Barack Obama’s leftward rhetorical shift has caused many on the right to accuse him of engaging in class warfare. I wonder if they aren’t missing a more important war that is being conducted against a demographic to which all Claremont students belong. This war reaches across national boundaries, touching members of every race, creed, and gender. It has the potential to create massive social upheaval and even render the earth itself less hospitable to humankind.
Think I’m being a bit hyperbolic? Think again. I’m writing of the war that your parents and grandparents are conducting against you right now. They might not be aware of their role in it, but they are almost certainly guilty. Just as the struggle between the rich and poor for limited resources is termed “class war” in modern parlance, one might refer to the struggle across generations for limited economic resources as intergenerational war.
Perhaps some skeptics out there—thinking fondly of dear Granny, with her penchant for baking cookies—might question my thesis. The evidence, however, is considerable. The most obvious cases lie in the struggle for so-called entitlement programs. One could tell a tale of an aging Republican Party preserving entitlements for its constituents while pressing to cut them for our generation against the firm defense of the Democratic Party, which tries to protect the programs for their relatively more youthful voters—but I don’t think that it would be a true story. In truth, what we see today is that both parties are firmly aligned with Grandma against you and me. To some extent, this is a story of money and campaign donations, which flow predominantly from the wealthy—who are also the elderly. But it is also a story about limited youth engagement in politics. The old donate money and volunteer because they have nothing to do; the young scramble to get ahead in the working world and spend their hard-earned money in bars.
The policy proposals of the two parties reflect this dynamic. Most (in)famously, Paul Ryan’s budget calls for the preservation of Medicare for those over 55 while turning it into a voucher program for those of us under that threshold. The vouchers will not grow in tune with inflation, so they will not meet our future needs. Looking further, if one examines the squabbling over future deficits, one can see the true priorities of the parties. They preserve war spending—where our generational brethren pay the blood price—and current entitlement spending, while slashing all those programs that might benefit future prosperity. Do you like education spending? Infrastructure spending? The Democrats defend these items against Republican intrusion only halfheartedly, as the recent budget ceiling debacle so poignantly demonstrated. These items are being sacrificed now because both parties are terrified of the power of your Grandma. She’s scarier than you think! Because our generation is too impotent to have a place at the table, we continually get the worst portion of the pie.
One can also pick up the narrative in the Federal Reserve’s response to the Great Recession. With a dual mandate to provide stable inflation and low unemployment, one might imagine that the Fed would tolerate higher levels of inflation to protect against levels of unemployment well beyond the norm. But despite relatively low inflation under Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, the Fed has not responded to high unemployment as forcefully as it could. Slightly higher inflation could benefit the economy by shrinking the real value of the massive amount of debt that encumbers many private citizens, but the Fed has kept inflation low. Why? Keep in mind that those who would be most hurt by higher levels of inflation—those with lots of assets—are almost exclusively the elderly, who have had a lifetime to accumulate riches. Also realize that youth unemployment is significantly higher (about 25 percent for those aged 16 to 19, and 15 percent for those aged 20 to 24) than for any other age group (the relevant rate as of May for those aged 55 to 64 was about seven percent, according to the New York Times Economix blog), and one might have the whole picture. The Fed, worried more about inflation than unemployment, has joined the crusade against our generation.
But it doesn’t end there! Aside from congressional spending priorities and Federal Reserve policies, older generations possess interests diametrically opposed to our own on all environmental issues. To put it gently: Your grandmother will not still be baking those cookies in 40 years. She isn’t worried about climate change, the Pacific Trash Vortex, or depleted groundwater reserves; she’s worried about maximizing her standard of living during her remaining years. You are the one who will have to deal with poisoned water, extreme weather, and the despoliation of the world’s natural beauty. The costs of our parents’ and grandparents’ consumption will fall squarely on our shoulders.
Your grandmother is not evil. Those cookies are truly delicious, and she’s quite personable. But humans are generally self-interested, and just as various racial, gender, and religious groups have exploited other groups, our elders are taking advantage of us. We need to mobilize. We need to fight back. Don’t let apathy make you pick up your grandparents’ tab.