I enjoy reading David Brooks’ columns in the New York Times. He’s not your typical columnist. He usually takes a “big picture” view of the challenges facing our society. Now I don’t always agree with his positions, but I benefit from his often-provocative take.
His February 2nd column was no exception. He tells his readers that Freud was wrong when he wrote that “old people are no longer educable.” On the contrary, studies indicate that as they learn to “pay less attention to negative emotional stimuli,” older people “become more outgoing, self-confident and warm with age.” Encouraging words for someone my age.
Part of this “growth” manifests itself in taking care of the young. What social scientists call “generativity,” or providing for future generations, is important to the well-being of older Americans.
The big exception to this “generativity” is politics, in particular government spending. Here, instead of the old providing for the young, it’s the other way around. The federal government spends $7 on the elderly for every $1 it spends on the young.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In 2009, “every last penny of federal tax revenue” went to pay for entitlements, which overwhelming favor the elderly. Think about it—every penny raised by taxes, the rest paid by deficits.
And as federal spending grows to pay for ever-growing entitlements, our children and grandchildren will pay the price, both in higher taxes and lost opportunities.
So what’s the answer? It’s not in our political leaders—entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are rightly called the “third rail” of American politics. Brooks doesn’t say it, but it’s clear that political leaders can’t or won’t restrain themselves. They will to continue to make extravagant promises to the elderly because they vote in great numbers.
According to Brooks, “the only way the U.S. is going to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change.” Only they have the political clout to demand the necessary “changes in health care spending and the retirement age to make life better for their grandchildren.”
Brooks is right. We do need entitlement reform and we need it now, before we dig a hole that buries future generations. And I say this as a 78-year-old!
But what happens if the elderly don’t “take it upon themselves and force change”? Even Brooks admits the idea is “unrealistic.” The current trajectory is unsustainable; something has to give.
My fear is that this “something” will be the sanctity of life. Absent a political solution, the responsibility will fall on the elderly to get out of the way—either voluntarily or by restrictions on medical care for which they are deemed, by some government agency, to be eligible—or not.
If we won’t solve this problem today, eventually it will be addressed by brutal utilitarian logic—that is, the greatest good for the greatest number.
About 25 years ago now, Governor Richard Lamb of Colorado said that the elderly have a “duty to die.” People were rightly horrified when he said that. But that horror might not survive the future economic crisis Brooks writes about.
This is where our lack of political will is leading us. I pray Brooks is wrong, but I fear he may be right.