Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Generational breakdown

During the last few years, America has witnessed the birth of two seemingly dissimilar movements: Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. Indeed, one is only supposed to compare the two to disparage the other. To the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street protestors are dirty hippies who ought to find jobs; the protestors see the Tea Partiers as stodgy old Republicans, out of touch with the world. Yet there are similarities between the two groups. Both represent dissatisfaction with present realities and the total absence of political will to improve matters.

The Tea Party is concerned--and rightly so--with government growth. Yet this problem is not exactly a new one. It is true that Obama has added more to the debt than all of his predecessors combined, but this has far more to do with the machinations of fractional reserve banking and the compounding of interest than any especial radicalism of the President. Had McCain been elected, he too would have "stimulated" the economy, probably by bombing Iran and cutting taxes--which also would have increased the national debt substantially.

It is distressing then, that so many former Republicans--despite the re-branding, Tea Partiers are still, by and large, GOP faithful--took so long to notice that government was getting bigger. Ironically, it was Republican presidents--chiefly Reagan and George W. Bush--who added most of the pre-Obama debt. Charges of hypocrisy then, are fair. But they are also beside the point. We cannot undo past profligacy. Any movement which seeks to curb spending is acting in the interests of the American people, however ineffectual it may be.

There is another arresting fact about the Tea Party. It is made up largely of older citizens. This leads to the second great irony of the movement: these supposed opponents of government depend upon it continuing to function as it has. Many members of the Tea Party are retired. They have worked hard and expect to enjoy the fruits of their labors in their golden years. Yet in this they are--however begrudgingly--dependent on government programs, namely Social Security and Medicare. Alas for the retirees, the money they have paid in has already been spent. These programs must now be paid for out of the general fund. As our debt climbs, it becomes increasingly unlikely that these programs will continue to be funded. No politician is insane enough to propose major cuts now, but through a combination of means testing and rationing, the programs will invariably be reduced.

Which brings us to Occupy Wall Street. Since the movement is newer and has not--yet--been co-opted by one of the major parties, it's a bit difficult to discern the agenda of the group. We know that, to their credit, they are mad at Wall Street and the bankers. For while envy of the rich is not virtuous, demanding that those who committed crimes be brought to justice is. Indeed, not only have the banksters escaped jail, they have been bailed out. It's true that some of the protestors are youthful idiots, whose mushy heads are receptive to socialist nonsense; this should not cause us to forget that they are largely correct about the banks.

The most obvious difference between the two groups may be the age disparity. This is significant. Our entitlement programs are Ponzi schemes. Since Occupy Wall Street types tend to be younger, there is no chance that they will receive any of the benefits of these programs. No one knows when the insolvent programs will be abandoned; retirees are hoping that it will be after they die; young people know that it will be before they retire. In any event, some retirees will be left without any money, which is why one should think carefully about retiring, if one retires at all

Much of the criticism against the Occupy Wall Street movement has focused on the entitled nature of the protestors. Certainly those who demand a free college education seem to fit the bill. But youngsters will not be able to act entitled for long. Just today, the national debt surpassed the $15 trillion mark. No one can fathom these sorts of numbers; still, the message is clear: the US Government will go bankrupt fairly soon. Younger people will have to do without the nanny state--but so too will older people.

Political prophecy is a tricky thing, but I think the end result is pretty obvious. Old folks vote in large numbers. For awhile, they will ensure that no politician dares upset the Social Security and Medicare gravy train. But the State will not be able to continue to force taxpayers to pony up in perpetuity.

In their own clumsy way, the Occupy Wall Street protestors are adumbrating the coming generational clash. If we are governed by responsible adults, the transition will proceed peacefully. If we continue to be governed by children in thrall to the banks--and I see no indications that this will change--the transition will take a violent turn.

The details are murky; this is a topic to which we shall have need of returning in the upcoming months. The police may have sent the protestors scurrying for cover, but the problem remains. The young and the old have been pitted against one another by a government that takes from the former to give to the latter. This is a problem that must and will be solved.

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