Those are just a few of the latest examples. Last summer there was another crop. New York Times columnist Bill Keller exhorted his fellow boomers to “make sensible reform of entitlements our generation’s cause. Stiffen the spines of our politicians and push lobby groups like A.A.R.P. to climb out of the bunker and lead.” City Journal contributing editor Joel Kotkin wrote in the Daily Beast, “No generation has suffered more from the Great Recession than the young. The wealth gap between younger and older Americans now stands as the widest on record.” And a few months before that, Esquire came forth with a lengthy piece called “The War Against Youth.” “The recession didn’t gut the prospects of American young people. The Baby Boomers took care of that,” part of the headline proclaimed.
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.”