Free Markets, Free People

Baby Boomers

Why the Right Should Embrace “Fairness” in Entitlement Reform

This is a departure from my previous two posts; it’s not about a particular group that has pulled away from the GOP.  Romney pulled a slightly larger share of older voters than McCain did, even if fewer total turned out than in previous years.  That the Romney-Ryan ticket did this while proposing entitlement reform is a substantial feat, but it did involve watering down the reforms a great deal.  For example, Republicans now make a habit of promising that nobody under age 55 will be affected by their reforms.

Why make this concession when the lion’s share of the fiscal problem is current retirees and the many, many Baby Boomers who will retire soon?  Boomers vote, of course, but what motivates them?  I don’t think most seniors could bring themselves to act on straightforward greed; I think they’re voting based on a particular concept of fairness.

Specifically, they paid into the system over a long career, and they believe they should be able to get back what they paid in.  And even though current Medicare beneficiaries get two to six times as much in benefits as they paid in (if this is right), only about a third of Americans think Medicare beneficiaries get any more than they paid in.  As long as they think that way, they’ll continue to oppose means testing and raising the retirement age by wide margins.

You might be tempted to say that our task is to educate them, but it’s much easier to persuade people based on their current beliefs than to convince them of inconvenient facts first.  Republicans basically conceded that cutting benefits to older voters at all would be unfair, and pushed complicated plans that few people aside from Paul Ryan can competently defend.

But we might be even bolder if we just hugged that core fairness principle tighter.

September’s Reason-Rupe poll (PDF – fixed link) asked Americans if they’d support cuts to their own Medicare benefits “if you were guaranteed to receive benefits at least equal to the amount of money that you and your employer contribute into the system.”  It was a blowout: 68% yes, 25% no.  Three quarters of Tea Partiers said yes.

At a stroke, you could slash Medicare in half with a reform based on that principle.  (Their August 2011 poll suggested similar support for applying the principle to Social Security, but the cuts would be much more modest.)

Centering a reform on that principle achieves steeper cuts and seems easier to defend than what Paul Ryan is trying.  Because if Democrats fought us on it, they’d have to make the wildly unpopular case for entitlements as redistribution programs rather than as “insurance” or “savings.”

The kind of coalition the Right needs for sustainable entitlement reform has to include people who highly value fairness (or, as Jonathan Haidt would call it, proportionality).  If we want the project of liberty to be successful, we have to pluck on other heartstrings.

The usual "self-absorbed baby-boomers" article

I do get tired of these sorts of articles – this one in the New York Times. It is entitled "Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65". The word I object too is "self-absorbed" as a description for an entire generation. It’s nonsense. My generation is no more self-absorbed than any other. Are there factions of it which fit the bill? Yeah, but they exist in every other generation as well.

The Times notes that today marks the first of my generation turning 65. Whoop freakin’ wee. The only one absorbed by that are the authors of the article.

Though other generations, from the Greatest to the Millennial, may mutter that it’s time to get over yourselves, this birthday actually matters. According to the Pew Research Center, for the next 19 years, about 10,000 people “will cross that threshold” every day — and many of them, whether through exercise or Botox, have no intention of ceding to others what they consider rightfully theirs: youth.

This means that the 79 million baby boomers, about 26 percent of this country’s population, will be redefining what it means to be older, and placing greater demands on the social safety net. They are living longer, working longer and, researchers say, nursing some disappointment about how their lives have turned out. The self-aware, or self-absorbed, feel less self-fulfilled, and thus are racked with self-pity.

Really? So "some researchers say" we’re "nursing disappointment about how their lives have turned out?"

That certainly doesn’t include me.  Heck, I’m in the middle of starting a new venture and I’m excited about life.  And self-pity is for losers.  Life is life – you deal with it as it comes along.  But do I feel less "self-fulfilled”?  Uh, no.  Have I had some set backs in life.  Hasn’t everyone?  I’ve also had some wonderful and unexpected successes as well.  But I’m damn sure not to the point where I’m assessing my life – I’ll probably be working at something until I die.

And by the way, folks, I don’t chase “youth”.  I chase “health”.  Youth is fleeting and can’t be recaptured and I don’t see more of an “absorption” by baby boomers with “youth” than I saw with the so-called “Greatest generation” or with those now in middle age. 

As for the “social safety net”, who the heck put it in place for the most part?  It wasn’t Baby Boomers.  And no one has mentioned any of the Greatest Generation turning up their noses at the net or not feeling some sense of “entitlement”.  It was they and the previous generation who are mostly responsible for its existence, not Boomers.

The Times seems to realize it is in deep water with its attempt at generalization:

Ascribing personality traits to a bloc of 79 million people is a fool’s endeavor. For one thing, people born in 1964 wouldn’t know the once-ubiquitous television hero Sky King if he landed his trusty Songbird on their front lawns, just as people born in 1946 wouldn’t quite know what to make of one of Sky King’s successors, the big-headed H. R. Pufnstuf.

Yeah, I remember Sky King (and many others).  But I also remember Vietnam and a large contingent who fought there because they were trying to live up to what the previous generation had done as a “duty”.  And the reason I find these sorts of generalizations of my generation offensive is found in the NYT’s very next paragraph:

For another, the never-ending celebration of the hippie contingent of boomers tends to overshadow the Young Americans for Freedom contingent. After all, while some boomers were trying to “levitate” the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War, other boomers were fighting in that war.

That’s correct.  And those same Boomers are responsible in large part for building the finest volunteer military the nation has ever fielded bar none.   And some Boomers are still on active duty today.  But this single paragraph best explains the problem I have – the Bill Ayers contingent of my generation does not represent me or the huge majority of my peers.  What happened is the “never-ending celebration” of the “hippie contingent” – again something the Greatest Generation was responsible for – forever tainted my generation with the stereotype of the “self-absorbed” Baby Boomer (just as it did with any number of cruel myths about Vietnam and Vietnam vets).   

Here’s another generalization:

Previous generations were raised to speak only when spoken to, and to endure in self-denying silence. But baby boomers were raised on the more nurturing, child-as-individual teachings of Dr. Benjamin Spock, and then placed under the spell of television, whose advertisers marketed their wares directly to children. Parents were cut out of the sale — except, of course, for the actual purchase of that coonskin cap or Barbie doll.

“It created a sense of entitlement that had not existed before,” Mr. Gillon said. “We became more concerned with our own emotional well-being, whereas to older generations that was considered soft and fluffy.”

Well much of this skipped my household. I was raised in a "speak only when spoken too" home. And while Benjamin Spock’s (another of the Greatest Generation) works were read and applied in some ways, my upbringing wasn’t at all like this generalization would like to pretend it was. And that goes with my peers – of course I was raised in and around the Army, so I can also say my upbringing might have been somewhat more "traditional" than that of others. But I’d never generalize about it.

And I never have had a "sense of entitlement" about much of anything – but to pretend it never “existed before" is to deny the existence of Social Security prior to the Baby Boom generation. It was created in 1935 for heaven sake and it established as much a sense of entitlement as has anything since. My generation had nothing to do with its beginnings nor have they been the first to demand this "entitlement".

But there’s a basis for the "sense of entitlement" as it pertains to Social Security or Medicare – government has been taking my money for both programs for decades. And while other, later generations may believe that neither will be available when they reach the age to benefit from them, don’t you even begin to believe they won’t have a "sense of entitlement" if they do.

As for the “soft and fluffy” nonsense, I’ll again point to the war in Vietnam.  Not soft, not fluffy, 246 Medals of Honor awarded primarily to Baby Boomers in a 10 year war. 

Every generation that I know of thinks the following generation is softer and more self-absorbed than they were.  They all worry about “what will happen to the country” when the next generation takes over, yet somehow, we manage to find the grit, determination, leadership, and ability to see it all through.

And lord save us from the sociologists:

A study by two sociologists, Julie Phillips of Rutgers University and Ellen Idler of Emory University, indicates that the suicide rate for middle-aged people, notably baby boomers without college degrees, rose from 1999 to 2005. And Paul Taylor, the executive vice president of the Pew Center, summed up a recent survey of his generation this way:

“We’re pretty glum.”

This gloominess appears to be linked to the struggling economy, the demands of middle age and a general sense of lofty goals not met by the generation that once sang of teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony, and then buying it a Coke.

Bull squat.  A paean to a tiny fraction of a generation that believed in unicorns and moon ponies.  Most of the rest of us were and are pretty darn grounded in reality and aren’t’ glum at all.  In fact, I’m elated each day when I open my eyes and am still among the living.  It’s the start to what I hope will be a good day.  Ok, I’m kidding about that, but you know what, I resent the hell out of some academic characterizing me as “glum” because I happen to have been born in a particular time period – like a characterization such as “glum” can be applied because we appeared in a particular span of time.  That just a crock of academic crap. 

My guess, given the “struggling economy” and how it has impacted lives all over the nation, we’d find parts of many generations “glum”.

So on this first day of the new year, let me start it out right – stick up you fundament, New York Times.  Your article is BS and you know it – not that I’m particularly surprised.  You’re in the middle of trying to perpetuate another myth. That three layers of editors sure are earning their pay, aren’t they?

~McQ

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