“Both Parties Wooing Seniors” reports today’s Wall Street Journal. And why not? Older people are much more likely to vote. According to the Census Bureau, in Presidential election years only about 30-40 percent of the youngest voters (aged 18-20) vote compared to about 68 percent for those over 65. In Congressional election years, the differences are even more stark: 13-17 percent for the youngest versus about 60 percent for the oldest. Voting rates rise gradually for each age cohort from youngest to oldest –it’s not just a difference between the young and the old.
So it’s really no wonder that spending priorities in this country are biased toward the old, or that the biggest –and completely unfunded– spending boost for the old in the form of the Medicare Part D drug benefit occurred under the notionally conservative George W. Bush and a Republican Congress. It’s disappointing but unsurprising that the “brave” Paul Ryan approach to Medicare reform puts 100 percent of the pain on the younger generation. Of course Democrats pander to the aged, attacking any Republican move on Medicare as a burden on the old even when it’s exactly the opposite.
Medicare is the main cause of the United States government’s fiscal challenges and its inexorable growth puts a squeeze on other areas of discretionary spending. The result is wide and growing intergenerational inequity in federal spending. We’re also hurting the country’s long-term competitiveness by spending big money on expensive medical interventions for the old that yield marginal benefits while squeezing out incredibly high return on investment activities in early childhood intervention.
Don’t expect the old, and the baby boomers following them, to look out for the interests of the younger generations or to embrace significant policy changes. I would put more hope in a new party or movement that emphasizes the interests of those younger than 50 or 60. You can catch glimpses of the potential for change in the Tea Party, Ron Paul’s candidacy and Occupy Wall Street, all of which have an important or dominant youth component. But the Tea Party’s reactionary, anti-intellectual platform, Ron Paul’s idealistic sounding but impractical and naive approach, and Occupy Wall Street’s smugness and obsession with the economically successful are just not going to do the trick.
I don’t know where the youth movement will come from. My best guess is it could appear in the next Presidential election in 2016, when there’s a chance that younger Republicans, Democrats and Independents will find some common ground, supported by more enlightened sectors of the older population. An explicit focus on intergenerational equity would be a great element to add to the national debate.