David Brooks wants to pull the plug on us greedy, grasping old folks. Or more accurately, he wants us to pull the plug on ourselves, by giving up our generous “entitlements” and submitting to Social Security and Medicare cuts. We should be more than happy to do this, he says, out of an altruistic urge to rescue younger generations from penury. Too bad Brooks fails to mention that what really needs rescuing is the nation’s system of social inequality and corporate greed.
In his Monday New York Times column, called “The Geezer’s Crusade,” Brooks zeros in on one of the increasingly popular straw men of our times–that enemy of the people known as the Greedy Geezer.
Dripping with condescension, Brooks runs through a list of all the wonderful things that come with old age in the 21st century. Instead of sinking into dimwitted oblivion, the modern geezer--lo and behold--is actually able to think and function. “Older people retain their ability to remember emotionally nuanced events. They are able to integrate memories from their left and right hemispheres. Their brains reorganize to help compensate for the effects of aging.” Brooks even has scientific proof for his claims: “A series of longitudinal studies, begun decades ago, are producing a rosier portrait of life after retirement,” he writes. According to these studies, old people “become more outgoing, self-confident and warm with age.” We “pay less attention to negative emotional stimuli,” and are just plain happier than the middle-aged.
Yet despite all these bountiful gifts (which undoubtedly offset such minor inconveniences as not being able to walk, see, screw, or control our bladders), we old coots just can’t shake the selfish idea that we ought to get a little help from society in our golden years. After working, raising and educating our kids, and paying taxes all our lives, we Greedy Geezers now want to sit back and rake in our “entitlements”–Social Security and Medicare. Can’t we see that in doing so, we are actually stealing from the young, denying them a future, and worse, driving the nation into bankruptcy? Brooks writes:
Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them. First, they are taking money. According to Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children.
Second, they are taking freedom. In 2009, for the first time in American history, every single penny of federal tax revenue went to pay for mandatory spending programs, according to Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute. As more money goes to pay off promises made mostly to the old, the young have less control.
Third, they are taking opportunity. For decades, federal spending has hovered around 20 percent of G.D.P. By 2019, it is forecast to be at 25 percent and rising. The higher tax rates implied by that spending will mean less growth and fewer opportunities. Already, pension costs in many states are squeezing education spending.
In the private sphere, in other words, seniors provide wonderful gifts to their grandchildren, loving attention that will linger in young minds, providing support for decades to come. In the public sphere, they take it away.
Brooks doesn’t specify the exact reforms necessary to correct this cancer on society, but we all know what they are: We need only reduce the entitlements, along the lines Pete Peterson has been strenuously advocating. That can be accomplished by setting up an Entitlement Commission to impartially hand down “fast-track” cuts to old-age entitlement programs, tell Congress what it has to do, and get the economy back on course.
In other words, when Obama sees the happy-times oldster lolling about on his houseboat in the Florida Keys, he ought to react the way Reagan did when he observed the “welfare queen” who was supposedly ripping off taxpayers: Cut off the supply of federal funds, and stop letting the Greedy Geezers feed at the public trough.
If it isn’t politically expedient to cut us off (because we darned geezers insist upon voting), then convince us to do it to ourselves. What Brooks calls the "Geezer’s Crusade" is an imagined “spontaneous social movement” by elders to reduce their own benefits. He writes:
It now seems clear that the only way the U.S. is going to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change. The young lack the political power. Only the old can lead a generativity revolution — millions of people demanding changes in health care spending and the retirement age to make life better for their grandchildren.
Brooks has audacity, I’ll give him that. Too bad his premise is as phony as a three-dollar bill. But Brooks is far from alone in advancing what I call the Myth of the Greedy Geezer, in which old people’s selfish attachment to their entitlements is the primary cause of the nation’s economic woes, and entitlement cuts are the only solution. The myth is circulated by pundits of all political stripes, and graces the editorial pages of some of the nation’s largest newspapers.
This fabrication serves a myriad of purposes. It substitutes a phony intergenerational conflict--a phantom battle between young and old--for the real conflict in American society: the conflict between the interests of poor and middle-class people, who pay more than their fair share, and the corporations and wealthy elite, who get an easier ride in America than they do anywhere in the developed world.
In the past 30 years, according to Congressional Budget Office data, the income of the top 1% of Americans has risen 176%, while the middle fifth have seen a 21% growth in income, and the poorest fifth just 6%. But hey--why talk about taxing the rich when you can balance the budget on the backs of those Greedy Geezers?
Wall Street had to be bailed out to the tune of $1 trillion, and they’re back to business as usual. But why take measures that might “stifle” the “freemarket” when we can just cut Social Security instead? (And never mind that the Greedy Geezers saw their retirement savings decimated and their home values plunge; they’ll manage.)
Millions of Americans suffer and even die from inadequate health care, and medical costs drive thousands into bankruptcy every year. But why should we expect the drugmakers and insurance companies to reduce their hefty profits, when we can just reduce Medicare payments to those Greedy Geezers? After all, does grandma really need that hip replacement when it means taking money out of the hands of her grandchildren? Should grandpa have a triple-bypass, just to get a few more years of life, when it means bankrupting the country?
What we have here is a classic bait-and-switch. Politicians are talking about the urgent need to cut Medicare because Democrats and Republicans alike won’t take on the real enemies of affordable health care: the insurance companies, Big Pharma, and other providers of medicine for profit. They’re saying we have to “reform” Social Security (a program which, compared to Citibank and Goldman Sachs, is a model of financial solvency) because they are unwilling to really take on Wall Street. They’re devising ways to skim off of entitlements, which have lifted millions of old people out of dire poverty, because they won’t consider a more “socialist” tax structure--like, for example, the one we had in the United States during the Nixon Administration.
In the long run, the Myth of the Greedy Geezer also serves one of the most cherished items on the conservative agenda: permanent cuts to core social safety net programs that date back to the New Deal and the War on Poverty. Commenting on Pete Peterson and the other right-wing ”granny bashers” last year, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research wrote: “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.”
This quest just got a potentially big boost from David Brooks and his “Geezer’s Crusade.” I just hope we geezers don’t fall for it.
This post also appears on James Ridgeway's blog, Unsilent Generation.