Tag Archives: bailout

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.”)

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.

The Federal Government Decides to Let Old Folks Keep Their Own Money–What’s Left of It

As one of its final acts in the worst economic year since the Great Depression, the federal government passed legislation suspending for 2009 the rule requiring old people to withdraw a minimum amount of money from their 401Ks, IRAs, or other individual retirement accounts. The current rule imposes a 50 percent tax penalty on anyone over age 70 1/2 who fails to take their so-called mandatory distributions by the end of the year.

That’s right, fellow oldsters–as a parting gift to all of us, the 110th Congress and George W. Bush, who failed to prevent or contain the financial meltdown that has cost some of us a third or more of our life savings, is now giving us permission not to spend some of what’s left. 

The idea behind the legislation is that seniors shouldn’t be forced to sell off their investments at a loss. Unfortunately, however, it applies to 2009, not 2008–which is, of course, when our retirement accounts got gutted. According to the New York Times, some members of Congress urged Henry Paulson’s Treasury Department to apply the same change to 2008, but it declined to do so.

In a letter to members of Congress, the Treasury Department said any steps it could take to address the issue would be “substantially more limited than the relief enacted by Congress and could not be made uniformly to all individuals subject to required minimum distributions.” It also said carrying out the changes would be “complicated and confusing for individuals and plan sponsors.”

Well, by all means, let’s not confuse the old farts; we’re having a tough enough time figuring out how how it is that we did everything we were supposed to do–worked, planned, saved, invested–and still got so royally screwed. And let’s not complicate things for the financial institutions, who are already overburdened figuring out how to spend their $700 billion handout.

In any case, the legislation only helps those who can afford to live without taking any money out of their retirement savings (assuming they have any to begin with). This would apply mostly to the well-off, and to those of us who still have jobs.

And we working geezers, apparently, would be wise to hold onto what we can. The last month of 2008 also brought reports of companies large and small reducing or suspending their contributions to employees’ retirement plans. These cuts, notes the New York Timesare “putting a new strain on America’s tattered safety net at the very moment when many workers are watching their accounts plummet along with the stock market.”

To many retirement policy specialists, the lost contributions are one more sign of America’s failure as a society to face up to the graying of the population and the profound economic forces it will unleash.

Traditional pensions are disappearing, and Washington has yet to ensure that Social Security will remain solvent as baby boomers retire and more workers are needed to support each retiree.

The company cutbacks may mean that some employees put less money into their retirement accounts. Even if they do not, the cuts, while temporary, will have a permanent effect by costing many workers years of future compounding on the missed contributions. No one knows how long credit will remain scarce for companies, or whether companies will start making their matching contributions again when credit loosens and business improves.

“We have had a 30-year experiment with requiring workers to be more responsible for saving and investing for their retirement,” said Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School. “It has been a grand experiment, and it has failed.” 

It may well be that, as Shamus Cooke writes on the Dollars & Sense blog, “Unless things change fast, human history will show that the phenomenon of  ‘retirement’ was limited to one generation.”