Stories exploring the effect of Beltway proposals on ordinary people, declining income in old age, and changes in retirement income, push back on the Greedy Geezer meme. The kids’ part of the story needs more reporting too. The young have legitimate needs.
Can both generations be dealt with fairly? That’s a political question, but one the press might want to raise, and often. Eric Kingson, a co-director of Social Security Works and a professor of social work at Syracuse, has studied generational fairness and argues that the concept of generational accounting—calculating which generation does better or worse—tends to accept huge disparities within generations while elevating fairness between generations as the dominate measure of fairness. “It distracts attention from fairness in terms of how we, as a society, distribute education and work opportunities, income and wealth, at any point in time,” Kingson says. “The press can’t stop itself from framing policy choices in terms of young versus old as opposed to kids verses the one percent.” The media have yet to explore the depths of Kingson’s argument.
In the last couple of weeks, however, there have been stirrings of a pushback against the Greedy Geezer meme—Hiltzik’s Los Angeles Times column is one example. Matthew Yglesias made a strong case for Social Security in Slate. And Thomas Edsall wrote a fine column in The New York Times, which starts this way:
The debate over reform of Social Security and Medicare is taking place in a vacuum, without adequate consideration of fundamental facts.
These facts include the following: Two-thirds of Americans who are over the age of 65 depend on an average annual Social Security benefit of $15,168.36 for at least half of their income.
To be sure, Social Security is not in perfect fiscal health, but follow-the-meme reporting forecloses a robust discussion of the range of remedies to fix it. Edsall’s piece provides just that. He argues that the Beltway cognoscenti are far more inclined to discuss less costly approaches for the affluent: means testing benefits and raising the eligibility age. The one remedy that easily fixes the problem for decades to come is raising the cap on the amount of earned income subject to the payroll tax—$113,700 this year. Edsall cites a Congressional Budget Office estimate showing that eliminating the earnings cap would cost the affluent the equivalent of 0.6 percent of GDP. Reducing Social Security payments to the top third of the income distribution through means testing would cost them the equivalent of 0.1 percent of GDP. In other words, the affluent wouldn’t take as much of a hit with means testing—and means testing would also begin to turn Social Security into a welfare program instead of social insurance, a goal long-sought by some Beltway elites.
And where is the public in all of this? To find out I rang up Harvard pollster Robert Blendon who has just conducted a survey for the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “This generational gap doesn’t appear to be as important politically as many influentials like to cite,” he said, “because many young adults know they have close family members who depend on these programs, and know they will depend on them in the future.” Unlike HUD or the Department of Commerce, he pointed out, “these programs directly affect peoples’ lives.”
Blendon added that people don’t see cutting Medicare and Social Security as priorities for solving the deficit or the national debt. In other words, there’s a disconnect between the people, the elites, and the press. Why? “There’s a conflict between the influential class and people worried about the future of retirement for their familes,” he said.
It’s that conflict the press has yet to report.