Category Archives: generations / intergenerational issues

Blame It On the Geezers: Matt Bai’s Generational Theory of Politics

In Sunday’s New York Times, Matt Bai argues that it’s old people who are disproportionately driving the Tea Party Movement, and especially its anti-government venom and its strong racist element. “According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in June, 34 percent of Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 — and 29 percent of voters 65 and older — say they agree with the movement’s philosophy; among Americans 49 and younger, that percentage drops precipitously,” he writes. “A New York Times/CBS News poll in April found that fully three-quarters of self-identified Tea Party advocates were older than 45, and 29 percent were older than 64.”
 
Based on this data, and on the history of the last 70-odd years, Bai constructs a theory that divides American politics largely along generational lines:  
[A] sizable percentage of the Tea Party types were born into a segregated America, many of them in the South or in the new working-class suburbs of the North, and lived through the marches and riots that punctuated the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s. Their racial attitudes, like their philosophies of governance, reflect their complicated journeys…
 
In other words, we are living at an unusual moment when the rate of progress has been dizzying from one generation to the next, such that Americans older than 60, say, are rooted in a radically different sense of society from those younger than 40. And this generational tension — perhaps even more than race or wealth or demography — tends to fracture our politics.
 
These numbers probably do reflect some profound racial differences among the generations, but they are more indicative of how young and old Americans approach the issues of the day, generally. Older Americans now — no longer the New Deal generation, but the generation that remembers Vietnam, gas lines and court-ordered busing — are less enamored of expansive government than their parents were. They fear changes to their entitlement programs, even as they denounce the explosion in federal spending. They are less optimistic about the high-tech economy, more fearful of the impact of immigration and free trade.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Mostly, what’s wrong with it is what’s left out. Bai (who is 41) mentions that todays old folks “lived through the marches and riots that punctuated the cultural and political upheaval of the 1960s.” But who, exactly, does he think was carrying out the marches and riots? The exact same age group, of course–made up of my own generation and that of the Baby Boomers.
 
These people are today, for the most part, over the age of 60–the precise age that places our roots, Bai says, in a “radically different society.” Despite these apparently rotten roots, the generations that Bai criticizes (with a hint of oh-so-condescending compassion) managed to accomplish the following:
 
1. Launched and fought the Civil Right Movement, in which several dozen African Americans and a handful of white lost their lives, and hundreds more were beaten and arrested. Compared to this, the accomplishment of younger generations–voting for a black president–was a cakewalk.
 
2. Protested against and eventually shortened the Vietnam war. These protests were large, fierce, and widespread, and went on for years. Unless I somehow missed it, I’ve yet to see a comparable antiwar movement mounted today, among the young people Bai celebrates.
 
3. Supported the War on Poverty–not only with our rhetoric, but with our paychecks. (The top marginal tax rate in 1965 was 70 percent; now it’s 35 percent). In contrast, today’s Democratic party, starting with Clinton and continuing through Obama, has pretty much abandoned the poor to their fate. So today’s bourgeoise youth can declare themselves “progressive” without having to give up a thing.
 
The gist of Bai’s article is that our society will improve as we bigoted old geezers to die off, and make way for more broad-minded generations. But I wonder: Are there any among the younger generations who are going to fight the kind of fights we fought in this brave new world? If there are, they’d better stand up now. 

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Meet the Real Death Panels: The Truth About Age-Based Health Care Rationing

The latest issue of Mother Jones includes an article by me about the controversy over age-based health care rationing, which got transformed by the right into government “death panels.” Unfortunately, liberals have fallen into a different trap, because they refuse to take on the real enemies of affordable health care for all: the insurance companies, drug manufacturers, and other profiteers of our private health care system.

As a result, old people are being asked if we would be willing to give up some expensive, life-sustaining treatment so that our grandchildren can have health care. This is a bogus question, and a bogus “choice.” The real question, as I say in the article, is whether we should give up the treatment “so some WellPoint executive can take another expensive vacation, so Pfizer can book $3 billion in annual profits instead of $2 billion, or so private hospitals can make another campaign contribution to some gutless politician.”

It’s a long article, and I’m including just the opening here, with a link at the end to continue reading at the Mother Jones web site. Or you can read the whole thing at MotherJones.com by clicking here. And if you’re one of those geezers who still likes reading print and turning pages, the July/August issue is on newsstands now.

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From Mother Jones, July/August 2010

There’s a certain age at which you cease to regard your own death as a distant hypothetical and start to view it as a coming event. For me, it was 67—the age at which my father died. For many Americans, I suspect it’s 70—the age that puts you within striking distance of our average national life expectancy of 78.1 years. Even if you still feel pretty spry, you suddenly find that your roster of doctor’s appointments has expanded, along with your collection of daily medications. You grow accustomed to hearing that yet another person you once knew has dropped off the twig. And you feel more and more like a walking ghost yourself, invisible to the younger people who push past you on the subway escalator. Like it or not, death becomes something you think about, often on a daily basis.

Actually, you don’t think about death, per se, as much as you do about dying—about when and where and especially how you’re going to die. Will you have to deal with a long illness? With pain, immobility, or dementia? Will you be able to get the care you need, and will you have enough money to pay for it? Most of all, will you lose control over what life you have left, as well as over the circumstances of your death?

These are precisely the preoccupations that the right so cynically exploited in the debate over health care reform, with that ominous talk of Washington bean counters deciding who lives and dies. It was all nonsense, of course—the worst kind of political scare tactic. But at the same time, supporters of health care reform seemed to me too quick to dismiss old people’s fears as just so much paranoid foolishness. There are reasons why the death-panel myth found fertile ground—and those reasons go beyond the gullibility of half-senile old farts.

While politicians of all stripes shun the idea of health care rationing as the political third rail that it is, most of them accept a premise that leads, one way or another, to that end. Here’s what I mean: Nearly every other industrialized country recognizes health care as a human right, whose costs and benefits are shared among all citizens. But in the United States, the leaders of both political parties along with most of the “experts” persist in treating health care as a commodity that is purchased, in one way or another, by those who can afford it. Conservatives embrace this notion as the perfect expression of the all-powerful market; though they make a great show of recoiling from the term, in practice they are endorsing rationing on the basis of wealth. Liberals, including supporters of President Obama’s health care reform, advocate subsidies, regulation, and other modest measures to give the less fortunate a little more buying power. But as long as health care is viewed as a product to be bought and sold, even the most well-intentioned reformers will someday soon have to come to grips with health care rationing, if not by wealth then by some other criteria.

In a country that already spends more than 16 percent of each GDP dollar on health care (PDF), it’s easy to see why so many people believe there’s simply not enough of it to go around. But keep in mind that the rest of the industrialized world manages to spend between 20 and 90 percent less per capita and still rank higher than the US in overall health care performance. In 2004, a team of researchers including Princeton’s Uwe Reinhardt, one of the nation’s best known experts on health economics, found that while the US spends 134 percent more than the median of the world’s most developed nations, we get less for our money—fewer physician visits and hospital days per capita, for example—than our counterparts in countries like Germany, Canada, and Australia. (We do, however, have more MRI machines and more cesarean sections.)

Where does the money go instead? By some estimates, administration and insurance profits alone eat up at least 30 percent of our total health care bill (and most of that is in the private sector—Medicare’s overhead is around 2 percent). In other words, we don’t have too little to go around—we overpay for what we get, and we don’t allocate our spending where it does us the most good. “In most [medical] resources we have a surplus,” says Dr. David Himmelstein, cofounder of Physicians for a National Health Program. “People get large amounts of care that don’t do them any good and might cause them harm [while] others don’t get the necessary amount.”

Looking at the numbers, it’s pretty safe to say that with an efficient health care system, we could spend a little less than we do now and provide all Americans with the most spectacular care the world has ever known. But in the absence of any serious challenge to the health-care-as-commodity system, we are doomed to a battlefield scenario where Americans must fight to secure their share of a “scarce” resource in a life-and-death struggle that pits the rich against the poor, the insured against the uninsured—and increasingly, the old against the young.

For years, any push to improve the nation’s finances—balance the budget, pay for the bailout, or help stimulate the economy—has been accompanied by rumblings about the greedy geezers who resist entitlement “reforms” (read: cuts) with their unconscionable demands for basic health care and a hedge against destitution. So, too, today: Already, President Obama’s newly convened deficit commission looks to be blaming the nation’s fiscal woes not on tax cuts, wars, or bank bailouts, but on the burden of Social Security and Medicare. (The commission’s co-chair, former Republican senator Alan Simpson, has declared, “This country is gonna go to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements.”)

Old people’s anxiety in the face of such hostile attitudes has provided fertile ground for Republican disinformation and fearmongering. But so has the vacuum left by Democratic reformers. Too often, in their zeal to prove themselves tough on “waste,” they’ve allowed connections to be drawn between two things that, to my mind, should never be spoken of in the same breath: death and cost.

Click here to the rest at MotherJones.com.

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Petition to Stop the Entitlement-Cutting “Catfood Commission”

Readers of Unsilent Generation may be interested in a new online petition directed at members of Congress, concerning the work of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility of Reform, which I’ve written about here many times before. Here is the introduction to the petition, which was started by Alternet. You can read the text of the petition, and sign it, here at Change.org

Right-Wing “Deficit Hawks” and their enablers are on a march to destroy the social safety net we built for our seniors and retirees. Shockingly, some of the most notorious advocates are actually in charge of the presidential commission that will soon determine the future of Social Security and Medicare. We need to stop them in their tracks! Join us in calling on Congress to Stop the Catfood Commission.

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform has been dubbed by progressives the “Catfood Commission” because its goal appears to be cutting benefits so drastically that retirees will only be able to afford to eat pet food. It’s hard to tell exactly what the commission is planning because its meetings are closed to the public and the press. Based on past statements and the background of its members the proposals are likely to include raising the retirement age to 70, turning large portions of Social Security over to Wall Street, and cutting Medicare benefits.

The commission’s co-chairman Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, has stated he believes the founders of the Social Security program never expected anyone to actually live to 65 and collect. “People just died,” he has said. “Social Security was never [for] retirement.” Erskine Bowles, the other co-chairman, negotiated a secret but ultimately unsuccessful deal between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich to cut Social Security benefits. Any chances that the commission would make cuts to the US defense budget in its pursuit of fiscal responsibility seem slim owing to the fact that the CEO of Honeywell, a major defense contractor, is a member of the panel.

We can’t sit back and count on a Democratic-controlled Congress to protect our social safety net. Just a day before the July 4th holiday weekend, the House of Representatives passed a measure that would guarantee an up-or-down vote on the Catfood Commission’s recommendations in the current session of Congress if they pass the Senate. With this measure House Speaker Nancy Pelosi relinquished her power to prevent the vote from coming to the floor.

Your representatives need to hear from you NOW.  Let’s stop the Catfood Commission from raiding the Social Security trust fund and slashing medical benefits for current and future retirees.

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Robert N. Butler, 1927 – 2010: Visionary Psychiatrist and Champion of Elders

If you’re like most people, you may find that at about age 70, life begins to close in on you. You’re supposed to be retired by then with an adequate pension and/or a 401K–only you don’t have a pension, your 401K went down in the big recession, and to tell the truth, you  don’t want to retire anyway. You want to work, but there the job market is tight, age discrimination is rampant, and thanks to the Supreme Court, there’s virtually no way to fight it. You don’t have the money, or maybe the nerve, to strike out on your own, unless you call flipping burgers striking out on your own.

The advertisements for retirement investments and hair color keep telling you that 70 is the new 40, that you’re only as young as you feel. AARP’s magazines say the same thing–but the world they depict seems unreal and, to tell the truth, somewhat revolting. Because you don’t feel young–you feel old. And in today’s America, that’s hardly a happy feeling. You feel shoved aside, irrelevant, a relic waiting to hurry up and die. You realize you can’t remember things as well as you once did, have more and more of the proverbial “senior moments,’’ and start wondering how long it will be until you sink into dementia, maybe Alzheimer’s, at which point your life will really be over.

There’s precious little in our society that acts as an antidote to any of these thoughts. But for the last half-century, there has been one man: Dr. Robert N. Butler. A psychiatrist, activist, and visionary, Butler died on Sunday at the age of 83, and is being eulogized in the obituaries as the founder of modern gerontology, the man who coined the word “ageism.’’ Butler founded the National Institute of Aging at the NIH, and helped found the American Association for geriatric Psychiatry and the Alzheimer’s Disease Association; he also launched the first medical department devoted to geriatrics at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.  He wrote influential books, advised politicians, counseled the World Health Organization, and he founded and ran the International Longevity Center in New York. 

Through all of this work, Butler inspired thousands, perhaps millions of people to think differently about growing old, and to treat aging and the aged differently. For old people, that transformation is even more profound, because it means thinking differently about yourself. I am one of those people whose thinking was changed, in some significant way, by Robert Butler and his work.

I was lucky enough to meet Butler a few weeks ago at a week-long series of seminars his International Longevity Center put on annually for a small group of journalists, called the Age Boom Academy. That one week produced some of the most astute briefings on every aspect of health policy and the challenges ahead that one could hope to take in–from research on Alzheimers, to the political assault on Medicare and Social Security currently underway in the administration and Congress, to the day-to-day work on the ground across the City of New York. What I had feared might consist of a bunch of self-serving medical and psych professionals was instead an immersion into the real world of the politics and economics  of medicine, tempered always by Butler’s vision. Despite his concerns for the scandalous lack of funding for research on Alzheimer’s and the aging brain, as well as the growing shortage of doctors trained in gerontology or even general practitioners, he approached his work with unyielding  optimism. I had no idea he was battling a life-threatening illness.

On Monday I was on a train on my way to New York, where I had an appointment this week to sit down with him to further discuss his ideas, when I received an email and learned that he was gone. Although he had acute leukemia, Butler reportedly had been working until three days before his death. At 83, he had seemed like he was in the prime of life–not because he acted like he was 40, but because he had succeeded in redefining 83 as a different kind of prime, for himself and for others.

 In a speech not long ago at the American Academy of aging, Butler quoted Proust from In Search of Lost Time, “If we mean to try to understand this self, it is only in our innermost depths, by endeavoring to reconstruct it there, that the quest can be achieved.” He saw that quest as part of the journey into old age, and gave it significance and dignity. He said in his speech:

In the 1950s, psychology, psychiatry and gerontology textbooks devalued reminiscence and memories. Reminiscing was condescendingly called “living in the past,” and phrases like “wandering of mind,” “boring” and “garrulous” were used to describe elders who looked back. Actually, reminiscence was thought to be an early diagnostic sign of senile psychosis–what is known today as Alzheimer’s disease. However, I was seeing a different picture in vibrant, healthy individuals who were engaging in a fascinating inward journey.

More than fifty years later, Butler’s ideas are widely respected by psychologists and social workers, many physicians and research scientists, and even some policymakers. As far as they have caught on at all with the general public, it is thanks to his tireless work. He like to point out that demographics was on his side: More and more, elders will outnumber youth, and the voice of the geezers will grow stronger and stronger.

I was pleased to see, this morning, an eloquently written obituary in the New York Times by Douglas Martin. Fittingly, it included some remembrances of Butler’s past. As Martin notes, “Dr. Butler’s mission emerged from his childhood.” His parents split up less than a year after he was born, and he went to live with his grandparents on a New Jersey chicken farm. 

He came to revere his grandfather, with whom he cared for sick chickens in the “hospital” at one end of the chicken house. He loved the old man’s stories. But the grandfather disappeared when Robert was 7, and nobody would tell him why. He finally learned that he had died.

Robert found solace in his friendship with a physician he identified only as Dr. Rose. Dr. Rose had helped him through scarlet fever and took him on his rounds by horse and carriage. The boy decided he could have helped his grandfather survive had he been a doctor. He also concluded that he would have preferred that people had been honest with him about death.

From his grandmother, he learned about the strength and endurance of the elderly, he wrote. After losing the farm in the Depression, she and her grandson lived on government-surplus foods and lived in a cheap hotel. Robert sold newspapers. Then the hotel burned down, with all their possessions.

“What I remember even more than the hardships of those years was my grandmother’s triumphant spirit and determination,” he wrote. “Experiencing at first hand an older person’s struggle to survive, I was myself helped to survive as well.”

Butler spent his life passing on that painful but profound gift to thousands of other people. I feel fortunate to have been one of them.

Sick of Journalists? Read This Declaration of Independence

Journalism, as it is practised in the United States today, is largely the work of technocrats, trained in expensive journalism schools. There is another kind of reporting, that of Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Ida B. Wells and the old school muckrakers. They were not just fact gatherers, and they hadn’t gone to school to learn their trade; they were journeymen, fellow workers with a passion for making America live up to just the sorts of values we celebrate on Independence Day–values which all too often ring hollow.

Djelloul Marbrook is a poet, fiction writer, and retired newspaper editor (Providence Journal, Baltimore Sun, Winston-Salem Journal, Washington Star). He blogs at djelloulmarbrook.com. Marbrook’s got a plan that frees journalism from the confines of mainstream publications–which in addition to being circumscribed and commercialized, also have no way of paying for themselves, and are dying a slow death. 

The concept of citizen journalism is nothing new. But Marbrook brings a new twist to the idea: he wants to harnass “one of our most spectacular natural resources, the aging.” Retired old people have the skills and the time, he says, to “undertake the kind of restlessly inquiring journalism that has been sold out for quick profit.” I’d argue that there’s another advantage, as well– something that happens to some of us when we reach a certain age. We’ve just lived too long to take any more crap, and while we may be creaky and forgetful, our bullshit detectors are keener than they’ve ever been.

Here, then, is Marbrook’s modest proposal for an army of muckraking geezers:

Here we are, a graying nation overlooking what may be one of our most spectacular natural resources, the aging. Instead of imagining what they can do for us, we can’t imagine how to care for them.It has been many years since idealism was a vital force in our newsrooms and the offices of media owners. Idealism has long since been trumped by the next dollar and the one after that. Newsrooms have been shrunk to shells of their former selves.media have dropped, to investigate local, county and state government, to look under all the carpets that now bulge with wrongdoing.

No amount of campaign finance reform or revising the two-party system, as California has just done, will ever be as effective as scrutiny of local government. Only the vigilance of an informed electorate will rescue us from big money and ignorant or reckless candidates. Money, here as everywhere else, is at the root of the problem. The media giants that have gobbled up the local and regional press have decided that it’s too expensive to cover local affairs properly. The people themselves must step into this vacuum, and there is a way to do it.

Among our retirees are the forensic accountants, the financial analysts, the medical people, the conservationists, the scientists—the vast range of talents and disciplines that reflect our society—who could undertake the kind of restlessly inquiring journalism that has been sold out for quick profit.

It is a myth that editors and writers are the only ones who can conduct such inquiries. We don’t need polish as much as we need truth. And remember—any group of retirees is very likely to include a writer or an editor or two, someone who can polish the findings of others, just as rewrite people used to do in newsrooms.

What has changed that might make this idea feasible? The hyper-commercialization of the press, of course, but also the advent of the Internet. And it is precisely this kind of development, this kind of social use of the Internet, that the communications giants are now trying to prevent by bribing legislators into giving them the right to limit access to the Internet by imposed pricing tiers.

We have all read stories about retirees looking for creative ways to express themselves, to challenge themselves. Well, here is a challenge that could actually change the country in a very big way. Never mind the Tea Party with its bags of resentment, here is something positive to do, and it doesn’t depend on ideology. Yes, you will have disagreements with your collaborators, just as news people have always had, and often your opinions will be sorely tested by the facts, but remember that journalism is not about the proof of an idea, it’s about truth. Some notions, some hunches will prove out, some won’t. Some good guys will turn out to be bad guys and some unlikable guys will turn out to be the good guys.

You think your local or county government is corrupt? Do something about it. You can. Gather a group of people, not like-minded ideologues, but skilled people of every persuasion, pick something to look into, and do it, post it on the web and watch the monkeys fall from the trees. Worried about libel? I bet you can find a retired lawyer to vet your posts.

This can be done all around the nation, and what will result is a nation dotted with the kind of feisty local news organizations that we once had before the corporate giants chewed them up and spit them out as trivial mush.

Start anywhere, with whatever interests your group. Make a list and see what excites your colleagues.

Or, if you’re a loner, fine, go it alone.

Think of it—an online newspaper that has guts, that isn’t bribed by its advertisers, that can take pictures, investigate events, and publish hour by hour. It’s a revolution waiting to happen. And it won’t take a huge investment. No bankers, no licenses.You don’t need journalism degrees, you need nerve, verve, will power, and the skills you acquired in long careers, whether in nursing or mechanics or policing or accounting. As many skills are relevant as there are in society, because journalism is about everything.

You don’t need to join another fractious, angry splinter group. You don’t need to picket. You’re stronger, much stronger, than that. You can actually force the politicians and corporations to change by exposing what they’re doing and not doing. And that is exactly why the media are now owned by the corporate giants, so they won’t have to worry about scrutiny.

There are few limits to what you can do. Some of you can write about gardening or astrology while others of you pore through records in town hall or the school administration. Whatever your creative impulse is, there is an outlet for it in a citizen journalism.Remember this: if we do not exercise our right to examine public records, that right will wither, and soon the government—whether local, state or federal—will claim that we don’t have the right. That is why what has befallen local journalism in our country is so disastrous. A right that is not exercised soon vanishes…

What I am saying, as an old-timer and a retired journalist myself, is that you retirees can do it. And, if you find the right business minds among you, you might even be able to create viable business models that will eventually create jobs in journalism. You can do it, I promise you. There is nothing magical about journalism. It’s just dogged work, the will to find out, and a reasonable mastery of the language. It’s not rocket science. It doesn’t need credentials. But it needs the high ideals that corporate greed has stomped.

 

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The Peterson Foundation’s Retirement Plan: Debtors Prisons

For readers interested in the emerging entitlement wars, and the insidious influence of Pete Peterson’s anti-entitlement campaign on the public debate (and, apparently, on Obama’s Deficit Commission), yesterday’s post on “Entitled to Know,” the blog of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, needs no introduction. I’m quoting the post in full, but you can click through to the original post to watch the segment on CNBC–and while you’re there, subscribe to the blog to receive the latest information on these issues. 

Apparently, these are the “good-old days” our nation’s fiscal hawks relish.  The Peterson Foundation’s David Walker co-hosted CNBC’s Squawk Box this morning (personally, we yearn for the good-old days when so-called “news” shows were hosted by journalists—not partisan advocates—but that’s another debate). 

The discussion followed the classic Peterson Foundation talking points—government bad, business good—but ultimately led to a nostalgic reminiscence for the good old days when Americans faced debtors prisons and had no sense of “entitlement” (presumably to the Social Security and Medicare benefits workers have funded for their entire working lives):

“The fact of the matter is we have to change how we do things. We are on an imprudent and unsustainable path in a number of ways. You talk about debtors prisons, we used to have debtors prisons, now bankruptcy is no taint. Bankruptcy is an exit strategy. Our society and our culture have changed. We need to get back to opportunity and move away from entitlement. We need to be able to provide reasonable risk but hold people accountable when they do imprudent things…it’s pretty fundamental.”… (David Walker, Peterson Foundation, CNBC Jun 10, 2010)

Now, maybe in the Peterson Foundation’s circle of Wall Street types and multi-billionaires, bankruptcy is an exit strategy, but for millions of middle-class Americans bankruptcy is, in fact, a life-altering and often debilitating choice.  As for pitting “opportunity” vs “entitlement”—that’s classic Peterson Foundation messaging designed to convince us that America’s seniors are somehow riding high on the hog and soaking taxpayers with all of their “entitlements”. 

Of course, these fiscal hawks never mention that fact that the government doesn’t pay for those “entitlements”, American workers do. It’s not the government’s money…it’s not Wall Street’s money…and those so-called “entitlements” have been paid for by you and me.  The truth is, retirees are entitled to receive the benefits they’ve been promised; however, fiscal hawks like David Walker would apparently rather roll back the clock, ignore those promises, and build more debtor’s prisons.

On Memorial Day in Normandy, Evidence of What We Won–and Lost

Photo: Eisenhower National Historic Site, National Park Service

On June 5, 1944, the eve of the largest invasion in history, General Dwight Eisenhower visited the English airfield where paratroopers were preparing to take off for their drop into France. “Quit worrying, General,” one of the soldiers told him. “We’ll take care of this thing for you.’’ The following day, 175,000 men landed on the beaches and fields of Normandy.

For children growing up in Washington, D.C., shushed into silence behind the blackout curtains while our parents bent over radios bringing the long-awaited announcement of the attack, it was all beyond  comprehension–save that every little boy was climbing into a tree to pretend he was flying his Spitfire over the Channel, or parachuting into the French countryside.

At age seven, I was one of those boys. Last week I had the good fortune to meet another member of my generation, whose experience of D-Day was something quite different. His name is Pierre Bernard, and he is retired to his family’s farm in the village of Maisons, a stone’s throw from the beaches that became the site of what the French call the Débarquement. In the spring of 1944, Pierre was twelve; with his parents and siblings, he worked the farm and waited for the Allied troops to arrive and free them from Nazi occupation. When that day finally came, Pierre recalls, the Germans simply vanished. British and then American troops soon passed through the village, moving quickly inland. His family was luckier than many others: Some 12,000 French civilians were killed during the battle for Normandy, along with more than 75,000 troops on both sides.

Today, long retired from his job as a cook in Paris, Pierre oversees a bed and breakfast in his old stone farmhouse. He’s never learned to use a computer, so his daughters help arrange who is to come, while Pierre, along with his two dogs, goes out each morning to bring back fresh baguettes and croissants. He serves them along with the jams and pates he makes himself, and sits quietly at the head of the family table, contentedly watching his guests eat breakfast.  And he’ll gladly trade war stories with a visitor who, like himself, is too young to have fought, but old enough to remember.

Normandy today still inspires awe at the courage of the men who stormed Fortress Europe: Omaha Beach, so wide and unprotected; the cliffs of Point du Hoc, higher and steeper than I could have imagined. But by now, the genuine remnants of the war—half-buried German bunkers, wrecked ships, and thousands of well-tended graves—are outnumbered by nostalgic renderings of the real thing: Army surplus stores are filled with Eisenhower jackets, berets, and rucksacks (many of them supplied by German companies). Towns compete for tourists–and a place in history—with tanks on their village squares and little museums dedicated to every aspect of “Jour J.” In Sainte-Mère-Église, where an American paratrooper famously got caught on the church steeple, a dummy is suspended from a parachute to commemmorate  the event. Then there are the British and American visitors tearing around in rented World War II jeeps, windshields down, and even a half-ton olive drab truck.  They look far too young to be veterans; too young even to have been alive at the time. The men and women who fought that war are fast disappearing (some 850 U.S. WW II vets die every day, according to the VA), and those who lived through it as children are now well into our old age.  

I was struck by how different Pierre’s old age in France is from mine in the United States—not because of anything that happened during the war, but because of what happened afterwards. In the postwar years, along with most other European countries (victors and vanquished alike), France implemented guaranteed pensions as well as national health care. Under a social welfare system that epitomizes what’s derisively referred to in the U.S. as the “Nanny State,” the average worker in France retires at age 60 on a full pension with complete medical care and various tax breaks. (And that’s after years of working 35-hour weeks, with two-month vacations.)

And what about aging Americans–including the waning ranks of the “greatest generation” that came before mine, who helped free the French and the rest of Europe, and then financed the continent’s recovery through the Marshall Plan? What can we expect? The most minimal of public pension systems, which was created before the war and has been under attack ever since; a private pension system that is now a shell of collapsing structures; personal savings decimated by Wall Street; and a partial and increasingly expensive health care system. More and more of us plan to work quite literally until we die–that is, if we can manage to keep our jobs, since we have little protection against age discrimination and no job security of any sort. In America, the war fought by “Citizen Soldiers” made our world all too safe for wealth and corporate power, often at the expense of the very men and women who won it.

In France, conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy has been chipping away at the Nanny State. His latest scheme—to raise the retirement age to 62—brought mass demonstrations across the country last week, and threats from the still-powerful unions. But even if Sarkozy’s latest initiative succeeds, as it well may, France’s elders will still be better off than their American counterparts have ever been.

Here in the U.S., we face a political juggernaut—most recently manifested in Obama’s “debt commission”–intent on cutting Social Security benefits, raising the costs of Medicare, extending the formal retirement age from 65 to 67 and beyond, and further tying our retirement and that of future generations to the vicissitudes of the securities markets through 401Ks and IRAs. Few voices are raised in protest against this attack on old-age entitlements. In fact, it seems to be one of the only true examples of bipartisanship in American politics, now that the Democratic Party, which once fought to build what social safety net we have, has collapsed into the arms of Wall Street. I expect it will progress with no more difficulty than “welfare reform,” in which another Democratic administration gutted our meager provisons for the poor.

In a Washington Post op-ed last Sunday, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks declared that “America’s new culture war” is a “struggle between two competing visions of the country’s future. In one, America will continue to be an exceptional nation organized around the principles of free enterprise–limited government, a reliance on entrepreneurship and rewards determined by market forces. In the other, America will move toward European-style statism grounded in expanding bureaucracies, a managed economy and large-scale income redistribution.” If only this were remotely true.  In fact, that battle was lost long ago—if it was ever fought at all.

Perhaps I only imagine that Pierre’s life is more tranquil than mine because he enjoys the security that comes with “European-style statism,” while my own well-being remains “determined by market forces.” But I don’t think so. Sixty-six years ago, as a small boy playing pilot in the lush green trees of a Washington spring, I could not have guessed that Pierre, waiting in his farmhouse nestled in the hedgerows of Normandy for the jeeps and tanks of the First Army, would someday become a symbol not only of my country’s greatest victory, but of its saddest defeat.

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