There’s good news from the front in one of our internecine economic and political battles: the war between the generations.
The news is that the younger generation is beginning to see through the propaganda.
For years now, efforts to set young against old have been linchpins in campaigns to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits and turn those programs over to the private sector. The basic tactic is to portray those programs as giveaways to undeserving seniors that rip off the young; the goal is to turn the ostensibly dispossessed young into an effective political counterweight to reform-resistant elderly.
“Generational conflict messaging is incredibly potent right now,” observes Alex Lawson, 32, executive director of the Washington advocacy group Social Security Works. The time is ripe, he indicated, for young activists to push back against this narrative.
“Wall Street and everyone who crashed the world economy has a really strong incentive to get young folks who are struggling to blame older folks who are likewise struggling, and no one will notice that the people pointing their fingers are the real culprits,” Lawson told me. “But once you get the truth out, young folks are well suited to figure out that the young and the old need to work together for the entire system.”
The purest articulation of intergenerational warfare as a wedge to break up Social Security’s political coalition is a 1983 paper published by the libertarian Cato Journal. It was titled “Achieving a ‘Leninist’ Strategy,” an allusion to the Bolshevik leader’s supposed ideas about dividing and weakening his political adversaries.
The paper advocated making a commitment to honor Social Security’s commitment to the retired and near-retired as a tool to “detach, or at least neutralize” them as opponents of privatization or other changes. Meanwhile, doubts among the young about the survival of the program should be exploited so they could be “organized behind the private alternative.”
So when you hear a politician promising to exempt the retired and near retired from changes to Social Security, while offering to make it more “secure” for future generations, you now know the game plan.
Young advocates for Social Security say their cohorts raise doubts about whether Social Security would be around for their retirement more than any other question. It requires a firm answer.
“I tell them that if it’s not there for you, it’s because someone has chosen to take it away from you,” says Kathryn Anne Edwards, 27, coauthor of “A Young Person’s Guide to Social Security,” a 60-page book published last year by the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute and available for free.
“When I explain that to people my age, it really does resonate with them,” she says. “They’re under the assumption that it’s some kind of mayfly, that it’s only a matter of time before it gets put to bed. But if you explain that, no, it’s meant to last forever, it resonates with them that it’s a political issue and a political decision.”
Edwards agrees that the future of Social Security isn’t at the top of the millennials’ list of immediate concerns, but that doesn’t mean they’re uninterested in the subject — it’s just that it’s hard for twentysomethings launching their careers to envision what the world will look like when they retire.
“En masse, we don’t look interested, but I’ve never encountered a young person who says, when the subject comes up, ‘I don’t care.’ People are really curious and want to know — ‘Will I actually get anything?’ They do really want to know what’s going on.”
Recently, the image of generational warfare has gained new currency as an adjunct to panic over the deficit. The talking point is that freewheeling spending today will condemn you youngsters to permanent servitude to a huge federal debt, so it’s only proper to cut entitlements now.
Perhaps the most prominent dispenser of this argument is former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who has toured the country to promote the deficit-cutting plan he and Clinton-era White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles conjured up as co-chairs of President Obama’s 2010 fiscal commission.
Their plan would cut benefits sharply for all but the poorest and oldest Americans, reduce cost-of-living increases and raise the retirement age, all of which would essentially transform Social Security from universal social insurance into something resembling a welfare program.
In April, Simpson defended his plan against criticism by a coalition of California retirement groups by labeling them “greedy geezers” at war against “young people, who are the ones who are going to get gutted while you continue to push out your blather and drivel.” Staffers from Lawson’s group, calculating that his plan would hurt future generations the most, challenged Simpson to a public debate on the question; he turned them down.
The idea that retirees are living high on the hog while our children starve sometimes comes dressed in more civil clothing. Consider a recent op-ed by Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an eminent bioethicist and brother of Rahm Emanuel, the former Obama White House chief of staff and current Chicago mayor. Emanuel argues that many Social Security recipients are “quite well-to-do” and therefore perfectly able to divert some of their Social Security income to the care and feeding of the younger generation, especially children.
Emanuel’s killer factoid is that the median income of married couples 65 to 69 is a healthy $61,000. Yet that’s flagrantly misleading. Married couples constitute less than half of all those 65 to 69; among singles, the median income is a meager $20,400. And income drops sharply with age, presumably because most income sources become exhausted. For two-thirds of all elderly households, Social Security accounts for more than half of all income, and for one-third of those households, it provides 90%.
What the numbers show is that tens of millions of seniors are barely hanging on; to suggest that they’re beneficiaries of a “huge transfer of wealth ... harming our children,” in Emanuel’s words, is to purvey a myth.
Countering such myths takes time and effort, and people like Lawson and Edwards are only getting started. The task won’t be easy, for the myth makers are well-funded and fixed on the same target market.
For example, billionaire investor and deficit hawk Peter G. Peterson’s charitable foundation has spent millions of dollars in recent years trying to inculcate college students via essay contests, social affairs and curricular materials with the idea that programs like Social Security and Medicare are sapping their patrimony.
But that’s a fundamental untruth about these programs. They’re not reflections of generational war, but expressions of a compact between generations based on shared responsibility for social welfare that extends back to Social Security’s enactment in 1935 and forward into the future. The idea behind keeping seniors solvent and healthy is to allow them to live independently and liberate their children and grandchildren to make their own way.
“For me, the idea that this is generational warfare is preposterous,” Edwards says. “Generational warfare is what happens at Thanksgiving across the dinner table. This is about individual security. I tell people this is the best deal you’ll get in your lifetime, the best insurance you probably didn’t know you had.”
Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.