Fabricating a War Between the Old and the Young

Popular centrist Matt Miller has joined the chorus against health care and pension programs for seniors, i.e., Social Security and retirement benefits for state public employees.

They’ve saddled the government with obligations that leave it without “the cash or flexibility to address emerging non-elderly needs.”

He’s not the only one to pit the interests of seniors against those of the younger generation.

Stephen Marche, for example, styles spending on Social Security and Medicare as “The War Against Youth.” The baby boomers, he says, are “eating the young at the dinner table.”

Congressman Paul Ryan warns that younger Americans are “on the hook for trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities,” e.g., the commitments inherent in our Social Security and Medicare programs.

And they’re already “in a tough position” because those government “transfer programs” are building the “wealth gap between the elderly and the young.”

More and more of our limited resources are going to higher-income households that don’t need assistance. All those well-off baby boomers sucking up funds that could otherwise be spent on … well, it’s not altogether clear.

This, after all, is the Congressman whose budget plan would radically cut programs for the bottom fifth of households — those he’s purportedly concerned about.

Former Senator Alan Simpson takes the argument to a whole other level — up in heat and down in civility.

Back when he was co-chairing the President’s fiscal commission, he blasted individuals and organizations that had raised concerns about what the commission might do to Social Security — as well they should have, given what he and co-chairman Ernest Bowles came up with.

The advocates, Simpson said, “don’t care a whit about their grandchildren.” The people writing him were “old cats … who live in gated communities and drive their Lexus to the Perkins restaurant to get the AARP discount.”

He recently doubled down with a letter that calls a protesting organization “a group of wretched seniors” — “greedy geezers” who use young people as “a front for [their] nefarious bunch of crap.”

Set aside, if we can, the potty-mouthed language. Simpson too is framing the Social Security issue as a conflict of interests between the old and the young,” with the old winning out because the organizations that represent them “make money pretty good by juicing up the troops.”

I suppose I’m a tad sensitive to allegations that seniors care only about themselves — not to mention the notion that we advocate only because we’re juiced up by some rabble-rousing profiteers.

What got me going here, however, are two other things.

One is an egregious distortion of Social Security and Medicare benefits.

While it’s true that well-off seniors as well as others receive them, they’re already, to some extent, adjusted according to means.

High-income seniors receive lower Social Security benefits relative to the payroll taxes they contributed during their working years. They pay higher premiums for the portion of Medicare that covers non-hospital costs as well.

More importantly, relatively few seniors enjoy such wealth as to make Social Security benefits merely a source of discretionary income for fancy cars and the like.

More than half rely on their benefits for at least 50% of their cash income. Without those benefits, 13.8 million more seniors would have fallen below the Census Bureau’s very low poverty thresholds in 2010.

Second, this portion of the entitlements dialogue exemplifies a framing I’m seeing elsewhere.

We’re being given to understand that our federal budget is — and must be — a shrinking pie. A slice for one group necessarily deprives another. Or a slice for one need necessarily leaves another unmet.

No one, I think, would argue that every single program we have should be kept intact and amply funded.

But we’ve got more than enough wealth in this country to ensure that everyone has enough to live in reasonable comfort and opportunities, in Ryan’s words, to “make the most of their talents and dreams.”

We effectively deny this when we pit one group’s legitimate interests against another’s. We deny the common interests and mutual obligations we have as a community.

And we most surely, whether intentionally or not, foster the divide and conquer strategies of those who want to send us back to the radical individualism of the late 19th century, when social doctrine celebrated survival of the strong and death, by deliberate neglect, of the weak.


3 Responses to Fabricating a War Between the Old and the Young

  1. […] Here we go again, I thought. Another message about how spending on Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare is impoverishing the next generation. […]

  2. […] already got framing that pits the old against the young. Last thing we need is a spin-off into a conflict between the […]

  3. […] remarked before on how proponents of “entitlement reform,” a.k.a. cuts in Social Security and […]

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