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The weird generational war

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

A weird war between the generations is growing, and the Republican candidates are the mongers.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan both accuse President Obama of taking money out of Medicare to help younger Americans get health care — while they blame government spending (Medicare is a big item) for burdening “our grandkids” with debt. They reassure older Americans that their traditional Medicare program will not be touched, but tell younger folk that VoucherCare will offer the wonderful world of choice and, by the way, they can have “traditional Medicare,” if that’s their preference.

Never mind that Obamacare is projected to reduce deficits while adding benefits to Medicare, thanks to cost savings within the plan. Never mind the obvious point that if VoucherCare were so wonderful, Romney and Paul Ryan would bestow the pleasure on today’s and near-term retirees. Never mind that traditional Medicare within a voucher system would rapidly turn into a ghetto for the very sick, then collapse.

But this is not about the double messaging, telling contradictory stories to different groups. This is about the assumption that helping one generation unfairly hurts another.

Yes, Medicare spending must be curbed, but that could be done within the existing program. It’s already started — witness the inexplicable Romney promise to restore the $716 billion that Obamacare saves in Medicare. But older Americans are not feasting while the young’uns go hungry, as half of the Romney split personality has it.

One much abused number is the wealth gap between households headed by people over 65 and those under 35 — the highest its been since the Federal Reserve Board started counting in 1989. The elderly are on top, but what kind of wealth are we discussing? The median over-65 household has a princely sum of $170,500 in net assets. That’s the value of the house, the car, some retirement savings, the stamp collection (minus any money owed). That’s all these people have in the world.

Sure, that’s a lot more than the $4,000 median household wealth of those under 35. But 28-year-olds just starting out are still paying off education loans. If they own their home, they probably haven’t accumulated much in home equity. The job market is tough, but the world is their oyster. Once the economy strengthens, they’ll be harvesting pearls.

The elders’ $170,500 is what they have left after housing, feeding and clothing the children who are now the under-35-yearolds. A $1,100-a-month Social Security check may be eaten up by copayments and other health care costs not covered in Medicare. Of course, there are retired multimillionaires, but they are probably also paying income taxes.

Many of our leading opinionmakers were blessed with prosperous parents. They are surrounded by others from similar backgrounds and so have only a vague notion of how modestly most older Americans live. There’s no other way to explain this recent line by Romney supporter David Brooks, related to the projected rising costs of Medicare: “You’re supposed to help your grandkids, not take from them.”

The view from elsewhere is different, and we’re not just talking about poor people. Many grandparents help out with the babysitting and in a hundred other ways, but few can pen checks for medical school.

Both Romney and President Obama have different visions for stemming the rising costs of Medicare, and either one could potentially save money. But Romney’s would also pile more tax cuts on top of the Bush-era tax cuts, starving Medicare of the revenues needed to keep even a shrunken version going.

The war he backs pits younger taxpayers against older “takers.” That’s the bottom line amid the smoke of contradictions.

©2012 The Providence Journal

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