Category Archives: older workers

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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Roszak’s “Making of an Elder Culture”

Few may remember it, but before the advent of Social Security in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s, the old were widely viewed as a spent force. Nobody talked about happy retirement, in part because, these were people who remembered only too well the Depression. Few looked forward to leisure worlds because the poor house was too recent in so many people’s minds. Before old age entitlements, tending to the old was viewed as the job of the family. If you didn’t have a family, then it was charity–you joined the begging class. And even if you did have a family, you lived knowing that the young and middle aged couldn’t wait to get rid of you.

The same is more or less true today. Some days it seems the entire city of Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, is on a mission against the old. Of course, nobody would ever say that. But there is a war against the old going on here in the form of a vigorous, largely uncontested attack on entitlements—a fighting word for conservatives and conservative Democrats who simply can’t stand Roosevelt’s New Deal, Johnson’s Great Society, and everything the stood for.

In his book The Making of an Elder Culture, recently published by New Society, Theodore Roszak, the cultural historian who more than three decades ago wrote The Making of a Counter Culture, sets out some of the grim history of old people in American society, and in doing so places elders within our current political world.

The old were in fact the worst victims of industrialism, primarily because they were not deemed worth saving. They belonged to that class of unwelcome dependents called the impotent poor—those who could not provide for themselves…as comfortable as many middle-class elders may be today, they share with all older people a long sad history of bleak mistreatment they would do well to remember. For generations the old have suffered wrongs inflicted on them by harsh public policy and often by their nearest and dearest….in the modern western world where the old have been seen as the claim of the dreary past upon the bustling forces of progress.

In the early days of the industrial revolution, Roszak writes, “aged workers became poor. The workhouse and county home were little better than the concentration camp. They were fed gruel, bedded down on straw or bare wood…they had no place to turn  save for their children…They were pictured as withered, toothless, bent, lean.’’

You must remember that as recently as 40 or 50 years ago, there was no senior lobby. The political pros never talked about a senior vote. Today all that has changed–yet Roszak sees in today’s entitlement wars a serious threat to the well-being of elders.

In the same way that organized labor was once regarded as a potentially tyrannical force able to achieve its own selfish ends, entitlement critics began characterizing seniors as a threat to the democratic process…

Nobody of any political stripe wants to risk the charge of granny-bashing,but the facts are clear. In the United States, gaining even  modest degrees of security in retirement has been a struggle against business leaders, political conservatives, and free market economists for whom money is the measure of all things.

Always remember, Roszak says, “the well-to-do are the first to tell us that there is not enough to go around.”

In his book, Roszak envisions a society in which rather tan cutting social programs for the old, we will extend them to younger people. Noone would resent Medicare, for example, if we had universal health care for Americans of all ages. He sees a future where the old and the young join to create a new world devoted to common humane goals: ending poverty at all ages, assuring education–laying the planks of a new society on the New Deal and LBJ’s social welfare project. Such ideas face an uphill battle in today’s political culture–but are no less inspiring for that fact.

I’ll be writing more about Roszak’s work in future posts.

I Was Not a Victim of Age Discrimination at Work (Not)

When I was fired by the new owners of the Village Voice in 2006, after working there for 30 years, it had nothing to do with age discrimination. At least, that’s what the official documents say.  

For a number of reasons, I initially suspected that age had something to do with it. But I must have been wrong, because I later signed an agreement saying I had not been discriminated against on the basis of age. The document also happened to say that I would get some severance benefits I really needed, being 69 years old and suddenly jobless–but I’m sure that didn’t affect my decision to sign it.  

I have no doubt that the following scenario is experienced by thousands of older Americans who lose their jobs (though not, as I’ve mentioned, to me). They are pretty sure they know what is going on, and why. They discuss it with their attorneys, who are sympathetic but explain how difficult it is to prevail in such cases. The lawyers also tell them that the case could drag on for years–implying, though they don’t like to say so, that the geezers could be dead before it is resolved. So the geezers tell their lawyers to negotiate the best deal they can, and sign whatever they need to sign in order to get that deal. Or so I’ve heard. 

Age discrimination in the workplace (somethat that I, as I’ve said, did not experience), has always been notoriously difficult to prove to the satisfaction of the American justice system. But last June, the Supreme Court made it all the more difficult with its 5-4 ruling in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. The Court held that for workers to sue under the Age Discimination in Employment Act of 1967, they must prove that the employer would not have taken a particular action “but for” the person’s age. This sets age discrimination apart from all other forms of discrimination in the eyes of the law. As the New York Times put it in an editorial criticizing the Court’s decision:   

When employers discriminate, they generally do not admit it, so Congress and the courts have established calibrated rules of proof to give victims a fair chance. Generally, if workers can show that an illegal consideration, like race or national origin, was a factor in their being fired or demoted, the employer then has the burden of showing that it acted for nondiscriminatory reasons.  

That should be the rule under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, but the Supreme Court, by a 5-to-4 vote, decided that it is not. Older workers, Justice Clarence Thomas declared for the majority, have the full burden of proving that they were fired because of their age. That is an unfairly difficult standard, and it is an unreasonable interpretation of the law.  

Last fall, the Democratic chairs of three key Congressional committees introduced legislation that would “restore vital civil rights protections for older workers in the face of the Supreme Court’s decision in Gross v. FBL Financial.”  In announcing the bill, called the “Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act” (H.R. 3721), the sponsors stated: “In Gross, the Supreme Court rewrote civil rights laws, overturning well-established precedent and making it harder for workers facing age discrimination to enforce their rights.”   

Today, the Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and Labor held its first hearing on the Court’s ruling and the proposed legislation. As the Legal Times blog reports:  

The AARP is supporting the legislation, and Gail Aldrick, vice chair of the group’s board, also testified today. Those registered to lobby on the bill include the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.    

Eric Dreiband, partner in a firm that does corporate defense work, testified in opposition to the bill, calling it a “broad and ambigous” measure that would “enable some lawyers to earn more money” but probably wouldn’t help older workers all that much. 

But Michael Foreman, who directs the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic at Penn State’s law school, called the proposed legislation a “fair, balanced, indeed conservative attempt to return the law to where everyone, the courts included, thought it was” before the Gross decision.  

The final testimony came from Jack Gross, plaintiff in the case that bears his name. At the age of 54, Gross was demoted by his employer, FBL–along with a group of other employees over 50 who refused to accept buyouts. He initially won his lawsuit against FBL, but it was appealed up to the Supreme Court, which decided against him. Gross told the Committee: “I hate having my name associated with the pain and injustice now being inflicted on older workers.” 

In the unlikely event that Democrats succeed in quickly passing the new law, it won’t come a moment too soon. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the recession has been terrible for older workers, who to all appearances have suffered more than their fair share of layoffs. In 2008, the EEOC saw a 30 percent increase in the filing of age discrimination charges, which outpaced all other types of bias claims. The numbers were so dramatic that the acting chair of the EEOC wondered whether “the public generally realizes that age discrimination is illegal.” 

It seems to me that even if they do know it’s illegal, much of the public–like the courts–don’t seem to take age discrimination too seriously.

But of course, I really wouldn’t know.

  

Obama Cuts Deal To Reduce Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid

Hopes for any pretense of liberal change from the Obama administration collapsed yesterday, and not only because of the election in Massachusetts. While the Massachusetts voters were casting their ballots to install the upstart Republican Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, the White House was hammering out a closed-door deal to cut entitlements. Obama won the support of Democratic leaders for a plan to issue an executive order that would inevitably lead to reductions in Social Security, and especially Medicare and Medicaid.

The plan represents a capitulation to conservatives in both parties, and would leave Democratic liberals accepting unconditional surrender not only on health care, but on the most basic of all New Deal programs.  As hopes of even a tepid health care reform wane, the effect of this  plan, if accepted by Congress, will be to undermine the only single-payer health care programs this nation has ever known–Medicare for elders, and Medicaid for the poor. As an attack on entitlements, it has the potential to go beyond anything the Reagan and Bush administrations were able to achieve.

As the Washington Post explains this morning:

Under the agreement, President Obama would issue an executive order to create an 18-member panel that would be granted broad authority to propose changes in the tax code and in the massive federal entitlement programs — including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — that threaten to drive the nation’s debt to levels not seen since World War II.

The accord comes a week before Obama is scheduled to deliver his first State of the Union address to a nation increasingly concerned about his stewardship of the economy and the federal budget. After a year in which he advocated spending hundreds of billions of dollars on a huge economic stimulus package and a far-reaching overhaul of the health-care system, Obama has pledged to redouble his effort to rein in record budget deficits even as he has come under withering Republican attack.

The commission would deliver its recommendations after this fall’s congressional elections, postponing potentially painful decisions about the nation’s fiscal future until after Democrats face the voters. But if the commission approves a deficit-reduction plan, Congress would have to act on it quickly under the agreement, forged late Tuesday in a meeting with Vice President Biden, White House budget director Peter R. Orszag, and Democratic lawmakers led by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.).

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who has long advocated creation of an independent budget panel, called the agreement an “understanding in concept” that holds the promise of at last addressing the nation’s most wrenching budget problems.

“This goes to the question of the country’s credibility with managing its own finances. This is essential for the nation,” Conrad said.

The commission is likely to form the centerpiece of Democrats’ efforts to reduce projected budget deficits, which have soared into record territory in the aftermath of the worst recession in a generation. Government spending to bail out the troubled financial sector and to stimulate economic activity have combined with sagging tax collections to push last year’s budget deficit to a record $1.4 trillion. The budget gap is projected to be just as large this year and to hover close to $1 trillion a year for much of the next decade. 

In other words: The national treasury has been driven into deep deficits by a financial crisis caused by Wall Street greed, compounded by two wars, tax cuts for the rich, and the high prices charged by health care profiteers. And where will we turn to make up for this loss? To the poor and the old, who cling greedily to their “entitlements.”

The claim is made that we need to make these entitlements “solvent” and “sustainable” in their own right, so they don’t “run out of money”–but that’s just political flim-flam. Social Security is in fact perfectly solvent, and the fiscal problems of the Medicare and Medicaid programs stem from the excesses of profit-based health care. If cuts are made to these programs, which have saved millions of Americans out of desperate straits, it will be because there’s simply no political will to do anything else to address the deficit.

All this represents a major victory for the corporate take-over mogul Pete Peterson whose foundation has put up $1 billion to lobby the proposal. His efforts have even involved  a financial news service that pushes this rich man’s plan, and that  has wormed its way into the Washington Post.  William Greider, who has long been covering the Peterson story, writes in The Nation:

The retired mogul has created a digital news agency he dubs “The Fiscal Times” and hired eight seasoned reporters to do the work there. “An impressive group of veteran journalists,” Peterson calls them. I hope they have shaken a lot of money out of this rich geezer. Because I predict doing hack work for him will seriously soil their reputations for objectivity and independence.

With his great wealth, Peterson could have also bought a newspaper to publish his dispatches, but he did better than that. He hooked up with the Washington Post, which has agreed to “jointly produce content focusing on the budget and fiscal issues.” (This media scandal was first uncovered by economist Dean Baker.) The newspaper is thus compromising its own integrity. It’s like buying political propaganda from a Washington lobbyist, then printing it in the news columns as if it was just another news story. Shame on the Post, my old newspaper. I predict a big stink like the one that greeted the Post when its publisher decided to hold pay-for-access “salons” for corporate biggies.

The deal is based on rickety interpretation of the country’s basic laws governing taxation.  Normally, any change in taxes must be passed first by the House, with legislation wending its way through the Ways and Means Committee up to the floor. This proposed arrangement short cuts—indeed appears to bypass—this procedure. The appointed commission is to make a recommendation on the budget after the election and that recommendation then goes straight to Congress where it might go through hearings,floor debate and a vote,or as some proponents of the idea would like, just get an up or down vote. To rub salt in the wounds, it was largely crafted not by members of the House, but by vice president and former Delaware senator Joe Biden along two senators–Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat, once considered heir to the Great Plains progressive tradition, and conservative Judd Gregg, from New Hampshire. The man behind the commission plan is Pete Peterson.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which has been fighting against the creation of the commission, recently sent a letter to Congress, saying in part: 

We appreciate the concerns of legislators who are looking for a means of reducing the federal deficit and slowing the growth in the debt. However, we have significant concerns about any process – including the Conrad-Gregg Commission – that would disenfranchise American voters and subject Social Security beneficiaries to harmful cuts in benefits. As supporters of Social Security, we are surprised to see the federal deficit and the federal debt cited as the reason a commission needs to be established to make cuts in Social Security. The truth is that neither the $1.4 trillion deficit nor the nearly $12 trillion debt has anything to do with Social Security benefits.   

For nearly three decades, Social Security has taken in more revenue each year than it has paid out in benefits. These excess funds have been invested in special issue U.S. government securities. Thus, Social Security has effectively been loaning its excess funds to the federal government to spend on other programs. Rather than increasing the federal deficit, Social Security’s annual surpluses have actually been covering up the true size of the deficit in the general fund.

 

The Golden Years in America: Can’t Work, Can’t Retire (Unless You’re a Bailed-Out Banker)

The National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare reports today on recently released statistics that illustrate the lose-lose situation now faced by many older people, thanks to Wall Street and the recession it spawned.

The National Retirement Risk Index  shows that a majority of American households are at high risk of not having enough money in retirement. The 51% finding is the highest at-risk percentage since the index’ creation in 2006.   The report concludes: 

“…half of today’s households will not have enough retirement income to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living, even if they work to age 65, which is above the current average retire­ment age. Even if the stock market should bounce back, the housing bubble is unlikely to reappear. And as defined benefit plans fade in an environment where total pension coverage remains stagnant, Social Security’s Full Retirement Age moves to 67, and life expectancy increases, the outlook will get worse over time. The NRRI clearly indicates that this nation needs more retirement saving.”

And yet, working longer isn’t as easy as it sounds for the over 60 employee.  The New York Times sums up the unemployment figures for seniors: 

“…there are more Americans 65 and older in the job market today than at any time in history, 6.6 million, compared with 4.1 million in 2001.  Less well known, though, is that nearly half a million workers 65 and older want to work but cannot find a job — more than five times the level early this decade and this group’s highest unemployment level since the Great Depression.  The situation is made more dire because of numerous recent trends: many people over 65 have lost their jobs as seniority protections have weakened, and like most other Americans, a higher percentage of them took on debt than in previous generations.”

With prospects like this, some old people may start to feel like going before those mythical “death panels” isn’t such a bad idea after all.

None of this applies, of course, to the people responsible for placing large numbers of America’s seniors in financial peril in the first place. Wall Street is whining about he limits on executive pay announced last week by White House “pay czar” Kenneth Feinberg. These apply only to the 25 top execs at each of the seven huge companies that are currently using bailout funds, and still allow them to make multiple millions per year. What’s more, unlike the rest of us, these guys can still look forward to getting golden parachutes to cushion their golden years. As the New York Times reports:

[I]t’s worth noting that certain contentious pay issues were either ignored or shoved under the rug. Ken Lewis, the soon-to-be-retired chief executive of Bank of America, has declined to take a salary in 2009, at Mr. Feinberg’s urging. But he is still going to get around $70 million in retirement pay — which Mr. Feinberg could do nothing about. And so Mr. Lewis will soon join the ranks of other top Wall Street executives who walked away with millions after doing a miserable job. That’s the kind of pay practice that makes people justifiably angry.

How the Baucus Plan Screws Older People

As I wrote yesterday, there are aspects of the Baucus health care reform plan that don’t bode well for Medicare recipients. But the people who stand to get screwed most by the plan are those who aren’t old enough to qualify for Medicare, but are still old enough to be discriminated against by insurance companies.

For several months, the Columbia Journalism Review has been publishing analyses of the Massachusetts health care system, which in many ways serves as a model for the current national health care reform–a “canary in the coal mine” for the rest of us. The state mandates that all residents have health insurance or face a tax penalty. And while it does provides some regulation of private insurers, it doesn’t bar them for “age rating”–setting different premium rates based on age. This doesn’t apply to most working people who are covered by group plans through their employers, at group rates. But for the self-employed and early retirees–who numbers are growing since the recession began–the costs can be devastating. CJR cites reporting by Kay Lazar in the Boston Globe, which found:

State law allows insurers to charge older people up to twice as much as younger people for the same coverage. In other states, the disparities can be even greater. One result is that more older people choose less comprehensive plans. Data from the Commonwealth Choice program, which offers state-approved private insurance, show that as enrollees grow older, more choose cheaper and less comprehensive coverage.

The main solution that’s been proposed for this problem is to make it “easier for self-employed people and retirees who are 50 to 64 to be exempted from a stiff tax penalty if they can’t afford insurance.” So rather than force insurance companies to stop discriminating on the basis of age, the state may begin “allowing” 60-year-olds to live without health insurance. So much for the great Massachusetts universal coverage model.

All of the major health reform plans that have been floated in Congress allow age-rating, and the Baucus plan endorses disparities even higher than those in Massachusetts. As the New York Times reports:

Under Senator Baucus’s plan, insurers would be permitted to charge older people five times more for their health insurance premiums than younger people. That proposal, first circulated in a Finance Committee policy options paper last spring, is a significant departure from the approaches put forth by three House committees and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Those bills would only allow insurers to charge older people twice as much as younger ones….

According to AARP, the lobbying organization for older Americans, the number of uninsured adults between 50 and 64 grew to 7.1 million in 2007, an increase of 36 percent over 2000. Among the main reasons for the increase: higher premiums demanded of older, sicker people seeking coverage in the individual insurance market.

Supporters of the Baucus plan and the other half-measure Congressional health reform proposals made a big deal of the fact that insurers won’t be able to turn people away, or charge them more, because they have pre-existing conditions. In other words, they can’t discriminate against sick people. They also, of course, cannot discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, and the like. This means that the only form of discrimination that will remain legal is age discrimination.

This is, of course, another sop to the insurance industry, which worries about the effect on its profit margin if it has to insure everyone. As the Times notes:

By allowing insurers to charge so much more for older, often sicker people, “You’re just using age as a proxy for health status,” said Uwe Reinhardt, an economics professor at Princeton University. He estimates that Senator Baucus’s age-rating plan would allow insurers to cover roughly 70 percent of the additional risk they’d take on by being required to accept all comers, regardless of health.

The Phony Age Gap War

In “Politics and the Age Gap,” featured in yesterday’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 must be cut back to keep it 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 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 fantasy 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.

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.

And here’s what I myself wrote on the subject a while back:

Advocates for the preservation of so-called old-age entitlements have been warning for some time that Social Security and Medicare may 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 the “granny bashers” hunkered around 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. With increasing support from the media, the punditry, and some members of Congress, they warn that aging boomers will soon bankrupt the country and destroy the lives of future generations.

These dire predictions are surfacing again–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 this hand, jumping on the Medicare-cutting bandwagon.

In the end, old folks are likely to end up getting screwed by Medicare cuts–right 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. It is important that the public recognize the granny bashers’ real agenda so that they can give them the respect they deserve.

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