On (not) taking it to “The Man”

David Frum has a piece over at The Daily Beast about the divide between young and old in this country, and although he takes an inordinate amount of time to get to it, he’s got a long-recongized point here (my various emphasis in bold):

States hesitate to test [older drivers] in part for cost reasons: testing drivers in person is expensive. But as important as costs is political fear. Unlike the young, the elderly pay attention to politics. (One study has found that baby boomers are 38 percent more likely than post-boomers to answer correctly basic questions about current events.) Older Americans vote, and they unabashedly vote their interests as a demographic group. It’s almost always easier and safer to shift the costs of an aging society onto other groups: to force the other drivers on I-95 to veer out of the way.

And no, it’s not just about driving. Whether we can ever learn to say no to the elderly is the great political question hanging over all modern societies, in Europe as much as in the U.S., as we face a 21st century of diminished economic opportunity and staggering government debt.

Pundits often speak (or write) of the political system catering to wealthier interests, but it also caters to the Medicare crowd. Those 65 and older vote more often, pay attention more often, and are rewarded with policy proposals that protect their incumbent interests.  This is particularly true against the interests of those that vote less often and hardly pay attention at all:

[…] The long slump has revealed the preferences of the aging polities of the Western world. “Their overwhelming priority is to protect the purchasing power of incumbent creditors. That’s it. That’s everything. All other considerations are secondary”—-including economic recovery.

We could jump-start the economy with a massive jolt of monetary and fiscal stimulus, but such a policy would risk inflation and pose a threat to retirement savings. So we don’t do it. We could borrow money to finance infrastructure programs that would set people to work now and enrich society over the long haul—but that borrowing would have to be serviced by taxes to which older Americans fiercely object. So we don’t do that either.

Furthermore, as Frum continues to report, we see this prioritization in the political process via the Tea Party – which has at its core a “get off my lawn” mentality:

As political scientists Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson found in their study “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism”, the general anti-government attitude of today’s retirees is heavily seasoned with mistrust and dislike of today’s youth. “[Y]oung people feature prominently in stories Tea Partiers tell about undeserving freeloaders.” They don’t exempt their own children—in fact, it is often their own children and grandchildren toward whom they direct their angriest scorn. As one elderly activist quoted by Skocpol and Williamson puts his generational irritation: “My grandson, he’s fourteen, and he asked me: ‘Why should I work, why can’t I just get free money?’”

Again, though, what it boils down to is participation. The political process pays attention to those that participate, and in particular vote.

This is what the voting picture looks like:

The difference is especially telling in off-presidential years, which includes equally important elections that 18-24 year olds effectively ignore. Furthermore, while young-old voting gaps are not especially unique to the United States, we are above the OECD average in this regard:

The end-effect of this situation is thus:

Over all, more than 50 percent of federal benefits flow to the 13 percent of the population over 65. Some of these benefits come from Social Security, which many people pay for over the course of their working lives. But a large chunk comes through Medicare, and contrary to widespread perception, most Americans do not come close to paying for their own Medicare benefits through payroll taxes. Medicare, in addition to being the largest source of the country’s projected budget deficits, is a transfer program from young to old.

Meanwhile, education spending — the area that the young say should be cut the least, polls show — is taking deep cuts. The young also want the government to take action to slow global warming; Congress shows no signs of doing so. Even on same-sex marriage, where public opinion is moving toward youthful opinion, all 31 states that have held referendums on the matter have voted against same-sex marriage.

The above via David Leonhardt. This isn’t to say programs like Social Security and Medicare aren’t worth it, even to the semi-permanent disadvantage of youth, but the policy direction in this age divide is something altogether different. For all the talk of “burdening our children with debt” we seem to be walking a very different path from the rhetoric. Removing current support for the younger generations in the form of education cuts (as well as inevitable tax increases and a much rawer entitlement deal) – all in the vein of some warped “kids today!” ideology – represents an entire generation telling the system to ignore them and the system saying “Okay.”


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