Tag Archives: Dean Baker

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.”)

Social Security Give-and-Take Leaves Old Folks in the Hole

Spring has come to recession-era America, which means that all across the nation, millions of old people are emerging from hibernation and hobbling out to their mailboxes in search of their long-awaited Social alan balgowlah-heights-mailbox-hoops-umSecurity stimulus checks. The first round of payments, which were provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, have just been mailed out. So while the big banks may be raking in their trillions, U.S. elders–along with recipients of SSI and veterans’ benefits–will soon have a whopping $250 to protect them from the ravages of the economic meltdown. 

 And it looks like we’d better make it last, since it’s the last addition to our monthly checks that we’re likely to see for a long, long time. Federal forecasts show that for the first time in more than three decades, there will be no increase in Social Security benefits next year. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office projects that because of low inflation caused by the recession, there will be no cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to Social Security until 2013.

As the New York Times reports, “In theory, low inflation is good for people on fixed incomes.” In the current circumstances, however, “The absence of a cost-of-living adjustment, calculated under a formula set by law, will be a shock to older Americans already hit by plummeting home values, investment losses and rising health costs.” While Social Security levels remain frozen, the premiums and co-pays for the Medicare Part D prescription drug program will no doubt continue to rise steeply, as they have every year since the program began. For at least a quarter of Medicare beneficiaries (including working geezers like myself), Medicare Part B premiums will go up as well.

And if we don’t watch out, it might not stop there: The straw man of Social Security “reform” is yet again raising his scruffy head, this time courtesy of Congressional Democrats. As Roll Call reported last week:

In a year already jam-packed with major legislative initiatives, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is breathing new life into the idea of tackling Social Security reform….Hoyer signaled that Democratic leaders may take steps to act on Social Security reform in the fall after Congress advances its two biggest priorities: health care reform and climate change legislation.

“Of our entitlement programs, I believe we would have the easiest challenge in reforming Social Security,” Hoyer said. “Frankly, I believe Social Security is not very difficult mathematically. It may be difficult politically, but not mathematically.”

The Washington Post confirmed that Hoyer is looking to create “a bipartisan consensus” for “overhauling the Social Security system.” Democrats, the Post reported, “have found a willing partner in the Senate,” alan como-mailbox-painting-flowers-umwhere South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham “has stated his desire to work with President Obama to make changes to keep Social Security solvent.”

Graham has long been a supporter of Social Security privatization. But after what’s happened to people’s 401(k)s in the last year, even Graham has had to admit that dog won’t hunt. Instead, he now presents Social Security reform as a “math problem”: “You can do a combination of things, give a little here and give a little there, and get it done,”  he said. 

Anyone who supports the program that lifted millions of elders out of poverty should still be concerned by the ongoing disconnect between the “reform” rhetoric and Social Security’s actual fiscal soundness. (The nation’s private financial institutions, as Dean Baker has pointed out, only dream of being as solvent as the Social Security system.) Following Hoyer’s announcement, the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare commented

given the long list of critical challenges this nation faces right now…it’s hard to imagine why Social Security would share space at the top of the legislative priority list ….After all, Social Security is able to pay full benefits for at least 30 more years….

Some worry Social Security will be used as a bargaining chip in the healthcare debate, others see this as part of ongoing efforts to balance the budget through entitlement program cuts.

As I’ve written before, there are still plenty of powerful voices on the right who woulalan belfield-mailbox-long-umd like to preserve the myth of Social Security as a ticking time bomb that will one day land in the laps of the young. In doing so, they can create a phony intergenerational conflict that deflects attention from the true villains in our economic mess, while at the same time achieving their long-cherished dream of cutting entitlements. As William Greider has written, these forces are getting a new boost from the recession:

Governing elites in Washington and Wall Street have devised a fiendishly clever “grand bargain” they want President Obama to embrace in the name of “fiscal responsibility.” The government, they argue, having spent billions on bailing out the banks, can recover its costs by looting the Social Security system.

By now, we’re all used to witnessing these kinds of bait-and-switch tactics. But according to yet another Washington myth, we’re not supposed to see them coming from the Democrats.

Photos: Alan Wadell, Walk Sydney Streets

Photos: Alan Waddell, Walk Sydney Streets. (Alan was actually Australian, but these photos were too great to pass up. Find out more about Alan Waddell and his walks at http://www.walksydneystreets.net.)

Robbing the Old to Give to the Young (and the Rich)

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.

It’s particularly absurd that this argument emanates from the likes of Peterson, himself now an octagenarian, who was Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce and and more recently chair of the Council on Foreign Relations. Peterson, who is worth $2.8 billion, was also head of the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, and is probably best known as senior chairman of Blackstone Group, a finance company currently enjoying harsh criticism from the Chinese for having lost that country $80 billion in lousy business. While attacking the programs that support poor elderly people, Peterson seems to have no objection to government bailouts for his old comrades on Wall Street. Bill Greider recently wrote a comprehensive piece in The Nation on the machinations of Peterson and his anti-entitlement cohort. 

This week, Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research,  a Washington think tank,  points out the essential flaws in the granny bashers’ prognostications of doom. In fact, he argues, they have it backwards:

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.