The idea of generational warfare is almost as old as Social Security itself. Back in Eisenhower’s time the long knives were out for the program, prompting Ike to write to his brother:
Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
Those were the days before the Koch Brothers, Peter G. Peterson, and the vast sums they and others lavished on conservative think tanks to provide the intellectual ammo for propelling their ideas into the public’s thinking. In 1983, Stuart Butler, now director of the Policy Innovation Center at the Heritage Foundation, and a colleague crafted a plan for the Cato Institute called “Achieving a ‘Leninist’ Strategy,” which described in detail how to attack Social Security. It recommended an educational campaign “to gain support of key individuals in the media as well as to win over vital constituencies for political reform.” In the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, opponents of Social Security had based their attacks on ideology—the value of limited government—but those arguments gained little traction. By the late 1970s they had fashioned a new argument: Social Security was not affordable and had to be radically changed, and it was all because of the boomers.
The media took this frame seriously. In 1996, a CBS Evening News correspondent told viewers to “cross your fingers that Social Security will be saved.” In the mid-1990s, the Cato Institute and the Concord Coalition—a group founded by Peterson and others—worked hard to convince the press that Social Security was on the ropes. They sent out a steady stream of faxes, op-eds, and issue briefs to journalists while feeding them lunch and meeting with editorial boards. Martha Phillips, the executive director of the Concord Coalition at the time, reflected on the groups’ success with The Washington Post:
When we first started up they weren’t singing our tune. We sat down and explained why we felt so strongly about the (deficit reduction) program. They have just been reformed on this since then. They are saying entitlements have to be part of the solution. It’s like they’re reading right out of our playbook.
Michael Tanner, who directed Cato’s Social Security project, observed: “The media have been very sympathetic.” Dean Baker, then an economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute, now the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, put it differently: “The media have closed off discussion.”
Tanner was wrong about the debate being over, but the efforts of the 1990s softened the ground for the current onslaught of generational warfare raging in the media, framed as as “the greedy geezers versus the kids.” In May 1996, Atlantic Monthly gave Peter G. Peterson 21 pages to describe what the magazine said was the devastating impact of the baby boom generation on Medicare and Social Security. James Glassman, an economics columnist for The Washington Post, argued in late 1995 that “Americans in their twenties and thirties (never mind their children) have little chance of getting decent benefits when they retire, or perhaps any benefits at all.”
In pursuing that frame, the media have passed along ideas without adequately exploring what they mean or hearing from other perspectives. For example:
Cutting Social Security and Medicare will save the programs for future generations:
While this is a favorite talking point for the pols and the press, there is another side to the story. It’s a “camouflage,” says Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, an advocacy group for children, youth, and older adults. “It’s frustrating that some of the people who hide behind the shield to help the next generation are actually hurting it.”
If Social Security benefits, already pretty modest—averaging $1,230 a month for a retired worker at the beginning of 2012—are cut, that means the next generation and perhaps the next will have less guaranteed income to depend on when they too, inevitably, get older. Given that good defined benefit pension plans are being replaced by the more iffy and inadequate 401Ks; given that they will be pushed to pay more for their healthcare, given that the age for collecting full Social Security benefits is already rising; given that the savings rate for most Americans is horrifying—what exactly are the young going to live on when they get older?
Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik summed up their predicament:
The people who will really suffer from gutting Social Security won’t be today’s seniors, who will escape the worst of the cutbacks—they’ll be today’s young people, for whom Social Security would become much less supportive when they retire.