Deficit hawks' 'generational theft' argument is a sham

The idea that we're spending much more on our seniors than our children is wrong on the numbers and wrong on the implications.

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Here's a phrase you can expect to be hearing a lot in the national debate over fiscal policy, as we move past the "sequester," which is the crisis du jour, and toward the budget cliff/government shutdown deadline looming at the end of March:

"Generational theft."

The core idea the term expresses is that we're spending so much more on our seniors than our children that future generations are being cheated. An important corollary is that the government debt we incur today will come slamming down upon the shoulders of our children and grandchildren.

The generational theft trope has already been receiving a vigorous workout in the press. Earlier this month, the Washington Post gave great play to a study by the Urban Institute stating that the federal government spends $7 on the elderly for every dollar it spends on kids. As we shall see, this is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough to render an accurate picture of government spending.

The National Journal, another influential publication in Washington, picked up the theme last week by observing that because the sequester exempts Social Security and Medicare from budget cuts, the automatic spending reductions it mandates will fall disproportionately on education and other such boons to the young. This will "deepen the budget's generational imbalance."

This is also a bedrock argument of the anti-deficit organizations, such as Fix the Debt, associated with hedge fund billionaire Peter G. Peterson. For decades he has pursued a wearisome and spectacularly self-interested campaign to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits for the working class so taxes won't go up too much on the wealthy.

One of those organizations, called "The Can Kicks Back," promotes a "Millennial-driven campaign to fix the national debt." But backstopping its twenty- and thirty-something leaders is an advisory board comprising such Peterson frontmen as Morgan Stanley board member Erskine Bowles and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.). These guys are "millennials" only if we're talking about the last millennium before this one.

So here's the truth about the "generational theft" theme: It's wrong on the numbers and wrong on the implications.

Let's start with that 7-to-1 spending ratio on seniors versus children. Among the flaws in the calculation is that the vast majority of government dollars spent on children comes from state and local governments, which pay most of the cost of education. On a per capita basis, state and local spending on kids swamps the federal government's spending 8 to 1.

Moreover, there are twice as many children 18 and under as seniors 65 and over (this 2008 figure also comes from the Urban Institute report). Put the numbers together and you discover that spending by governments at all levels in 2008 came to about $1 trillion on seniors and $936 billion on children. In other words, very close to 1 to 1.

The notion underlying the comparison of spending on seniors and children is that "if you save a dollar on Social Security it would be transferred automatically to children," observes Theodore R. Marmor, an emeritus professor of public policy at Yale and a long-term student of social welfare programs. He traces this notion to deficit hawks and dismisses it as "not naive, but cynical."

That's because most of the spending on seniors is in Social Security and Medicare, and therefore has been largely paid for by those very beneficiaries over the course of their working lives.

Payroll taxes have more than covered what today's average retiree will receive back from Social Security. They won't cover the average payout on Medicare, but that's an artifact of uncontrolled healthcare costs, not of the structure of Medicare itself. Changing the terms of that program, say by raising the eligibility age (currently 65) won't save money and may actually raise costs.

In other ways, treating Social Security and Medicare spending on the one hand and spending on kids on the other as though they're opposite sides of a zero-sum game is just an act of ideological legerdemain aimed at undermining those programs.

If America wants to spend more on children, it's plenty rich enough to do so without eating away at the income of their grandparents. The money can come from the defense budget, farm supports or dozens of other places, even higher income taxes.

Let's not forget, too, that the people who will really suffer from gutting Social Security won't be today's seniors, who will escape the worst of the cutbacks — they'll be today's young people, for whom Social Security would become much less supportive when they retire.

What about the debt load we're supposedly imposing on future generations? This is another transparently Petersonian feat of sleight of hand, based on the assertion that while it's we who incur the debt, it's our children who will have to pay if off.

All the hand-wringing over today's borrowing conveniently assumes that the debt buys nothing, which makes it easier for debt hawks to pretend that it's only an expense and not an investment.

But money borrowed for the stimulus has bought jobs and unemployment benefits, which have helped sustain families through the Great Recession. (At least a few of those families have children, wouldn't you guess?)

In a larger sense, money borrowed by every generation is typically invested in programs and infrastructure — highway, schools, research and conservation, for example — that will add to future generations' wealth.

It's the persistence of the "generational theft" claim, which bubbles up every few years, that exposes its ideological roots.

It's a fundamental piece of a decades-long campaign to distract Americans into thinking that the threat to their way of life comes from a war of old against young, rather than an intra-generational class war in which the vast majority of economic gains from improvements in worker's productivity has flowed to the wealthy, not to the workers.

The economist Dean Baker observes, for example, if the federal hourly minimum wage had merely kept up with productivity growth after 1969 rather than stagnating (and getting eaten away by inflation) it would be more than $16.54, and we wouldn't be arguing about whether the country can "afford" an increase to $9.

The "generational theft" argument is a sham. It's an attempt to get around the fact, so distasteful to the enemies of government social programs, that Social Security and Medicare are hugely popular. As Marmor observes, if you can't put across the case that these programs are undesirable, "you have to make them look uncontrollable, ungovernable, and therefore unaffordable."

The argument has been tried out on several generations in the past, and they've seen through it. Today's generation should see through it too.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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