Why Are Pundits and Elites Trying to Drive a Wedge Between Generations?

The Right Wing

Millions of people have read the Hunger Games stories about a depraved future society where young people are forcing to fight each other for scarce resources while elites in the Capital plunder the nation's wealth.

Now take a look at our world, where Washington's elites are laboring to pit the young against the old in in a similarly ritualized battle: Generational War. Like the Hunger Games, this spectacle distracts us from the real economic injustices in our society.

In an economy where most people's lives have been harmed by bank recklessness and massive wealth inequality - that is to say, by the diversion of an ever-increasing lion's share of our national income to the richest of the rich - these instigators and those who follow them want everybody to worry about a different predator instead:


Introducing the Effie Awards

Every ritual battle needs someone to act as its cheerleader, promoter, propagandist, and recruiter. In the Hunger Games it's the relentlessly cheerful Effie Trinket, who recruits young people for brutal combat and near-certain death while chirping upbeat sayings like "Welcome to the Games!" and "May the odds ever be in your favor!" There's no shortage of would-be Effies in this false generational war, and this week we'll look at three of them.

Some Effies, especially those funded by billionaire Pete Peterson's anti-Social Security and Medicare campaign, are engaging in classic big-lie tactics: Repeat your falsehoods over and over and people will begin to believe them. Others may just be parroting the latest cocktail-party chatter.

We therefore announce the Effies, a periodic review of generational-war literature in which we rate our contestants on the "Younger Games" scale, with one "Effie" for ineffective generational-war propaganda and five "Effies" for one that's worthy of any sci-fi dystopia.

Let's meet this week's contestants.

David Frum

Frum's attack on seniors starts with a truly cheap shot: They don't drive very well. Frum lingers on old people's driving for several paragraphs, long enough to have some readers thinking as they drive to work: That old jerk's going fifteen miles an hour in the left lane and I'm paying for his Medicare!

(Hey, when I was growing up in upstate New York we thought people from New Jersey drove badly. It was a major theme of the Friday night brawls between Jersey and New York teens at the Rainbow Bar and Grill in Suffern. But even the worst hooligans among us never considered starving the entire state.)

Driving is only a setup, however, for the main point embedded in Frum's title: "... we need to say no to the elderly." He writes:

Whether we can ever learn to say no to the elderly is the great political question hanging over all modern societies, in Europe as much as in the U.S., as we face a 21st century of diminished economic opportunity and staggering government debt.

Got it? Saying no to all people is the great political question hanging over all modern societies. Not a great political question, the great political question. And notsome modern societies. All of them.

Truth time: We had more than enough money to pay for Social Security when the payroll tax cap (currently $106,000) ensured that 90 percent of our national income was being taxed. That's how it was designed by the Greenspan Commission in the 1980s. Since then the ultra-wealthy have captured so much more of our national income that this number has dropped substantially, leading to a relatively mild (25 percent) shortfall in a couple of decades. That's easily fixed by lifting the cap, along with one or two other adjustments (a financial transactions tax, gradual small increases in the payroll tax rate, etc.)

But these solutions, which polls show are politically popular, aren't being discussed much in Washington these days - or in the opinion pages, for that matter. That's because the truly great political question for all modern societies is saying no to thewealthy.

Frum, of course, doesn't tell you that.

Frum goes on to discuss the supposed "disdain" older Americans feel for the young, when there's no evidence to suggest anything of the kind. The real disdain comes from those like Frum who would sell young people on "generational war" as a way to cut benefits, because those cuts would harm young people far more than they would hurt anyone who is retired or approaching retirement today.

Rag on their bad driving to get you steamed up, then take away their benefits. Propagandists manqué, take note: That's how you turn the public against a whole class of people.

David Frum's score: Four Effies.

David Leonhardt

The award-winning Washington bureau chief for the New York Times begins with the jaw-dropping statement that "one dividing line (among Americans) has actually received too little attention ... the line between young and old." Too little attention? It's been the topic of endless commentary.

It doesn't get any better. Leonhardt meanders through a few paragraphs about the shifting opinions among generations before making the same statement we've seen so many times before: "If there is a theme unifying these economic and political trends, in fact, it is that the young are generally losing out to the old."

Unfortunately, Leonhardt never gets around to proving his case. He acknowledges that seniors who receive Social Security have paid for it throughout their working lives, and this intellectual honesty undercuts his thesis. And while it's true that Medicare costs more than its normal funding sources provide, Leonhardt makes a fatal omission: He doesn't explain why it costs more. For-profit healthcare has driven our medical costs, and our rate of cost increase, far above those of any other developed nation.

That means the solution isn't to restrict benefits. That would impoverish oldsters who can't afford care, or force them to go without needed medical treatment. The real solution is to restrain the profit motive that's making healthcare unaffordable for everyone in this country.

Leonhardt also says this: "Over all, more than 50 percent of federal benefits flow to the 13 percent of the population over 65. Some of these benefits come from Social Security, which many people pay for over the course of their working lives. But a large chunk comes through Medicare ..." (Leonhardt doesn't tell us what the percentage of Federal benefits is without Social Security.)

Medicare is insurance which pays for medical care, and it's designed for older people who need more medical care than younger people. To suggest that's unjust is like saying my auto insurance plan is unjust because all the payouts go to the privileged few who have had accidents.

Leonhardt tries manfully to push the generation-war theme, but it's as if his heart isn't in it. Maybe an editor assigned this piece, or he felt compelled to write it for another reason. But tit doesn't cohere, either logically or as generational-war lit. Maybe it was that intermittent, yet troublesome, intellectual honesty. We don't know. But it seems as if he wasn't feeling it, and we sure weren't.

David Leonhardt's score: Two Effies.

Ezekiel Emanuel, M.D.

Dr. Emanuel has come up with a Rube Goldberg-like policy contraption. RememberRube Goldberg? His inventions executed a lot of complicated, rickety, and diverting processes - lifting little mechanical hands, compelling a toy monkey to clash his cymbals together - in order to do something trivial, like drop a ping-pong ball into a cup. They were creative, labor-intensive - and pointlessly made an easy task into something complicated.

Dr. Emanuel's latest construction is worse than pointless. It's destructive. His latest contribution to the Younger Games comes in the form of a New York Times editorial called "Share the Wealth," in which he notes that poverty for children is on the rise while poverty for elderly Americans has declined.

There are many things terribly, terribly wrong with this argument, not the least of which is the dishonesty with which Emanuel cherry-picks the facts to create the illusion that the elderly are getting rich at the expense of the young. But Emanuel's real Hunger Games flourish is in the unstated premise behind his use of these statistics: that the right way to address poverty isn't by eliminating it, but by distributing it more effectively among competing groups.

"Growing up in poverty is bad," Dr. Emanuel helpfully informs his readers.Then come statements like this: "The rising standard of living among older Americans is largely a result of the tens of thousands of dollars each collects from Social Security and Medicare." (Actually, the standard of living for most older Americans is most likely declining, not rising.) "... This huge transfer of wealth," Emanuel continues, "is harming our children."

Except, of course, that there is no "transfer of wealth" between young and old. Social Security is entirely self-funded, by law. And every proposal to "save" the program from future actuarial imbalances involves taking much more from today's children than they would lose even if the program weren't changed at all.

Like his fellow Effies, Dr. Emanuel never discusses the real transfer of wealth that's endangering our fiscal security and leading to that long-term shortfall - the transfer of national income to the wealthiest among us. High unemployment is another contributor to the program's long-term shortfall, but Effies aren't permitted to mention that either.

Medicare will be in serious financial trouble in coming decades, but the problem isn't that older Americans are demanding too much medical care. The problem is runaway greed in our healthcare economy - greed which encompasses for-profit hospitals, physician practice management companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and diagnostic imaging providers, to name but a few.

Emanuel proposes creating a "Children's Opportunity Bequest and Fund," where "old Americans could agree to forego Social Security and Medicare for one to three years." The money could be directed to "their very own grandchildren" or "any specific child identified by their Social Security number." He never mentions the many ways grandparents can already give cash and gifts to their grandchildren, so we'll help him out: They have names like "trust fund," "savings account, "Hanukah gelt, "Communion gift ...."

Why should government resources be used to create yet another vehicle for this purpose?

Ezekiel then meanders into some convoluted "we could also" ideas, including a "Children's Opportunity Fund" that a "would support the early childhood education of a randomly chosen newborn from a family below the poverty line."

Hunger Games fans will immediately see the parallels between this proposal and the system which allowed young people to collect credit points by increasing their likelihood of being chosen as a sacrifice. Why does Ezekiel propose such a redundant and foolhardy contraption? Either he's not thinking very clearly or he's deliberately befuddling the public. (We do know he's a serial misleader on the subject of retirement benefits - see Dean Baker for an example).

Phony arguments? A government system which encourages oldsters to sacrifice themselves for youngsters - and even uses their Social Security numbers? All presumably accompanied by propaganda campaigns encouraging seniors to give up their benefits and stigmatizing those who don't? Congratulations, Doc! That's real Hunger Games material.

Ezekiel Emanuel's score: A winning Five Effies.

What are we to conclude from this relentless wave of false generation-war propaganda? If you're not a senior yet, it means you still have the chance to become the star of somebody's dystopian science-fiction novel. In the meantime, here's a final word to you from all of our contestants:

May the odds ever be in your favor!

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