Notes: Great Expectations: Acquiring Tomorrow Today

ONE DAY RECENTLY my seven brothers and sisters and I received a computerized form letter from our mother—the first time we had ever been sent such a thing. It consisted largely of a painstaking inventory of the objects in the house we all grew up in, and ended with a request: “We ask that you check those items that might interest you. Return when you can.” By way of illustration, here are some of the items listed under the heading “Back Living Room”:

Brass table and stand (given to Great-grandfather Murphy by the Palmers of Stonington)

Windsor arm chair (Grandma Woods’s only piece brought from Ireland)

Globe

Dad’s bound books of illustrations

Mom’s portrait George III corner cabinet Hammered silver service (wedding present to Nanny and Poppy) Vase, top of corner cabinet (only piece that belonged to Greatgrandma Byrne)

It was, as you might imagine, a disturbing sort of thing to get in the mail, and after tying up the phone lines to confirm that our parents had experienced no sudden change in their levels of health and sanity—normally quite high—and had simply succumbed to a fit of long-range (I hope) planning, we all turned back to the letter, and found that we had no taste for the task. I was tempted to put my initials next to the words “Mom’s portrait” and send the inventory back otherwise unmarked, knowing that it would prompt a skeptical snort (and, probably, make for an eight-way tie), but my parents were surprisingly insistent. You don’t know what it’s like, they said, to have to break up a home.

ON A PERSONAL level the contemplation of such a prospect, and of the events that occasion it, is painful to almost everyone, and not easily or readily talked about. In stark contrast, to judge from recent accounts in newspapers, newsmagazines, and business publications, is the cavalier way in which the very same prospect is viewed when it can be cast as a broad, national phenomenon. A younger generation—mine, as it happens—will during the next quarter century or so supplant an older one, with consequences that have elicited slavering speculation and unseemly relish. The object of interest, specifically, is the roughly $8 trillion rhat the parents of the Baby Boom generation are expected to bequeath to their children. This Baby Boodle, as one might call it, already amounts to hundreds of billions of inherited dollars annually, and the sum will grow in size every year until well into the next century.

The total amount is so large — enough to buy every share of stock of every company whose issues are traded on the London, Tokyo, and New York stock exchanges; enough to pay off the Third World’s entire debt and give the 3.5 billion people who live outside the industrialized countries almost $2,000 apiece—that economists have already begun to assess the impact it will have on the national economy. Psychologists and financial planners are offering advice on how to talk to parents about their wills (“Before you broach the subject. . . know what your goals are”; “Rehearse ahead of time”). Fund-raisers and philanthropies are redoubling their efforts to reach those people whose estates will ripen and fall during the coming “decade of transition" (“What to Do Before Your Donors Are Dead” was the title of a recent article in the journal Fund Raising Management). Advertisers have defined and targeted a demographic group that Adweek calls “the new inheritors.” There are great expectations all around.

The hopeful tone of much of the recent writing recalls that of a speech made by Herbert Hoover in 1935, in which he assured graduating seniors at Drake University that, despite the Depression all around them, they could look forward to a bright economic future. “Did it ever occur to you,” he said, with what I imagine must have been a sweep of his arm toward nearby dwellings and places of business, “that all the people who now live in these houses, who conduct this vast complex of life and civilization, are going to die?”

IT TURNS OUT, of course, that many presumptive beneficiaries are, well, impatient. They do not want to bide their time. They yearn, in fact, to exchange the frustrating and impecunious role of Pip for the more immediately gratifying one of Regan or Goneril. Some worry openly that their parents’ medical and nursing-home costs will drain the camel’s hump, as it were. Others worry that interests and relationships forged in retirement will prompt diverting codicils (bequests to people other than next of kin are on the rise). Still others fear that the older generation will simply live on and on and on. A middle-aged man who is expecting a sizable inheritance was quoted recently in a business magazine as saying, “I feel like Prince Edward waiting for Queen Victoria to die.”

What people like him need—and what someone at the University of Chicago will surely soon devise—is a futures market for inheritances. As farmers do with soybeans and pork bellies, people who anticipate an inheritance would (secretly) sign over to speculators all rights to it, in return for an immediate flat payment. For the speculator the investment would be a risky one—the collection date, the identities of the beneficiaries as of that date, and the size of the estate when settled would all be unknowable—and the cash paid out to the person selling his birthright would thus probably amount to a small fraction, perhaps 30 percent, of that person’s estimated prospects. But there would be many takers, I suspect, on both sides of the bargain. Before long the market in legacy futures— “full bellies,” as they’d no doubt be called—would achieve a strange life of its own, subject to all the volatility that afflicts other commodities markets. Flu epidemics during a recession, which could have the effect of spurring the number of bequests at a time when estate values were soft, would send full-belly prices tumbling. Increases in Social Security and Medicaid benefits, which could prevent many older people from having to dip into savings or investments, would make full-belly prices soar. There would, admittedly, be occasional abuses—by, say, overzealous pension-fund managers, who might arrange for the selective slaughter of wealthy legators at the height of a bull market—but perhaps no more frequently than they already occur in the wheat or Eurodollar market. Prudent regulation could deal with other problems. For instance, because the condition of the full-belly market would have implications for the nation’s money supply and hence for the health of the economy as a whole, it would probably make sense to have a representative of the Federal Reserve Board on call at intensive-care units to participate (together, of course, with the doctor and the medical ethicist) in the making of certain decisions.

The system outlined here will be criticized by some, but it undeniably would satisfy what appears to be an unmet national need. It would also put to rest all this talk about a dawning “we decade.” And whereas many of those who sold their birthright might well feel cheated when the actual bequest was made, one could only say, They had it coming to them.

—Cullen Murphy