The Real Generation War
…Is the one proposed by Ryan and Romney. Not, as David Brooks’ pop psychology analysis would have us believe, one between folksy emotionalism and new wave wonks.
I would normally try not to waste time pointing out how silly a David Brooks column is. His bizarre brand of conservative romanticism goes one farther than even someone like Andrew Sullivan. He focuses on the seemingly insignificant; decries bad manners and mean attitudes rather than bad policies and political lies.
But today’s column serves to elucidate a point that some might have missed while watching last night’s Vice Presidential debate. I can recall the moment at which Ryan sought to cement his defense of entitlement reform. It’s not about vouchers or private accounts—it’s about making Social Security and Medicare solvent for the next generation, while not burdening current seniors.
It sounds so balanced, until you consider it for more than an instant and realize that actually, what Romney and Ryan are proposing isn’t really balanced at all. Unlike their tax plan, which is beginning to look more and more like a conservative mirror image of Obama’s (cut taxes across the board, but pay for it by getting rid of deductions for the rich), their plan for reforming entitlements is to make younger people shoulder all of the burden. Of that there can be no uncertainty.
Now whether it’s just young people is less clear. It definitely looks like anyone around fifty five and under will be asked to do the same, although for them the cuts to benefits might not feel as harsh since the changes will only just be going into effect. And many have argued that, no, Medicare will not stay as it is for seniors, as changes to reimbursement start to limit what’s available.
What Ryan and Romney are proposing is ONE way to deal with entitlements. Unfortunately it happens to be the only way that guts the programs at the expense of younger voters (a group that has notoriously low turnout AND for the most part already doesn’t think these programs will be there for them no matter who does what).
IF I wanted to solve the problem by shrinking both programs—that is by cutting back the guarantee (which I don’t), I would still argue that it should be implemented gradually and with everyone sharing in the sacrifice. After all, young people have gotten a raw deal when it comes to economic opportunity unlike many of the generations before them. That’s not to say they shouldn’t be asked to contribute to a solution; it’s to say that any solution should not be based only on their indifference to losing future benefits while still paying for current retirees.
Brooks’ column, which I know you’ve been waiting patiently for me to get to, doesn’t bother to remark on any of last night’s proposed generational warfare. Instead, his column, titled “The Generation War,” trudges knee deep through a bog of eternal sentimentality. Biden, he writes, comes from a time,
“when there were still regional manners, regional accents and greater distance from the homogenizing influence of mass culture. That was a culture in which emotion was put out there on display — screaming matches between family members who could erupt in chest-poking fury one second and then loyalty until death affection the next.”
Ryan, on the other hand,
“hails from a different era, not the era of the 1950s diner, but the era of the workout gym. By Ryan’s time, the national media culture was pervasive. The tone was cool, not hot. The meritocracy had kicked in and ambitious young people had learned to adopt a low friction manner. Ryan emerges from this culture in the same way Barack Obama does.”
What results from the meeting of these two incongruous generations?
“substantively, it is the Romney-Ryan proposals that were the center of attention. Some of those proposals are unpopular (Medicare, which was woefully undercovered). Some are popular (taxes). But most of the discussion was on Romney plans because the other side just doesn’t have many.
This was a battle of generations. The age difference was the undercurrent of every exchange. The older man had the virility, but, in a way, that will seem antique to many.”
How that last paragraph follows from the penultimate one is a mystery requiring someone well versed in Brooksisms to properly decipher it. The logic seems to go something like: Ryan is the younger guy, so his ideas are newer. Or maybe not, I can’t be certain.
But in stark contrast to Brooks’ rendition, last night’s debate, and nearly every other discussion of economic growth, deficit reduction, and entitlement reform, to take place in this election and prior, has made it clear that the real question confronting the country is one of who’s going to pay what.
I’m not someone who subscribes to the debt apocalypse theory of the federal budget, i.e. the cuts must be soon, swift, and dramatic. In other words I’m not on the austerity bandwagon, nor anywhere at all close by.
But I do think that stabilizing the economy will require more welfare, and setting on a path for long term growth will require reforming both entitlements and the tax code, coupled with reductions to defense and much more in the way of public investment. Those suggestions are in lieu of other more dramatic changes to American capitalism of course.
The big thing then is how the check gets divvied up. Do we increase or decrease progressivity? Broaden the base, simplify the tax code, and lower overall rates? Maybe a VAT or carbon tax? Increase the cap on payroll taxable income?
Whatever we end up doing, the idea that one generation should be appeased while another one pays for it, needs to be put out in plain sight for all to see and weigh in on. The fact Brooks completely misses the real dynamic, and waxes poetic about old TV show characters instead, is very disheartening, even for him.
But I guess this is just my second lesson this week in why I should have abandoned the New York Times editorial page a long time ago.