The Coming War Between the Generations

Bruce Thornton, When dangers and discomforts of the present trump the greater ones of the future.

Short-term thinking has been the bane of democracies since ancient Athens. Regularly scheduled elections and term-limits make it politically expedient, if not mandatory, for politicians to gratify the people’s desires, or assuage their present fears, even if the action or policy creates greater risks later. As Tocqueville wrote, “A clear perception of the future founded on judgment and experience” is “frequently wanting in democracies.” The dangers and discomforts of the present will trump the greater ones of the future.

The current pandemic crisis illustrates this perennial flaw, which hasn’t been mitigated by our greater knowledge of diseases and remedies for them. In the case of the Wuhan virus, we don’t have the requisite data to establish its mortality rate among the infected, or even the number of infected. The various models that project a mortality rate have exaggerated the toll: At this point the number of dead is a few hundred more than the 7400 of Americans who die every day, and much less than the 24,000 to 64,000 who died of the flu this season. Yet most states, seconded by the president’s recommendations, have imposed a radical social-distancing policy, which the president has extended to the end of April.

As a consequence, our economy has taken a historic hit, with 10 million employees laid off and thousands of businesses both big and small (the latter comprise nearly half the private workforce) shuttered. Goldman-Sachs projects GDP to shrink 35% this summer, and others estimate unemployment may reach the 25% recorded during the Great Depression. A booming economy has been stalled as a matter of policy, with consequences such as a significant recession or even a depression, the malign effects of which––depression, divorce, addiction, suicide–– will continue to seriously damage the lives of millions for the foreseeable future.

And don’t forget, this stay-at-home policy poses risks to our civil liberties and personal autonomy if state and federal policing agencies start monitoring and tracking people to see who’s complying. California governor Gavin Newsom is already talking about how this crisis is an “opportunity to reshape the way we do business and how we govern.” We can look at the coercive progressive policies already in place in California to get an idea of what he means.

Another dimension of this fallout may be serious political conflict between the generations in the coming years. The current policies immediately benefit the Boomer generation, those in their 60s, 70s, and 80s who are most susceptible to dying of the virus, at the expense both now and in the future, of the post-Boomers, the great majority of whom are not at risk of dying from it.

But even before the Wuhan virus outbreak, entitlements for the aged like Social Security and Medicare, and the enormous debt we have accrued in part to fund these programs, have come at the expense of the working young. By expanding benefits and increasing the numbers eligible to receive them, we have made their costs impossible to sustain just with payroll taxes. As a result, the costs of the programs have skyrocketed: In FY 2015, 87% of annual mandatory spending, which is 60% of the budget, went to Social Security and Medicare.

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This means that the payroll taxes paid by the productive working young go to finance benefits for the mostly unproductive old. For example, up to 25% of Medicare spending goes to end of life care. Even worse, the shortfall in funding is made up by borrowing money that today’s young and their children will have to repay. The demographic bulge of 72 million Boomers entering these programs at a clip of 10,000 a day means that these deficits will relentlessly increase. In a few decades simple mathematics will require cutting these programs and raising payroll taxes, reforms that will be borne not by retired Boomers, but today’s working young.

And don’t forget, they will also be on the hook for our near $23 trillion in debt, $6 trillion of which is owed to the Social Security Old Age and Survivors insurance trust fund. The tyrants of old expropriated the property of the rich to buy the support of the masses. We have outdone them by expropriating not just the property of the working young, but of citizens yet to be born, to redistribute to the aged living.

This looming economic catastrophe, a consequence of letting the present needs of the old trump the future needs of the young, is bad enough. But the Wuhan virus crisis has made it worse. Putting our economy into a coma without any certainty that it can be revived enough to restore the losses has worsened the plight of the post-Boomer working young, who make up two-thirds of the workforce. In addition their futures are being mortgaged for $2 trillion (so far) to compensate for the damage to the economy and lost jobs that have resulted from treating patients most of whom are already sick and dying of other conditions.

For now, the voting clout of 72 million Boomers and lobbying powerhouses like AARP have kept the interests of Boomers a political priority despite the costs to younger generations. We’ve all seen the ads with angry oldsters claiming they’ve “paid” for their Social Security and Medicare, so politicians better leave them alone. When millennial voters surpass the Boomers, however, such intimidation of politicians may stop being effective, particularly given the fact that the average beneficiary of Social Security and Medicare receives $3-$5 for every dollar he’s paid in. A depression caused by shutting down the economy to benefit patients already dying of other diseases could make this conflict even more bitter when the costs of these programs, along with the bill for servicing the debt, have to be paid by post-Boomer generations.

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This is not to say that we should just let elderly victims of the virus die in order to save the economy, or that we all aren’t complicit in our worsening debt, deficit, and entitlement crisis. Rather, we should remember that in most political crises, the goal should not be everybody lives and no one dies, but rather a policy that identifies and balances the interests of the greatest number of people now and in the future––particularly when the predicates of the policy comprise questionable or unknown data.

That means in the current crisis that completely shutting down the economy at an exorbitant cost, especially when one generation is paying and will pay most of that cost, is putting present needs ahead of future ones. Focusing stay-at-home policies on regions like the New York area, which accounts for half of the deaths, would make more sense than a national shutdown that weakens the economy. But wouldn’t any reopening of the economy risk expanding the outbreak? Of course it would, but that’s the nature of our existence. In a tragic world of unexpected disaster and unforeseen consequences, the choice is not between who lives now and who dies later, but between some will die now so more do not die later.

This means that technical knowledge alone, especially when it is as uncertain as our current understanding of the virus’s lethality rate, cannot determine this decision for us. Such a decision that concerns the whole community of citizens is necessarily political and economic, and those concerns should be part of the decision-making process. Of course those decisions are hard, riddled with unknown consequences and complications, and have no guarantee that they will be the best ones. But great leaders like Winston Churchill earned their title by making those tough decisions that take into account both the present and the future, and accept that lives will be lost.

Finally, the immense authority of technical expertise that follows from what French philosopher Chantal Delsol calls “techno-politics” compromises the ability to make decisions that look both to the future and the present. Techno-politics creates the illusion that the decision is based on objective science rather than the “judgment and experience” necessary for the messy competition between conflicting goals and goods––particularly in a democracy where the needs of today’s voters are more important than those of tomorrow’s.

Right now, our decision to protect the vulnerable old at the expense of the working young may work, and the economy may bounce back quickly. But it may not, and instead might sow the seeds of future generational discord, with dire consequences for our national security and interests as well as our way of life. Hard choices indeed, but they should be made on the basis of what’s good for future citizens, not just what’s good for selected present ones.

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