David Brooks Goes After Greedy Geezers

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 misery and 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. 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.

(For another take on Brooks’s piece, I recommend this post by FireDogLake’s pithy “Earl of Huntingdon.”)

7 responses to “David Brooks Goes After Greedy Geezers

  1. You can see the train coming. Social Security will be gone by the time I get to see any of it, and I’m already 55. It could be saved, however, if they’d just remove the cap and make people who earn over $99,999 pay into the system.

  2. I don’t think you need to worry about the geezers falling for it.

    It’s the sub geezers.

    I administer a benefit plan that provides medical benefits to retirees – a rarity in today’s world. Our retirees also have pensions, also a rarity in today’s world. But each year their medical premiums eat more and more of their pension check. We have retirees whose pension checks are not enough to cover their monthly medical premiums.

    The sub geezers need to hear these stories of these crimped codgers. They need to hear from Jack Vanderhei of the Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) who studies retirement adequacy and talks in terms or the probability of seniors eating dog food.

    They need to understand the rarefied air that the likes of David Brooks and his comfortable cohorts breathe.

    Does Loyd Blankfein (CEO, Goldman Sachs) qualify as a greedy geezer? or is he just greedy? Could that possibly be the “entitlement” that David Brooks is complaining about?

  3. Excellent post which touches on so many of the myths that have been and continue to be repeated as fact. I’ve seen this talking point, or something just like it, more than a dozen times this week.

    “You can’t even talk seriously about the debt, deficit, or a balanced budget without fundamentally reforming entitlement programs.” Nonsense.

    Analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) shows that if every entitlement in the federal budget were repealed outright – eliminating Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other critical programs – but nothing were done to slow the growth in health care costs overall, we would still find ourselves spending almost 70 percent of the nation’s wealth on health care by 2082. It is clear America does not face an entitlement crisis; it faces a health care financing problem.

    FDR said “Repetition does not transform a lie into truth”. I’m not sure I believe that anymore.

  4. robert m wagner

    Police and firefighters ” should be for profit” as well as healthcare. that way if it becomes un profitable to save your house or you, they will not respond to your call for help. I find it hard to understand why healthcare is not a right??

  5. George Fulmore

    One of the few good things about the discussions on the increasing federal debt is that, hopefully, more people will have a better understanding of what really causes the debt. It is and has NOT been Social Security, which is OWED about $2.4 trillion by the federal government. That amount has been “borrowed” to pay for other federal programs. This “borrowing” has also been used, misleadingly, to reduce the announced annual federal debt, but that is another story.
    The bottom line is that the annual Social Security surplus has NOT been saved, as it should have been. Instead, that surplus of $2.4 trillion is owed back to the Trust Fund by our federal government.
    In a cruel twist of logic, David Brooks and others try to make it look like Social Security has added to the federal debt, when THE OPPOSITE IS TRUE.
    The more people realize that blaming Social Security and other “entitlements” for our increasing federal debt is false, the more they will begin to look for the true reasons for the debt, which are the wars and our military commitments.
    For a consise, cogent explanation of all this, see this webpage: http://www.warresisters.org/pages/piechart.htm

  6. Wait a minute, every time a politician wants to give a big tax break or money to some rich cooperation or person, they say well it creates jobs.
    But doesn’t health care funding creates lots of jobs for doctor’s, nurse, receptionists. medical assistants, billing clerks, aide, orderlies, cleaning and maintenance staff, home heath aides, and clerk and venders of supplies and medications, and those that manufacture these goods. Add to that that these people, will then spend their income locally paying taxes and shopping at local retailers and buying homes or having them built, thus creating another round of jobs, for more people who will then spend their money locally thus creating even more jobs.
    In a year or two’s time the program could be paying for it’s increased cost due to all the new jobs, that generate federal and state income tax revenue, sales taxes, property taxes, etc. paid by all the people that gain jobs and these newly employed peole no longer need financial assistance ( i.e. Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, unemployment benefits etc. ) thus saving the government more money yet.
    Trickle down doesn’t work, but this would. Instead of fattening the pockets of cooperate CEO’s and AIG who bank their profits off shore, give the people health care and not only will the funds go for health care locally creating local jobs, but the will created tax revenue.
    I fail to understand why government wants to finance with tax breaks companies that want to make ann sell us things we don’t need, and maybe even in part make out of the country, whne financing health care will immendiatley help with job creation and tax reveue.

  7. Pingback: Time for Hell’s Grannies to Ride Again « Unsilent Generation

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