with sometimes-angry humor, the topic at the center of the novel is quite real: What happens to Social Security and Medicare when the baby boomers (those born between the years 1946 and 1964) reach retirement age and beyond and begin collecting benefits generated by a less populous workforce? As a whole, baby boomers make up one of the largest and most prosperous generations in the history of the nation. Still, future pressures on government benefit funds when the boomers leave the workforce is already a serious concern, and Congress has done little to prepare for it. According to a March 18, 2004, brief by the Congressional Budget Office, “The population of retirees will grow much more quickly than the taxpaying workforce, at a time when average benefits per retiree are expected to continue rising.” Such developments will result in severe budgetary pressures on the federal government; moreover, some researchers have questioned whether many baby boomers will have saved enough money for an adequate retirement.
Buckley draws on the government’s continuing refusal to confront the inexorable math of Social Security for most of the novel’s driving force. His challenge is to make the issue funny, and through a combination of fizzy dialogue, a clashing mix of characters, and making the most far-fetched situations seem uncomfortably possible, he does.
In Buckley’s near-future scenario, unchecked current trends have indeed led to the worst possible version of what has been projected. While boomers live longer (thanks to better health care) in relative luxury in retirement communities, the smaller generation now working faces ever increasing taxes to support the lifestyle of the retirees.
“Americans are living longer. Okay, but why should my generation spend our lives in hock subsidizing their longevity? They want to live foreverwe’re saying, let them pay for it,” Cassandra rails on her Internet blog, just before she comes up with her plan for the government to eliminate estate taxes for anyone who “transitions” at age seventy or at age sixty-five, which brings a bonus of a two-week farewell honeymoon. “Our grandparents grew up in the Depression and fought in World War Two. They were the so-called Greatest Generation. Our parents, the Baby Boomers, dodged the draft, snorted cocaine, made self-indulgence a virtue. I call them the Ungreatest Generation. Here’s their chance, finally, to give something back,” she concludes.
At age seventeen, Cassandra seemed to have it allbeauty, brains, and acceptance to Yale University. Her father, Frank Cohane, left a comfortable systems engineering job to form his own dot-com Internet company. Unknown to Cass, he has taken her college fund and invested it in the company. He suggests to her that she consider joining the military for a few years. The Army sends her to Bosnia, one of a number of countries where the United States is conducting a war at this point.
Enter Congressman Randy Jepperson on a fact-finding visit, and Cass, a corporal, is assigned as his escort and driver. Unfortunately, the playful Jepperson gets the keys to the Humvee while Cass worries that his flashing of his cash in public places will get them mugged or worse. He promptly drives into a minefield. The result is that he loses a leg, and Cass is quietly discharged from the service for not keeping him in hand. Given the congressman’s rich playboy reputation, there are also those who speculate that...
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