Gerontocracy and its discontents: Back to your ovaltine!

7 December 2009

One of the things I like best about the news are the old people. They’re rather cute, in their puttering little way. They’re constantly on about something, like the absurd price of Ovaltine or the yellow peril. It’s presh.

No topic exercises old people quite so much as us. By us I mean, to put it perhaps indelicately, not-old people. Call us young, relevant. Sane. Whatever you like. We aren’t them and so it’s very important that they teach us everything they know, so we avoid their mistakes, like appeasing Hitler. (By the way, my ancient and venerable friends: check.)

Today RealClearMarkets has an article by a man called Bill Frezza, who would probably qualify as “old” even if he didn’t begin his articles with a reference to “my 26 year-old son.” Props to your fecundity, sir. My mother would probably describe it as a mixed blessing, but different strokes, right? Anyway. Bill – Mr. Frezza – sir is very concerned about Social Security. It’s “eat[ing] the young alive.” I know this because his article’s entitled “Watching Social Security Eat the Young Alive.”

His son got this letter – why do all old people’s stories begin with something that happened to their children? Things must happen to them too. Like when Mavis played a perfect game of shuffleboard until she slipped on Sidney’s umbrella and knocked away her last puck. Man, good times. I’m off-topic. Now I know how it feels.

His son got this letter from the Social Security Administration. Sinister, as all communications from the government are. The letter talked about his social security, and informed him that payments go into a “Trust Fund” which pays the people already in it. Mr. Frezza is shocked: “Paying off early investors with funds taken from later investors is precisely how Wikipedia defines a Ponzi scheme.” My word! Do you see how hip he is? He’s on the interwebs! Sadly he’s clearly not attended college in the last thirty years, as professors are a bit wary about accepting internet sources as credible. He missed that.

But I’ll humor him – so much of dealing with the elderly is – and look it up. The first line of the Wikipedia article as it now is reads:

A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to separate investors from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors, rather than from any actual profit earned.

Since he used the term first, for comparison:

In common law legal systems, a trust is an arrangement whereby property (including real, tangible and intangible) is managed by one person (or persons, or organizations) for the benefit of another.

Wow. The definition of “trust fund” is pretty similar to that of Ponzi scheme. I think he’s on to something. That government, with its tricks and its Jell-O and the whoopdee wootchow.

Except. Ol’ Hickory here overlooks a word. That word is fradulent. A Ponzi scheme is fradulent. It is built on a fraud. A trust fund, on the other hand, requires that I – to put it in my hippest terms that Bill could understand, let’s call me Dude A – know that I am putting the money forward to the benefit of somebody else. Dude B. (What a loser Dude B is. Yeah, dude. I mean you.)

So, for instance, if I were running a Ponzi scheme I would probably not send out a letter which reads

Dear Sir

You are paying a great deal of money that is going directly to beneficiaries who are not you. You are doing so in a manner which will not allow you to recoup these monies but, if you’re lucky, will create a situation where other people pay for you to get money back. But probably not, despite the impression I earlier gave you on the phone.

Yours

Peter

This would be silly, and against the spirit of the Ponzi scheme. It would also expose the recipient to their own stupidity in a way that buying into a business strategy constructed by Underpants Gnomes had not already, which is foolhardy.

(I provided the link for you, Bill, in case you got confused.)

After taking a sideswipe at the health care bill – which he’s also concerned about as everyone knows all young people are born with perfect health so why should they pay for insurance? – he gets to the root of the question. (Not before time, as Matlock is coming on.)

“An entire generation is being systematically robbed by their parents with nary a peep. Why aren’t they marching in the streets like we did? […] There only conclusion I can come to is that we Baby Boomers have infantilized our children into idiocy.”

Or your generation’s comprehensive failure to create either lasting prosperity or a durable welfare state means we don’t have the luxury of spending our twenties engaged in nakedly-frivolous acts of rebellion against generations past. Or perhaps we’ve been robbed of all our collective wealth by the inscrutable machinations of venture capital firms – like the one you work for, Bill! – so that the deregulation you pushed for has resulted in the funds we built up being liquidated in favor of bailouts subsidized by my tax dollars to save the money I put in the bank in the first place. I don’t know though, I’m kind of shooting in the dark. Us kids! No spirit.

This is not the first such article I’ve lately come across. As if the constant hand-wringing about our children (of which I was lately one) by anyone with a stake in politics is not enough, we have to suffer the constant attacks of old people who, having fucked comprehensively the society and indeed the planet they so callously inherited, are now intent on foisting upon us their jerryrigged fixes in an effort to preserve their aged social fiefs under the guise of altruism. Hence the Bush-era hundred-billion-dollar giveaway to AARP, and the stunning duplicity involved in simultaneous whining over cuts to Medicare in the light of the possibility of the introduction of general health insurance.

Who’s behind this? The old people lobby. You laugh, but the average age of a Congressman is presently 56; of a Senator, 62. There is one congressman in his twenties and only a handful in their thirties. Hardly surprising, when the “decentralized,” “local” and “bipartisan” nature of our politics means the most important thing is a lot of money (or friends with it) and no political background, if it can be avoided. No inconvenient principles to get in the way of caring for our children. We – the not-old – could always influence the process, of course, but there’s not much room for us because none of us have any money to donate. Which is why we’re so busy working, because our parents… You get the idea.

Now, you’re going to think that, on the reverse side of the coin, I blame old people for all of our problems. Considering they have all of the power, money and well-tailored lobbyists, yes, I do. But this is beside the point. I am looking instead for that rarest of qualities which my generation apparently lacks: responsibility.

You see, I’m tired of being hid behind. I’m tired of old people justifying their policies – or tragically more often, their rejection of policies – as a necessity for our children’s future. Or not passing the buck to future generations. Or whatever. Because the very ironic thing is that in so doing that is exactly what you accomplish. You’re saying, implicitly, that we should wait until future generations have their say – that they, or we, will make the decision when we’re ready. And you can say the same during the next one. And the next. There’s always a future generation that needs to be given its say, that can be used a shield to perpetuate the status quo in the name of generational justice. There is always an excuse not to choose now, because it is unfair, because it does violence to some as-yet unheard group.

I am aware of this difficulty. There’s even a term for it. It’s called governing. And by blaming your inaction and worse, your bad, self-serving ideas on the need to protect future generations – to protect me – you’re not only failing to govern and paternalizing us in the same way your parents did you, you’re guilty of those cardinal sins you accuse us of: Irresponsibility. Bad grammar. And cowardice. Moral, and political and practical cowardice.

So I say stop worrying about me, Bill. Look to your own defenses. I do not need to be protected, thank you. All the “coddling” you and people like you whine about isn’t helped by the prospect of the failure that is your ruling class taking it upon itself to engage in decades of hand-wringing – or worse, a radical rollback of the “failed” benefits system – based on your idea about what I need and how I need it. I can’t help notice, Bill, that the one thing your article doesn’t include is the part where you ask your son what he thinks. Maybe he agrees with you. But I don’t.

Because you’re right about one thing. There is a problem with how this country is run, with the people who run it and with the worldview you represent. It’s old and stale; it’s dying. And the solution lies not with the people who brought us to this pass. It is to let a new generation fuck it up all in its own unique way. When you finally get out of the way, Bill, I look forward to the opportunity. It probably won’t be the America you know anymore, but I don’t mind. I no longer care for yours. And generational justice is not about your fear and trembling over my future – it is letting me live my present.

That might not be a bad thing. Anyway, I’m pretty sure we can’t do as badly as you did. We think too much. Just not like you.

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