David Brooks in NYT:
Over the past few years, researchers have found that the brain is capable of creating new connections and even new neurons all through life. While some mental processes — like working memory and the ability to quickly solve math problems — clearly deteriorate, others do not. Older people retain their ability to remember emotionally nuanced events. They are able to integrate memories from their left and right hemispheres. Their brains reorganize to help compensate for the effects of aging.
A series of longitudinal studies, begun decades ago, are producing a rosier portrait of life after retirement. These studies don’t portray old age as surrender or even serenity. They portray it as a period of development — and they’re not even talking about über-oldsters jumping out of airplanes.
People are most unhappy in middle age and report being happier as they get older. This could be because as people age they pay less attention to negative emotional stimuli, according to a study by the psychologists Mara Mather, Turhan Canli and others.
Gender roles begin to merge. Many women get more assertive while many men get more emotionally attuned. Personalities often become more vivid as people become more of what they already are. Norma Haan of the University of California, Berkeley, and others conducted a 50-year follow-up of people who had been studied while young and concluded that the subjects had become more outgoing, self-confident and warm with age.
The research paints a comforting picture. And the nicest part is that virtue is rewarded. One of the keys to healthy aging is what George Vaillant of Harvard calls “generativity” — providing for future generations. Seniors who perform service for the young have more positive lives and better marriages than those who don’t. As Vaillant writes in his book “Aging Well,” “Biology flows downhill.” We are naturally inclined to serve those who come after and thrive when performing that role.
The odd thing is that when you turn to political life, we are living in an age of reverse-generativity. Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them. First, they are taking money. According to Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children.
Second, they are taking freedom. In 2009, for the first time in American history, every single penny of federal tax revenue went to pay for mandatory spending programs, according to Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute. As more money goes to pay off promises made mostly to the old, the young have less control.
Third, they are taking opportunity. For decades, federal spending has hovered around 20 percent of G.D.P. By 2019, it is forecast to be at 25 percent and rising. The higher tax rates implied by that spending will mean less growth and fewer opportunities. Already, pension costs in many states are squeezing education spending.
In the private sphere, in other words, seniors provide wonderful gifts to their grandchildren, loving attention that will linger in young minds, providing support for decades to come. In the public sphere, they take it away.
As is often the case, actual Republican members of congress have a less edifying perspective than Brooks’ but perhaps a better sense of hardball politics. Thus when you look at Jeb Hensarling’s proposal for drastic cuts in Social Security benefits or Paul Ryan’s plan to pair drastic Social Security cuts with drastic Medicare cuts you’ll see that there’s a trick—none of it applies to anyone who’s 55 or older today. The basic idea is to take the GOP old white people base and insulate them from cuts. The under 55 crowd will still have to pay the taxes to finance their benefits, but we ourselves won’t get the benefits.
As you’ll recall from the health reform debate, somewhat paradoxically it’s the current beneficiaries of single-payer government-provided health insurance who evince the most opposition to universal health care. Basically, they’ve got theirs and don’t care about extending the benefits of universal health care to younger people. Ryan and Hensarling are proposing to institutionalize this version of the intergenerational bargain—culturally conservative oldsters still get paid, but the welfare state they enjoy and support will be phased out for Generations X and Y.
Francis Cianfrocca at The New Ledger:
Brooks then goes on to recognize that our society’s commitments to older Americans, quite obviously, are the cause of the impending fiscal disaster that will soon bankrupt our government, and reduce our economic prosperity for the next two decades or so. (Hmm. Maybe seniors are happy because as a class, they’ve gotten a pretty good deal.)
What comes next is the funny part. Brooks thinks that seniors may become energized enough to form a Tea Party movement of their own. They’ll see that we can’t afford our societal commitment to them, and they’ll also see that Washington doesn’t have the nerve to solve the problem by reducing (or at least means-testing) their benefits.
Look out. Those busloads of angry people soon to start pouring into Washington to shiver and demonstrate, will be your grandparents. And they’ll be demanding that our government take away some of what they have, and give it to their children and grandchildren.
Whatever Brooks is smoking, I want some.
I can make a pretty good case for payment reforms that would encourage doctors to provide fewer treatments. I can make a pretty good case that seniors in many states should go to the doctor far less often than they do. But people err when they imply that individuals have the power in the medical relationship. We go to the doctor and we listen to what the doctor says. A sick senior in Minnesota costs a lot less than a sick senior in Florida, but that’s not because the Minnesotan is refusing treatments. It’s because his doctor is providing fewer of them. If you want to talk about a group with real power to change medical spending in this country, talk about doctors.
Instead, we have a tendency to blame seniors. Brooks calls their behavior selfish. He writes that “the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children.” Intuitively, it seems like we should spend more on kids than on seniors, as they have their whole lives in front of them. But it costs a lot more to be a senior than a kid. I don’t know if $7 to $1 is the right number there, but it won’t be, and shouldn’t be, $1 to $1. And it’s hard to say that what seniors are doing is selfish: They’re going to the same doctors as everyone else, doing the same things that everyone else does when they get there. Our health-care system is unaffordable across the board. We need to fix that, but there’s no special key held by seniors (save maybe their disproportionate tendency to vote in midterm elections), and nor do they deserve special condemnation.
I agree that they don’t deserve special condemnation. The social deal we made several decades ago is that those of us of working age pay taxes for programs that will be consumed by senior citizens. That deal makes perfect sense — but it also points to a way in which seniors could embrace what Brooks calls a “cause of nonselfishness.” Instead of standing foursquare with the anti-tax jihadists, as they largely do, they could be working to make sure that this deal continues. That means changes in the way we deliver healthcare services and it means changes in the tax base of the federal government. By opposing both of those things in large numbers, today’s seniors (and soon-to-be seniors) are helping to ensure that they’re the only generation that will truly benefit from this deal.
This is obviously not what Brooks meant. But the future health of the country and the future continuation of the social deal we’ve made depends on raising taxes, lowering long-term deficits, and making changes to the way healthcare is delivered. Some of these changes will affect today’s seniors and some will affect tomorrow’s. But if they want their children to enjoy the same kind of retirement they’re allowed to enjoy, these are the things they should support. In general they don’t, and that deserves condemnation. Not special condemnation, since lots of other people feel the same way, but condemnation nonetheless since they know, better than most, just what those taxes are for.
Dean Baker at The American Prospect:
However, if David Brooks and other so-called educated people want to ignore these taxes, then we should also talk about the money the government pays out to the super-rich, like investment banker and big-time Social Security foe Peter Peterson, as opposed to poor children.
Peterson has well over $1 billion in wealth. Let’s suppose that he has 10 percent or $100 million in government bonds. This means that he would be getting around $3.5 million in interest checks each year from the government. By comparison, the total payments — SCHIP, food stamps, EITC — going to support a poor kid would probably not even sum to $10,000. This means that the taxpayers are giving Peter Peterson $350 for every dollar that we give to poor kids. Isn’t that an outrage?
We should look forward to reading about that one in David Brooks’ column in future days.