Kate’s wonderful maiden post was broad and deep and offered no easy answers. So I’ll take a shallow and narrowly political look at one aspect of her post. Kate writes of the New York Times, “the main worry of people quoted in the article. Older America will not accept (and pay for?) a younger America that looks different.” Keeping in mind that our older age cohorts are likely to be more white and our younger cohorts are likely to be les white, this is how I see the policies on offer from the left and right:
1. For better or worse, there seems to be a broad consensus that the benefits of the currently retired and the soon-to-be retired should not be touched.
2. Conservatives (in the form of Paul Ryan) and liberals (in the form of Obama) seem to have reached a rough consensus on the need to restrain Medicare spending and on the amount that should be spent. Both agree that Medicare spending should grow by GDP + 1%. They disagree on how spending cuts to Medicare should be structured.
3. Conservatives (in the form of Romney - and not just Romney) seem to be more open to the idea of raising the Social Security retirement age and reducing the rate of benefit increases for life time high earning retirees. Take a look at Obama’s life of Julia. Julia retires (sometime in the mid-2070s as far as I can tell) at 67 and she gets the full Social Security benefit even though the slide suggests that Julia was a life time high earner (otherwise she wouldn’t have any reason to fear reduced benefits under a Romney plan.) As a Romney plan was phased in (presumably sometime in the later 2020s), the medium-term effect would be to reduce transfers from the less white working-aged to the more white elderly. A Romney-style plan would especially reduce transfers from the (more nonwhite) working-aged to affluent retirees. Presumably the savings from these changes could either be used to pay for other government priorities (education, infrastructure) or to minimize the tax burden on working-aged parents who are trying to raise their children. The Obama plan would tax Julia’s age cohort to fund the retirements of those members of older, whiter age cohorts that need the money least.
4. The two major parties have major disagreements on the level of federal discretionary spending, but intergenerationally, this is largely a wash. Some federal discretionary spending goes to projects that are of use to the old, the young and everyone in between (like the military and transportation networks.) Some discretionary transfer programs (like Medicaid) spend much of their money on the elderly. There are transfers to families headed by working-aged adults and there is education, but those programs can only be funded primarily by taxes paid by families with working-aged adults. They are the ones making the money. To a very large extent, the discretionary budget is a matter of determining how much to tax families headed by working-aged adults to spend on programs that will benefit families headed by (sometimes the very same) working-aged adults, and then figuring out how to structure that spending. This isn’t about old whites not wanting to spend on young nonwhites. This is about how much (and how exactly) the working-aged of all races want to spend on each other. That’s not the story the left-of-center will want to tell. The New York Times story slyly implied that any cuts to discretionary spending would be the result of older whites not wanting to spend on nonwhites. Racial categories and alleged racial motivations can be bent in the direction of the preferred narrative. Is George Zimmerman part of the rising young nonwhite America, or is he the “white Hispanic” racist recipient of white privilege? It depends on when you ask the New York Times.
5. When it comes to taxing and spending on the working-aged, conservative and liberal proposals differ in two major ways. First, conservative proposals would take less from the relatively nonwhite working-aged and gives less to relatively white elderly. And Republican proposals would especially give less to the affluent retired. Republican proposals would also take less from the working-aged in the form of taxes while also spending less on them (and no doubt spending differently in some ways.) My sense is that Paul Ryan’s latest budget spends somewhat too little on discretionary domestic spending, but it also doesn’t contain a Social Security reform which would free up some spending for other priorities.
6. So since Obama-style center-left proposals would (compared to Republican proposals) tend to transfer more from working-aged nonwhites to retired whites, what does that tell us about how the politics of these issues will develop. I’ll tell you. It almost certainly tells you nothing. No political salience at all. Conservatives have neither the infrastructure nor the vocabulary to communicate with younger voters who haven’t already been socialized into the dominant conservative narrative. They hardly ever hear from conservatives, and when they do, conservatives sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Younger cohorts won’t hear that they are being taxed to fund the retirements of the affluent elderly. They will hear about how the Democrats are the party of free contraception and cheap college loans and that mean Republicans who only care about rich old white people are trying to take all the good free stuff away from nonwhite young people. But those same young people will also rightly complain about the high taxes, high insurance premiums, high tuitions, large student loan debts, and sluggish economy. If only someone had some ideas for what to do about those problems.