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99% to NYT’s David Brooks: Get Real, Not Simple

Posted: Jan 15, 2012

In his New York Times Jan. 9 column, “Where Are the Liberals?”  conservative commentator David Brooks rightly chides the venality of Democrats, as well as Republicans, for “perpetually soiling the name of government for the sake of short-term gain.”

He correctly indicts supposedly liberal Washington Democrats for being missing in action to counter “Wall Street excess and the unpopular and sometimes embarrassing” machinations of the Republican Party. President Obama, he urges, should campaign like Martin Luther, perhaps virtually nailing the truth to the door of Congress.

In his presumptively even-handed tone, Brooks declares that is corrupted by “renters,” special interests who have mired America’s leaders in conflicts of interest. Washington needs to be “cleansed and purified. Make the tax code simple. Make job training simple. Make Medicare simple . . . Simplify the legal thickets that undermine responsibility.”

And who are the renters? Along with Wall Street—you know, the 1 percent most of us think of as the owners, not the renter--Brooks pillories (guess who?) old people.

Paraphrasing a recent Washington Post op-ed by conservative elder pundit George F. Will, Brooks writes that “in 2009, the net worth of households headed by senior citizens was 47 times the net worth of households led by people under 35. Yet seniors use their voting power to protect programs that redistribute even more money from the young to the old and affluent.”

Wealth and Diverse Boomers

Of course, one accumulates wealth over a lifetime, so it’s not surprising that the over-50 demographic holds a lot more of it than their children. But, especially in this recession, what part of that 47 times multiple doesn’t belong to the top 1 percent? Do Wills and Brooks consider the ethnically diverse 78 million aging boomers, many of whom would be affected by proposed Medicare cuts, such as by raising the Medicare eligibility age?

The 2011 report, “Plan for a New Future: The Impact of Social Security Reform on People of Color,” from the Commission to Modernize Social Security, shows that among pre-retirees ages 50-64, “Large racial gaps remain with single white men and women owning twice as much as single nonwhite men and women.”

This racial wealth gap, says the report, limits the inheritance that Brooks’ profligate seniors can pass on to the next generation. According to the study, “While 1 in 4 white Americans will receive an inheritance, only 1 in 20 African Americans will; and they will receive only 8 cents to the white inheritor’s dollar.”

How are older workers and still-older retirees faring, given all of their alleged political power? Last fall’s report, “Retirement on the Edge: Women, Men, and Economic Insecurity After the Great Recession” found that among those 45-59, half or men and two-thirds of women worried they won’t be able to afford health care. Also, four in 10 respondents afraid they could not afford a nursing home, and large majorities concerned they won’t have enough money to live on in their old age, especially if Social Security is cut or eliminated.

Those ages 60-plus in the survey were only moderately less worried. For instance, over half of women of that age said they fear not having enough money to live on. And Hispanic adults in the survey were particularly troubled, with 6 in 10 Latino women doubting they will be able to afford health care in retirement. And 7 in 10 believe they won’t have sufficient funds to live on.

Half of Seniors Struggling to Get By

Has Brooks seen work by UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research showing that older adults need twice the federal poverty line to make ends meet? That’s because the federal measure was never updated to include things like the costs of housing or health care. The UCLA center determined that 47 percent of California seniors are struggling to get by.

Also, last week the Scan Foundation sent out a PDF summarizing “Ten Things You Should Know About Aging with Dignity and Independence." 

This graphic says, for example, “70 percent of us who reach the age of 65 will need some form of care or services in our lives, for an average of three years,” but “43 percent of Americans over the age of 55 have less than $25,000 saved for retirement.”

Does Brooks know that Medicare does not cover these long-term care costs? If he read his newspaper’s “New Old Age” blog, he might have seen the recent “Mad As Hell,” piece about the growing frustration of American women stuck with the lioness’ share of eldercare demands—and with little support or long-term care coverage.

In his past columns Brooks has consistently called for bipartisan compromise including cuts to Medicare. Last November, for instance, Brooks praised Mitt Romney as the only “serious” GOP candidate. He lauded Romney’s proposal for Medicare to give seniors vouchers to buy insurance—the plan pushed by ultra conservative Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., but with the option of taking traditional Medicare.

Brooks has embraced government vouchers to support private insurance, but he also opposed having a government-run public option as part of health care reform. Moreover, he dismisses the idea of controlling overall health care costs, as if every part of the disastrous U.S. health care system—including Medicare—won’t continue to hemorrhage money and poor health outcomes without healing the system’s underlying disease.

Young and Old Hit by Recession

Larry Polivka, who heads the Claude Pepper Center at Florida State University, said in an e-mail interview that although the economic gap between the generations has grown over the last 30 years, especially during the Great Recession, this gap resulted from economic losses among those under 35.

“In fact, the 65-plus population has absorbed economic losses as well, but not as great as those suffered by younger people,” Polivka explained. Excluding home equity—a major source of senior wealth--the median net worth of Americans 65-plus falls to $25,209, and only $2,033 for the younger group – about a 12 times difference, far from 47 times, but not much for any age group in the 99 percent.

Poliva concluded, “In short, the older population is not thriving at the expense of younger people. They are also facing serious economic challenges that are made even more pressing by the fact that they have fewer years and opportunities to recover from losses suffered not just during the Great Recession but also since the beginning of the great wage stagnation over 35 years ago, when male workers were actually making more than they do today.

David Brooks says he wants to “simplify Medicare.” Simplify how? I agree—to the extent that the compromised Washington Democrats Brooks accurately describes, should get bold and simplify Medicare by enacting Medicare for All.

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