A meme that has been bubbling up in the media for months goes something like this: The elderly have it too good. They claim too much of the country’s financial resources and will eat their children’s—and grandchildren’s—breakfast, lunch, and dinner unless Social Security and Medicare are cut. The country can no longer afford to give seniors so much.
Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, is one of many who has given this idea voice. In a pre-Christmas interview on the CBS Evening News he said:
You’re going to have to undoubtedly do something to lower people’s expectations—the entitlements and what people think they’re going to get, because it’s not going to—they’re not going to get it.
In early March, Stanley Druckenmiller, the hedge fund guru, joined the chorus. He told Bloomberg Television, “I am not against seniors. What I am against is current seniors stealing from future seniors.”
There are many others. The Wall Street gods have spoken, and in the past few months, media stories have reflected their opinion, as well as that of the Simpson Bowles Commission, which was appointed by the president three years ago to figure out what to do about the deficit. The commission’s recommendations for cutting Medicare and Social Security have made their way into the press and helped shape a powerful story about generational conflict.
As a result, for the most part, the press has been presenting a one-sided picture of the Social Security situation, quite possibly to the detriment of young and the old alike. From other perspectives, the two generations are not in opposition at all, but natural allies, both with common interests in a strong Social Security system.
But you wouldn’t know anybody thought that way by reading much of the press, and not just the conservative press.
Jonathan Alter, writing for Bloomberg, argued that the last thing the country needed was a majority of House Democrats signing a letter urging the president to oppose benefit cuts to entitlements. He called the retirement of baby boomers “insanely expensive,” and if we don’t start talking about reforming social insurance, “grandpa and grandma and their fellow Grateful Dead fans are going to eat all the food on the table.”
Ronald Brownstein hits the generational issue head on in the National Journal, using the word “ominous” to describe the “budget’s accelerating tilt toward the elderly over the young and toward consumption over investment.” He’s unhappy that the sequester deal exempts Social Security and Medicaid and “only slightly nicks Medicare” with limited reductions to providers.
On NPR’s blog, Alan Greenblatt weights his piece in favor of kids. “Up to this point, young people are on the losing side,” the demographer and consultant Neil Howe told him. Save the Children’s vice president Mark Shriver says, “the sequester again shows that as a country we’re not willing to make an investment in our kids.” Greenblatt at least mentions counterarguments, but comes back home to the Greedy Geezers meme.
While it’s true that today’s young people will eventually grow old themselves, government budgets are about the present. And those who are now old are better protected than children and youth.
Ezra Klein—et tu, Ezra?—ran into a swirl of criticism from his fans when he made a case in his WaPo column that “the most worthwhile kinds of government spending are getting squeezed out.” By that he meant education funding, research and development, stimulus, infrastructure investment, and the military. “The sequester,” he says “cuts deep into medical research and education, but it doesn’t touch Social Security at all.”