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Haunting vision of America's future

Imagine a world where the US government is nearly bankrupt because most of the revenue coming in is used to pay its debts.

What if a natural disaster hits somewhere in the country and is so costly worse than anything ever seen that it further devastates the economy? No insurance company can come close to covering all the claims to reimburse people for their losses.

Just imagine a US where the younger generation is taxed heavily to fund social programmes for seniors who, because of medical breakthroughs, are living well past 90. As a result, the young adults resent “the olds” as they are called. They become the first generation financially worse off than their parents.

What about a time when people can't afford health insurance, so a trip to the emergency room sets them back tens of thousands of dollars and this debt is passed on to their children?

Wait.

You don't have to imagine. Some of this is happening now.

The rest of this horror story could very well be our future.

If you were disgusted watching the nation come close to a financial catastrophe as politicians primped and postured with little regard to how their asinine bickering would affect everyday folks, let me introduce you to the future envisioned by the actor Albert Brooks in his first novel, “2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America” (St Martin's Press, $25.99).

You won't like what happens. And you won't like it because it hits so close to home. This book, which I've selected this month for The Colour of Money Book Club, takes all the financial issues facing the US and puts them on steroids.

In the fictional 2030, the full retirement age has been pushed to 73 (not implausible given recent debates about the solvency of Social Security). Premiums on Medicare have been raised even though coverage has been cut to bare-bones (the debt-limit bill just signed by President Obama includes the creation of a bipartisan panel that could recommend major cuts to Medicare).

By 2030, cancer has been cured. There are “memory drugs that were making Alzheimer's a thing of the past”. People celebrate the end to such nasty diseases, but there are consequences, of course. America has an aging population that is largely supported by public aid. The president actually convenes a panel of experts to explore how to handle the financial burden of the elderly population. In 2030, the cost to support seniors is overwhelming families and the government (a recent AARP report estimates the economic value of family caregiving at $450 billion in 2009).

Brooks, probably best known for his leading role in “Defending Your Life,” has crafted characters old and young, rich and poor, through which we watch an America struggling to manage day to day. Eighty-year-old Brad Miller and his retired friends are looking good but are afraid because of the constant harassment from young adults resentful of supporting the social programmes for seniors. “Almost everything was gated where the older folks lived,” Brooks writes.

I'm sure many young adults will identify with 19-year-old Kathy Bernard, another character in Brooks' book. She puts off going to college because the cost is too high (a report submitted to Congress last year found college attendance is dropping amid low- and moderate-income high school graduates). When Kathy's father is shot, she's presented with the $350,000 bill and has no idea how she will pay it. Because her dad lost his job at GM, he had no private health insurance. He had government-sponsored universal care, but the monthly premiums were too high to handle without help from an employer.

“She simply felt that her generation was getting the short end of the American dream,” Brooks writes. “And she wasn't the only one her age who felt that way.”

Despite the despondency of so many, this is a good read. Although Brooks' observations show a haunting future, the people in the end are not without humour and hope. Maybe Brooks' prophetic look at our future will make you want to do something, anything, to help change the course the nation is on.

I'll be hosting a live online discussion about “2030” at noon Eastern on August 25 at washingtonpost.com/conversations. Unfortunately Brooks won't be able to join me for this chat, as the authors typically do. He's filming a movie. Every month, I randomly select readers to receive a copy of the featured book, donated by the publisher. For a chance to win a copy of “2030,” send an e-mail to colorofmoney[AT]washpost.com with your name and address.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at singletarym[AT]washpost.com. Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

Actor and author Albert Brooks

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Published August 06, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated August 06, 2011 at 9:00 am)

Haunting vision of America's future

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