The Phony Age Gap War

| Tue Sep. 15, 2009 2:25 PM EDT

In “Politics and the Age Gap,” featured in Sunday’s New York Times, Adam Nagourney adds to the litany of recent articles that position old people as a primary obstacle to health care reform. In part, the target of these pieces is the tea party geezers who rant about socialism--but it goes well beyond that. Seniors tend to be depicted, explicitly or implicity, as obstinate or selfish because they fear cutbacks in Medicare will be made in order to provide health care for younger people. What’s more, they refuse to accept that Medicare benefits must be cut now to keep the program from going bankrupt before younger generations even get to use it.

Thus, the argument goes, what’s really going on in the health care struggle is a fight by the old against the young, in which we miserly old coots are unwilling to give up what we’ve got for the sake of the greater good. “As the population ages and the nation faces intense battles over rapidly rising health care and retirement costs,” Nagourney writes, ”American politics seems increasingly divided along generational lines.”

But the whole intergenerational conflict is a phony one. This health reform debate is about substituting a trumped up intergenerational war for what ought to be, if anything, a class war--pitting the old against the young, instead of pitting the rich against the poor, or the corporations against the little guy. 

If health reform moves forward, there surely will be cuts to Medicare--that isn’t some paranoid fantasy on the part of demented old folks. And you can be sure the cuts won’t only apply, as promised, to “waste and inefficiency.” But the real scandal is this: The only reason that any cuts at all need to made to Medicare is because pols are unwilling to cut the profits of insurance and drug companies. That’s where the money to finance health reform really should be coming from.

In other countries, single-payer systems deliver better health care at far lower cost.  If we did the same here--or at least made moves in that direction--there would be enough for everyone. We could have Medicare for all--the young as well as the old.

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But that, of course, wouldn’t serve the interests of corporations or their conservative cronies. The interests in question are not only those of the drug and insurance companies, but of the financial giants on Wall Street. As Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research wrote back in January:

The classic definition of “chutzpah” is the kid who kills both of his parents and then begs for mercy because he is an orphan. The Wall Street crew are out to top this. After wrecking the economy with their convoluted finances, and tapping the US Treasury for trillions in bail-out bucks, they now want to cut Social Security and Medicare because we don’t have the money.

As I myself wrote at the time, advocates for the preservation of so-called old-age entitlements have been warning for some time that Social Security and Medicare could be offered up as a sacrifice to offset the cost of the bailout and stimulus. This would suit conservatives, who for years have been looking for ways to undermine the popular programs. Leading that charge are the denizens of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. With an endowment of $1 billion, the Foundation pursues an agenda that consists mainly of bitching and moaning that greedy geezers are taking money away from poor young things with their unconscionable demands for basic health care and income support. 

This rhetoric is still very much in play--but what’s now driving the move toward entitlement cuts isn’t the bailout, but health care reform. And because Democrats aren’t willing to stand up to the force that’s most reponsible for soaring health care costs--the U.S. system of medicine-for-profit--they are playing right into the conservatives' hand, jumping on the Medicare-cutting bandwagon.

In the end, old folks are likely to end up getting screwed by Medicare cuts--at a time when we’ve already been screwed from several other angles. More from Dean Baker

The recent collapse of the housing bubble and the resulting stock market plunge have reduced the wealth of older workers and retirees by close to $15 trillion. This is a transfer to the young, since they will be able to buy the housing stock and the corporate capital stock for a far lower price than they would have expected to pay just two years ago.

Remarkably, the granny basher crew has somehow failed to notice this enormous transfer of wealth from the old to the young. They just continue their crusade to cut Social Security and Medicare as though nothing has happened.

It should be evident that the granny bashers don’t care at all about generational equity. They care about dismantling Social Security and Medicare, the country’s most important social programs.

In view of all this, it’s no surprise that we old people have started to get paranoid, feeling like our country is getting ready to sweep us out with the trash. Too bad so many elders are wasting their time tilting at bogus adversaries like the death panels, instead of confronting the real enemies of our golden years.

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