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Who Will Pay for the Future?

I recently read The Coming Generational Storm.  It’s an alarming book, and well worth reading.  Of particular note is the method of generational accounting.  It seems to take a page from formalism in treating all promises equivalently (whether that promise is that benefits will be delivered, that bonds will be paid off, or that taxes will not be raised) and treating the status quo as an implicit promise.  Looking at the possibility of implicit and explicit default is also key:  Benefits delivered worthless are the same as benefits not delivered at all, and inflation functions as a tax on financial assets even if taxes aren’t raised.

Of course, the question isn’t just whether promises will be broken or renegotiated, but whose promises will be subject to adjustment.  The youngest generation had little say in the current political order, so to what extent will they be willing to foot the bill?

If there’s a generational conflict, the young don’t seem to be winning, as noted in the Esquire article, “The War Against Youth”:

In 1984, American breadwinners who were sixty-five and over made ten times as much as those under thirty-five. The year Obama took office, older Americans made almost forty-seven times as much as the younger generation.

This bleeding up of the national wealth is no accounting glitch, no anomalous negative bounce from the recent unemployment and mortgage crises, but rather the predictable outcome of thirty years of economic and social policy that has been rigged to serve the comfort and largesse of the old at the expense of the young.


Nobody ever talks about generational conflict. […] Even the Occupy Wall Street crowd, while rejecting the modes and rhetoric and institutional support of Boomer progressives, shied away from articulating the fundamental distinction that fills their spaces with crowds: young against old.

The gerontocracy begins at the top. The 111th Congress was the oldest since the end of the Second World War, and the average age of its members has been rising steadily since 1981.

And it’s not just congress (and other formal, governmental politics), but academia:

From 1980 on, the price of attending a four-year college has risen by 128 percent. While the price has spiked, the quality has tanked. […] In a survey published in 2011, 45 percent of students showed no improvement in “critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing” after two years of college. […] And how could the results be any different? Three decades ago, 43 percent of professors were adjuncts. Now, with colleges bloated by older, tenured professors who take up huge slices of academic budgets while teaching crumbs of courses, the vast majority of classes are taught by adjunct.


But maybe […] you want to get a master’s or a professional degree. With entry to the professions comes another opportunity to be taken advantage of, and it’s not just the inherently ridiculous price of a creative-writing M.F.A. or journalism school, where on some level, everybody understands the students are being played for suckers. The cost of medical school has spiked over the past three decades. In 1981, average medical-school debt was less than $20,000. Today it is $158,000. Law-school tuition rose 317 percent between 1989 and 2009 while American laws schools wildly increased the number of lawyers they graduate. Naturally, a glut of lawyers decreases their value. So kids pay more for a worse education that leads to lesser prospects in order for the schools to prosper temporarily. […]

And unions:

New workers will earn a “globally competitive wage.” […] Newer workers at unions across the country earn ten to fifteen dollars an hour less than established workers, and the unspoken but widely reported understanding with the AFL-CIO is that the wage of these workers will not increase. In other words, Boomer workers make almost double what their young counterparts do […]

To the extent that the recent economic crisis hurt retirees as well, it’s not clear that this doesn’t exacerbate the transfer of wealth and opportunity away from the younger generation, as would-be retirees delay retirement.  This MarketWatch commentator notes that the BLS statistics on that point may be exaggerated if compared with statistics from different samples at face value, but concludes the trend is still there:

Part of this story is a real phenomenon: More baby boomers are staying on the job because they are healthy enough to keep working. They like working. Further, many of them desperately need the money: They lost their retirement nest egg when the housing market collapsed and the stock market stalled. Fewer of them can rely on a defined benefit pension, and more of them must rely on their own savings to fund their retirement.


The good news is that employment has been growing faster than the population in every major demographic group. In other words, the employment-population ratios have been rising since the depths of the recession. But, except for the oldest age group, the employment-population ratio is far below pre-recession levels.


The same thing happened to the generation that came of age in the 1930s. They put their lives on hold for years, and we are still living with their legacy: the baby boomers who are now clinging to their jobs. [emphasis mine]

American politics in particular is hooked on wishful thinking about the future.  If the future is one of unmitigated economic growth, increase productivity might pay all bills and pave over the entire problem.  Admitting that this is not to be is politically untenable.  It is tempting (and reasonably so) for middle-class children to view their parents as excessively optimistic, as opposed to viewing them as short-sighted cowards who sold their children’s birthright to the ultra-rich in order to secure their own retirement.

And it will be hard to renegotiate the social safety net in the face of a retiree voting bloc convinced on the one hand that the whole thing was a bad idea after all and should be scrapped, but on the other hand it’s good that we can just barely afford to keep it around for those who are really counting on it.

As the Esquire piece concludes:

Youth should be the only issue of the 2012 election, because all the subsidiary issues — inequality, the rising class system in America, the specter of decline, mass unemployment, the growing debt — are all fundamentally about the war against young Americans. But the choice young Americans face is between a party that claims to represent their interests but fails to and a party that explicitly opposes their interests and actively works to disenfranchise them.


By bus and train and car pool, they will follow the gerontocracy to Tampa and Charlotte, the cities with the utter misfortune of hosting the presidential nominating conventions. Then we’ll see if the people inside the convention centers can find the youth anything better to do.

We’ll see then how the flowers of rage, planted and nurtured so carelessly for three decades, have sprung up and who will harvest them.

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