Economy

How Deficit Hawks Are Pitting Millennials Against Seniors to Attack Social Security and Medicare

A Tea Party congressman calls out Wall Streeters for their attack on America's bedrock social programs.

Photo Credit: Image by Shutterstock, Copyright Voronin76

Generational grievances pitting struggling young millennials against supposedly better-off seniors is creeping back into American politics, fanned by a new wave of deficit hawks who want to undermine public confidence in Social Security and Medicare—as the first step in cutting the social insurance programs.

In a string of recent examples—rants from MSNBC’s wealthy young commentator, a notorious elderly-attacking House candidate, think tanks promoted on NPR—generational warfare cheerleaders are proclaiming that America is heading toward an epic and immoral conflict as better-off seniors are robbing millennials of shrinking federal dollars because retirement programs cost too much. That’s simply false, as Social Security is solvent through 2033, and spending on all mandatory programs as a percentage of GDP is close to where it’s been since 1975, at 21 percent. 

This line of attack isn’t in a political vacuum. It comes as some Democrats are reframing the debate on Social Security and campaigning for increased benefits. Nor is it a new argument, as a right-wing club of libertarians, Wall Street bankers and deficit hawks have tried for decades to undermine and privatize the program. Amazingly, the generational warmongers are not just irking progressives who see shifting political winds; they're scaring at least one Republican congressman who called out the generational warfare ruse and game plan in a fundraising letter.        

Pennsylvania Republican Tom Marino is a former U.S. Attorney and conservative two-term incumbent. His re-election website boasts he is anti-Obamacare, pro-gun, pro-fracking and anti-gay marriage. Yet, the top news item on his website is a letter from Vivian Mae Marino, “to let all of you know that my son, Tom Marino, will save Medicare and strengthen Social Security.”

Why is a 62-year-old Tea Partier calling on mom? Because a generational antagonist bent on sounding “the alarm of gerontocracy, or rule by the elderly,” may run against Marino as an independent in 2014. That self-proclaimed Paul Revere for millennials is Nick Troiano, 24, who co-founded a group supposedly representing young Americans who are losing sleep because they feel Congress is stealing their future by spending on seniors. Never mind that his deficit hawk group spectacularly imploded last month, after e-mails revealed that it couldn’t balance its budget, and had burned through funds from Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson, the leading Social Security privateer.

“As a college student in Washington, D.C., this individual [Troiano] founded a group called The Can Kicks Back,” Marino’s appeal said. “The Can Kicks Back claimed to be concerned about our nation’s debt and deficit. In reality, it is just another front group funded by Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson.” Marino’s letter did what Republicans almost never do—unmask other Republicans’ real agenda. “Why are Pete Peterson and Kick The Can Back so dangerous?” he wrote. “Their goal is to increase tax loopholes for the largest corporations in the country and they plan to pay for this corporate giveaway to the Fortune 500 by cutting Social Security benefits for older Americans.”

Marino didn’t stop there. “One commentator recently suggested that The Can Kicks Back’s strategy was, ‘to attempt the enlistment of millennial (young Americans age 18 to 25) in the effort to impoverish their grandparents,” he said. “Within just a day of his announcement, this individual considering running against me claimed that he had already raised $10,000. How much of that do you think was from Peterson and other Wall Street fat cats who want to get their hands on your Social Security benefits.”

This spat captures the contours of an old and still looming political fight where centrist Democrats and most Republicans refuse to fortify America’s most popular and widely used social insurance programs by a mix of simple tax increases and more realistic cost-of-living increases. More than 80 percent of Social Security benefits go to people with incomes of less than $30,000—and most average less than $12,000 a year. Yet faces are appearing on America’s airwaves posing a false analysis and choice: that federal finances are a mess; and that the only fix is depriving seniors of earned social insurance benefits so those funds could be diverted to struggling youths. 

Abby Huntsman, the poised 27-year-old daughter of multi-millionaire 2012 GOP presidential candidate, Jon Huntsman, and a co-host of MSNBC’s millennial-targeted show, “The Cycle,” is a prime example. Two weeks ago, she went into an on-air tizzy about how Social Security would disappear for her peers if older Americans kept getting all the benefits. “At the rate we are spending, the system will be bankrupt by the time you and I are actually eligible to get these benefits,” she declared, citing new Pew Research Center research. “Would you rather have 80 percent of what you have today, or nothing at all?” 

Baby boomers will have to forgive Huntsman for plagiarizing the Beatles—she calls her TV commentary Abby’s Road. But they shouldn’t let her off the hook for wild inaccuracies, Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik noted. Telling her peers that they will get zero when the retire, which is incorrect, so that they will accept a budget deal that would instead lower their eventual retirement benefits, is not looking out for her generation.

On Thursday, Huntsman hit back at Hiltzik, flashing his column on the air, and declaring, “entitlement reform is the most pressing long-term budget decision we have to make as a country. Come on, man! It isn’t about me. It’s about the major problem.” Her solution, needless to say, was cutting Social Security, screening incomes of Medicare recipients, and postponing the onset of that program from age 65 to 67.

The problem is that Huntsman doesn’t understand the real problem—and refuses to consider other options besides spending cuts, as Hiltzik said in a Friday piece. “That’s where she really goes off the rails,” he said, citing her remarks no one is discussing serious options. “We have been debating those options, for years.”

Huntsman is not alone in resurrecting a generational warfare meme. Comedian Bill Maher recited the same incorrect clichés in jokes on his TV show. But more serious is the Pew Research Center report—and a new related book—cited by Huntsman, from ex-Washington Post reporter turned Pew research czar Paul Taylor.

Taylor’s book, The Next America: Boomers, Millennial and The Looming Generational Showdown, is a full-throttled Pew production. It’s packed with facts, figures, graphs, and dire-sounding analysis to support a particular conclusion, which Taylor told NPR. Speaking of Social Security and Medicare, he said, “Everybody who looks at the demographics knows that those systems are going broke within 15 or 20 years and the longer you wait, the more the burden of the solution is going to fall on millennials.”

It’s worth noting that this is the same line that U.S. News and World Report, the pro-business weekly magazine, took in its November 5, 1984 editorial, after President Ronald Reagan, the conservative Republican, and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’ Neill, put together a bill modifying but not privatizing Social Security—as right-wingers had hoped. The magazine called it “nothing less than a massive transfer of wealth from the young, many of them struggling, to the elderly, many of them living comfortably.”

Fast-forward 30 years and Paul Taylor is making the same case on NPR—as an information broker to its educated, influential audience. “I leave this book thinking we have very serious demographically driven challenges,” he said on March 4. “We’ve got to rebalance the social safety net so it’s fair to all generations.” 

Pew isn’t the disinterested wise observer that’s NPR presents. It and the right-wing Laura and John Arnold Foundation have lead a tag team effort to cut back government employee pensions. They recite austerity frames—talking about slashing spending and avoiding other options where wealthy interests would pay more. Taylor is a bit too black and white when he says “everyone” in Washington knows that a retirement safety net crisis will explode in 15 or 20 years. That’s not how liberal economists see it.

“It is striking that NPR is willing to focus so much more attention on the threat to the living standards of millennials presented by a 2-3 percentage point increase in payroll taxes,” blogged Dean Baker, at Washington’s Center for Economic and Policy Research after Taylor’s appearance. That focus ignores the “policies that could lead to much or all of the benefits of productivity growth over the next three decades going to those at the top, as has been the case for the last three decades,” he said, referring to America’s wage and income stagnation.  

When you peel back the details, what’s going on here is simple and not new. Right-wingers—starting at the libertarian Cato Institute which doesn’t want federal social insurance programs to work, going next to Wall Street firms that see a gold mine from privatizing Social Security, and continuing to today’s spokespeople for these interests—want to undermine public confidence in government and push for-profit substitutes. They know that seniors and near-retirees won’t buy into any of this, which is why they have tried for decades—as Republican Congressman Marino’s fundraising letter noted—to create generational grievances pitting America’s young against its elderly.

“I’m not quite a believer in cabals, but that’s sort of what happened,” said Eric Kingson, Syracuse University Professor of Social Work and co-director of Social Security Works, the national advocacy organization. “It [generational warfare] doesn’t take off when people see their parents and their grandparents struggling on fairly minimal income.”

Right Wing History Repeats Itself

Experts who have studied America’s social insurance programs for decades know that cutting Social Security would cause more poor seniors in the future—including today’s millennials. That is because smaller baseline benefits would yield smaller future monthly checks, even after cost-of-living increases. How do they know that? Because in the early 1980s, when Social Security faced a funding shortfall in a bad economy, Congress’s fix ended up shrinking payments to today’s retirees by more than 20 percent, compared to what they would have been if left alone. Three factors did that: increasing income taxes on Social Security benefits, delaying annual cost of living increases every year by six months, and eventually raising the retirement age from 65 to 67.

The losers in that political fight—lead by the Cato Institute and anti-tax Wall Streeters—have been fighting to privatize Social Security ever since. Their best strategy, as laid out in the fall 1983 Cato Journal, was seen as fomenting a generational divide fighting for a shrinking slice of the federal pie. At the same time, they also began to push businesses to replace employee pensions with individual retirement accounts, which, as AlterNet’s Lynn Stuart Parramore has described in detail, have produced far less for retirees.

“We must prepare the political ground so that the fiasco of the last 18 months is not repeated,” Cato Journal’s influential 1983 article, “Achieving A “Leninist” Strategy,” began. “We must begin to divide this [pro-Social Security] coalition and cast doubt on the picture of reality it presents to the general public.” Cato knew who it wanted on its team. It “should consist not only of those who will reap benefits from the IRA-based private system [that a lawyer and columnist Peter J.] Ferrara has proposed, but also the banks, insurance companies, and other institutions that will gain from providing such plans to the public.” 

And Cato knew its target. “The young are the most obvious constituency for reform and a natural ally for the private alternative,” it said. “The overwhelming majority of people in this group have stated repeatedly that they have little or no confidence in the present Social Security system.” Youthful indignation and grievance could be powerful, Cato said, fantasizing about its coming revolution. “Younger workers… would see just how much of a loss they are taking by participating in the program… assuming, for the sake of argument, that they would ever have received those benefits.” 

Needless to say, Social Security has not collapsed as Cato forecast—even though today’s generational warfare arguments are basically repeating 30-year-old rhetoric. The program is solvent under promised benefits through 2033—a half-century after Congress reformed it. Social Security advocates say such longevity is a sign of its great success. But, as was the case in 1983, federal law requires Social Security to pay out only what it takes in. The next funding shortfall is predicted to come in 2033, when benefits would be cut by about 20 percent to Baby Boomers and GenXers if no revenue changes were made. But modest increases in payroll taxes—fifty cents a week for most workers, and raising the cap on how much of one’s annual income is subject to Social Security taxes (the first $117,000) would more than offset 2033’s predicted shortfall.

Those simple options, needless to say, are almost never discussed by Cato’s narrative or by its more modern descendents. Cato’s generational warfare script had another dark thread that was developed in a second article the same issue of the Cato Journal, where it suggested that elderly people were more likely to be greedy when the government was signing the check, which amounted to taking money from younger people’s pockets. That feeds rightwing scripts that seniors are immorally stealing federal funds from the young. 

“If transfers to aged parents were purely a family decision, I doubt those among today’s elderly who have accumulated significant wealth would be willing to ask their children for a significant portion of their income,” Marilyn Flowers wrote. “Yet these same individuals seemingly have no qualms about using their political clout to demand through Social Security what is, in an objective sense, the same thing.”   

Back To Reality

There have been many fact-filled rebuttals to these frames—that seniors are taking too large a slice of America’s limited public resources—even as this pro-austerity script has evolved under the more recent deficit hawk banner. It’s key to note what these right-wingers aren’t calling for. They don’t want to cut corporate subsidies or defense spending, nor do they want to pay more in taxes—such as taxing investment income. They’ll cite big numbers on how much is spent on safety nets to scare people, but they don’t mention the even bigger sums spent on corporate welfare. That was the striking takeaway from David Sirota’s investigate report on the joint Arnold Foundation and Pew attack on pensions for The Institute for America’s Future and PandoDaily, which prompted WNET, New York City’s largest public television station, to return Arnold’s $3.5 million grant and cancel a “Pension Peril” series.   

Social Security defenders like Kingson know that the right’s arguments are simplistic while real life is more complicated. It’s almost impossible to quantify how much money flows from one generation to the next over a lifetime—such as parents raising children and paying for college, helping with a first home down payment or bailing out a child’s bad business decision; to elderly people on the other end not being paid at all for their care giving as their life partners age in their own homes. This reality points to Kingson’s biggest disappointment with today’s political leaders—they aren’t noting how American of all ages are facing intertwined economic struggles.

“Obama’s failure is not building on his promise of we’re in all in this together,” Kingson said. “The concept of all of us being connected and being together leads to policies of compassion, citizenry, decency, dignity. It leads to form social structures that support human beings throughout life. And we as a country aren’t seeing ourselves as being in it together, and nobody is speaking out for that with moral force today.”

“Instead, there’s moral force that’s being exerted from the right in a negative way,” he continued. “They have a narrative that government is falling apart, too much money is being spent, you’re being screwed—and we thought that Obama was going to do this—counter that.”    

But a funny thing is happening as today’s generational warmongers—MSNBC’s Abby Huntsmen, prospective GOP House candidate Nick Troiano, Pew research czar Paul Taylor—are that saying generational conflict is America’s fate.

“What’s so fascinating is there isn’t any tension at the moment,” Taylor told NPR. “You have a generation coming in that isn’t wagging its finger with blame at mom or grandma. In fact, they’re living with mom and grandma… and maybe that’s the best basis upon which to go forward and rebalance our books on Social Security and Medicare.”

In other words, there’s no real generational warfare. There are just new faces touting an old line, which is an opportunistic political attack for sponsors to line their pockets or hobble effective government programs—which is exactly what Republican Rep. Tom Marino wrote in his edgy March 10 fundraising appeal unmasking this rhetorical red herring.

“You will not believe the length to which this community organizer and his Wall Street friends will go to buy a seat in Congress,” Marino’s letter began. It ended, “We’ll let the billionaires know that we mean business when we tell them to keep their hands off the Social Security benefits we have earned.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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