The Real Class Warfare is Baby Boomers Vs. Younger Americans

By Nick Gillespie, Reason Magazine

Hey kids, Mom and Dad are screwing you

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Hey kids, wake up! Stop playing your X-Box while listening to your Facebooks on the iPod and wearing your iPad with the cap turned backwards with the droopy pants and the bikini underwear listening to Snoopy Poopy Poop Dogg and the Enema Man and all that!

Take a break from getting yet another tattoo on your ass bone or your nipples pierced already! And shut up about the 1 Percent vs. the 99 Percent!

You’re not getting screwed by billionaires and plutocrats. You’re getting screwed by Mom and Dad.

Systematically and in all sorts of ways. Old people are doing everything possible to rob you of your money, your future, your dignity, and your freedom.

Here’s the irony, too (in a sort of Alanis Morissette sense): You’re getting hosed by the very same group that 45 years ago was bitching and moaning about “the generation gap” and how their parents just didn’t understand what really mattered in life.

Hence, many of the early pop anthems of the baby boomers – technically, those born between 1946 and 1964 but or all intents and purposes folks 55 years and older – focused on how stupid old people were (“don’t criticize what you can’t understand“) and how young people would rather croak themselves then end up like their parents (“I hope I die before I get old“). “We are stardust, we are golden,” sang Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at Woodstock. “We got to get ourselves back to the garden.” Flash forward four or five decades, a couple of hundred pounds, the odd organ transplant, random arrests and jail stints, and the only garden David Crosby is getting back to is the Olive Garden with its unlimited pasta bowls and breadsticks. What small parts of American life and power the boomers don’t yet run they will soon enough.

Did you read that New York Times op-ed that called for a brand-spankin’ new military draft and national service plan? “Let’s Draft Our Kids,” by veteran (read: old, born in 1955) journalist Thomas Ricks, is symptomatic of the new vibe, a kind of reverse Logan’s Run scenario. In that godawful 1976 flick, when you turned 30, you were killed for the common good. Nowadays, it’s more like life begins at 30. Which is confusing because 40 is the new 30 and 50 is the new 40 and on and on. The important thing: Youth is no longer to be wasted on the young.

Ricks suggests letting high-school grads pick from either 18 months of military service or two years of civilian service, in return for free college tuition and subsidized health care and mortgages (libertarians, he notes, could opt out of service by forfeiting benefits though apparently not avoiding taxes). Beyond all the obviously great and good and wonderful things that come of forced labor, Ricks suggests that “having a draft might…make Americans think more carefully before going to war.” Sure it would. Just like it did in the past when we actually had a draft.

Expect this sort of plan to get more and more respectful hearings if unemployment stays high for another few weeks. Or as former hippies and punks get up there in years. Last year, during an appearance I had on Real Time with Bill Maher, the host and other guests (all of us well north of 30) thought mandatory service was a fine notion. Back in the 1980s and ’90s, national service was a pet project of folks such as Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and right-wing icon Bill Buckley (who wrote a book, Gratitude, on the topic).

Oddly, back in the actual 1960s, one of the few things that hippies and Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan could all agree on was that conscription was a really bad thing. For god’s sake, Richard Nixon created a commission to end the draft. But that was then, and this is now.

And right now, old people are not going gentle into that good night. They know they’re going to need younger people to change their diapers and pay their bills for them, literally and figuratively. As Hillary Clinton put it in 1999, nobody’s going to do that if they have any option not to. Speaking to a National Education Association meeting, she explained one of the great benefits of old-age entitlements was that they meant you didn’t have to live with your goddamn parents.

“In a very real sense,” she said, “Medicare and Social Security say to our older people: We’re going to help you remain independent … We’re going to free up the resources that might otherwise have to come directly to you from your family, so that they can do what you did–raise the next generation, send their children to college, hold down the jobs that enable them to move forward.”

You got that? The author of It Takes a Village, a paean to the intricate bonds across and among generations, thinks one of the great selling points of Social Security is that it means you don’t have to make room for granddaddy. Goddammit, we need that room for a home office! “There would be many families who would have to choose between supporting a parent–an elderly parent–and sending a child to college.” She mused, “That would cause a lot of difficult decisions in our lives, wouldn’t it?” Yes, it would, so it makes sense to give old people enough of other people’s money so you don’t have to see them except on holidays.

As a point of fact, retirees aren’t particularly “independent” if they rely on tax dollars for income, are they? But here’s the real rub, kids: You’re getting screwed by Social Security, a program that is now more sacrosanct to aging boomers than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. You’re paying more into the system than you’re ever going to get out. No wonder it’s mandatory. C. Eugene Steuerle and Stephanie Rennane put out a study for the Urban Institute last summer that should have caused far more riots than anything that happened at Zuccotti Park. They document that folks making average wages who retired in 2010 will get a raw deal over the coming decades. The deal will only get worse if you retire in, say, 2030. Read it and weep, kids, and don’t believe it when old people who are either already on Social Security or about to join that club tell you it’s part of a generational bargain that can’t be changed even if retirees are totally wealthy compared to you.

Indeed, be wary of folks telling you that means-testing old-age entitlements is insulting and un-American. Because the fact of the matter is that between 1984 and 2009, the only households that did well are those headed by people 55 years or older. Fact is, you’re coughing up 12.4 percent of your compensation for a system that will give you less money than you gave it. And that’s assuming the system is still around in recognizable form when you’re ready for retirement. On top of that negative return, expect to read more articles like this one by Spy co-creator Kurt Anderson (b. 1954) in which the one-time snark-meister bemoans the fact that the 1960s made us “all shamelessly selfish.” Huh? Who’s we, kemo sabe? Those of us either too young or too unborn to remember the ’60s aren’t being selfish if we call attention to a system that loots the relatively young and relatively poor to give money to the relatively old and relatively rich. We’re being fair.

So kiddos, you’re getting screwed by old people who expect you to maintain a system that benefits them at your expense, regardless of their needs or yours. Thanks, Mom and Dad! And we just might be in the early stages of a bring-back-the-draft-movement, where you would get to choose between painting military barracks for 18 months or sharpening a teacher’s pencils for two years.

Then chew on this: One of the primary ways that President Obama (born 1961) is making the so-called Affordable Care Act affordable is by having you foot more than your share of the bill.

Think it through for a moment, especially given that younger voters seem to really dig him. The younger you are, the less likely you are to need health care, much less insurance (there is a difference). The smart move for most generally healthy younger people is to take out a catastrophic coverage plan that would cover you in the event of a big accident. Thanks to Obamacare, you’ve got to get covered, either by your parents’ plan or otherwise. The predictable result is that plans for younger people are getting more expensive precisely at the moment they are required by law (finally, a case where correlation meets causation!). That all plans are going to have to conform to higher-than-before benefit schedules ain’t helping things either. Some colleges are dropping student plans as a result.

And just wait until those price-capped government-run health-care exchanges finally get set up. By law, the exchanges can’t charge their oldest beneficiaries more than three times what they charge their youngest beneficiaries. That’s despite the actuarial reality that the older group costs insurers six times as much. So you’re helping balance the books there, too. Welcome to community rating, kids.

Another way you’re helping balance the books: It’ll be your future earnings that will pay the taxes to cover the massive amount of debt that local, state, and federal governments have rung up over the past few decades. Even before the Great Recession, the feds were spending like a drunken sailor (no disrespect to drunken sailors). Nowadays, the feds are borrowing something like 40 cents of every dollar they’re spending. That bill is going to come due eventually and when it does, the people who spent it will be long dead. And so will the economy, suffering from a “debt hangover” that all the Advil in the world won’t help. We’re getting perilously close to the debt-to-GDP ratios that economists Carmen M. Reinhart, Vincent R. Reinhart, and Kenneth Rogoff say will significantly retard economic growth for an average of 23 years.

It should go without saying that it doesn’t have to be this way. And don’t buy into the idea that the way things are is just part of the circle of life. You’re the mark here, the chump who’s believing in Bernie Madoff even after the grift has been revealed. There’s not going to be a bigger idiot to come along and keep the pyramid scheme alive. You can tell yourself that this is all part of living in a society, that’s it for the common good, that there’s simply no way a class of people with only 45 times the amount of household income as you do can get by without you sacrificing so much. But you’re kidding yourself, kiddo.

More to the point: Older generations don’t need to mop up all the gravy from their kids’ bowls. Those of them who can afford to should pay their own way and, in a generational exchange observed for hundreds of generations, could even leave things for their heirs (this is impossible with Social Security, of course). The days when being old universally meant being poor or sick are thankfully behind us and old-age entitlements should change to reflect that reality. We can help the truly needy among us without creating a system in which young people’s already small incomes and savings are reduced further to prop up the relatively plush living standards of older Americans (read the cover story of the August-September issue of Reason, not yet online). The young shouldn’t be sacrificed to the real and imagined needs of the old.

The one thing I know for damn sure as a parent and a late-era boomer (b. 1963) is that I would never want to charge my existence onto my kids’ credit card. If that means we need to start living within our means as a society, that’s not really a tough call, is it?

Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and the co-author with Matt Welch of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America,

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