The Brave New World of Generational Conflict

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my new Verdict column, I confront the widely held belief that the U.S. spends too much on elders and too little on children.  I confess that, when I first started hearing that claim several years ago, it "felt" true (in Stephen Colbert's now-classic sense of "truthiness").  We know that we have big federal programs to support retirees, and we also know that support for youth-related initiatives is spotty and inadequate.  No matter how one feels about the financing of Social Security and Medicare, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that society as a whole overspends on the geezers.

Of course, this meme feeds all too smoothly into the generational conflict that budget hawks have been trying to gin up for years.  Even though the astroturf deficit-scold groups have been rather clumsy in trying to create outrage among 20-somethings (e.g., supposed "youth activists" on college campuses turn out to be paid shills), they have succeeded in convincing a large number of post-Baby Boomers that the government is screwing them over to lavish benefits on old people.

In my column, my central argument is that this claim -- "We're overspending on seniors, and underspending on kids" -- is merely a divide-and-conquer tactic.  Even if the underlying claim were true, we do not see any of the deficit scolds saying that the right answer is to "level up," bringing spending on kids up to the levels spent on elders.  That is because doing so would require spending more money, which conflicts with the anti-government ideology that is really driving these front groups for the wealthy.

More to the point, these groups are afraid that efforts to increase funding for kids will come out of the pockets of the rich.  We can see this most obviously in the the freaked out response by Republicans -- and even "centrist" Democrats like NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo -- to NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's effort to increase taxes on high-income New Yorkers to pay for universal pre-K.  If, instead, young and old are at each others' throats, the conversation never comes back around to how to finance adequate programs for all.

Here, I want to add some further thoughts on two questions that I raise in that column.  First, I note in passing that the underlying assumption behind the "too much for geezers, too little for kids" trope is that fairness would require equal spending on each group.  Yet no one ever offers a reason why that should be true.  We are talking about two groups whose only common feature is that they are not currently working to produce goods and services in the economy.  The two groups are of different and varying sizes, with very different needs.  Why would we even expect that spending on the two groups should be equal?

For that matter, why would it even raise a question if we were to find out that the ratio of spending on one group versus the other was 1.5:1, or 2:1, or 6:1, or 20:1?  In employment discrimination cases, legal burdens are based in part on whether the racial or gender mix deviates significantly from the proportions in the general population.  That, however, is because we start from the assumption that a non-biased workplace would, as a matter of probability, replicate the society at large (within ranges determined by statistically independent variation).

In terms of government spending, there is no similar presumption.  For some reason, however, we act as if it is not just suspicious, but conclusively damning, that spending on elders appears to exceed that on young people.  I note in the column, by the way, that this appearance of unequal spending turns out to be a mirage, and that the proportion really is close to one-to-one.  But that is pure happenstance.

In short, we have an entire political debate that is, as legal scholars like to say, deeply under-theorized.  This is hardly a shock, of course.  After all, the balanced-budget obsession is based on no theory at all, other than (at best) "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."  There, however, there actually is a well-developed theory about what a well-designed fiscal policy would look like.  The so-called Golden Rule of budgeting (which I discuss here and here) tells us, as a long-run proposition, to borrow to finance investments (including, ahem, investments in children, such as early childhood nutrition and education programs) and to pay for non-investment expenses on an ongoing basis.

No such theory is available to determine the appropriate balance between spending on the young and spending on the old.  There are theories, and seriously engaged debates, over when and how to spend on people in particular situations (the most obvious being end-of-life medical care choices), but there is no reason at all that such decisions should, in the aggregate, lead to any particular old-versus-young spending ratio.

All of which reinforces the conclusion in my column, which is that this is political smoke and mirrors to drain off populist energies from what could actually result in progressive policy changes.  As I have concluded in a similar context, the relevant distributive justice question here is not about the young versus the old, it is (as ever) about the rich versus everyone else.

The other issue that I raise in today's column is the different ways that our society chooses to care for its two groups of nonworkers, children and retirees.  As I put it in the column, our system boils down to this: "Money for the old, attention for the young."  That is, having decided that people should be allowed to stop working at some point in their lives and live a dignified retirement, we have allowed this to happen essentially by giving them checks (and by promising to pay for most of their health care).

By contrast, we pour an enormous amount of social resources (mostly the labor of parents) into rearing children.  Most of this social investment is extremely difficult to measure, but there is no question that we put a great deal of effort into turning children into adults.  If you have any doubts about that statement, or even if you do not, just stop to think about the different things that untold numbers of adults would be doing right now if there were no children to worry about.  Not only would entire professions disappear, but there would be no driving to soccer practices, no homework to help with, no fights over TV stations to mediate, and so on.  I am not saying that these social investments are bad ideas, but only that we rarely stop to think about how completely our lives (even the lives of childless people) are affected by the social decision to allow children to develop in ways that we now consider normal.

The problem is that some children do not get enough attention.  That is one consequence of decentralizing an important social function like child rearing.  If we were still relying on "attention" rather than "money" to take care of old people, that same problem of unevenness of care would arise for elders, too.  That is an additional reason why the decision to make retirement a shared social enterprise has been such an important and successful social initiative.  Many fewer elders slip through the cracks than used to.

How do we stop children from slipping through the cracks?  The politically plausible answer is targeted check-writing.  Of course, we generally do not just send money to kids, for good reason.  Even so, the push for funding for school lunches (and breakfasts and dinners), for after-school programs, and even for controversial in-school programs like sex education, amounts to a decision to substitute "money" when "attention" is not forthcoming for some children.

There is always an alternative.  Brave New World anticipated one dystopian vision of a society that solves the problem of uneven attention by taking child-rearing away from individuals.  My money/attention dichotomy is somewhat misleading, of course, because the money is used to buy a different kind of attention, but the point is that we could monetize child-rearing to parallel the ways in which we have monetized senior care.  (A recurrent scandal in senior care, by the way, involves claims that the money has not brought forth adequate attention from the surrogates whom families have indirectly hired to take care of their parents and grandparents.)

Even short of institutionalized child-rearing for society as a whole, perhaps the most useful way to frame the debates about youth poverty, teenage pregnancies, drug use, and so on is to say that we are trying to figure out what to do when it appears that money has to be spent because no one is paying adequate attention to the children.  In this sense, yes, it really is a matter of "throwing money at the problem."  But the money must be spent, because the children are not otherwise receiving adequate attention.  And all of us end up paying for that.