Giving Aid and Comfort to Those “Beyond Working Years”

David Brooks hates the elderly, or at least spending government money on their health care.  It is a waste of national resources, drives up the deficit, delays economic recovery, and saps us of our precious bodily fluids.  My apologies for not being able to critique his column in the original German.

Bobo’s theme in The Missing Fifth is how the Fatherland’s vitality is being sapped by its elderly.  The fifth he’s talking about is not rye or vodka, but the 20% of American men aged 25-54 who are not employed.  The guys who “are not getting up and going to work.”  Not getting up for work is a personal failing that violates the Protestant ethic.  Getting up and looking for work but not finding it is a structural problem.  It might require government stimulus to overcome.  It might invite criticism of corporate policies that make it impossible to find meaningful work.  Those are not the roads Brooks wants us to travel down.

The comparable unemployment figure for 1954 was 4%.  Why the gap?  First, the actual figure was just over 18% age-related unemployed, not 20%.  The rate for recessions in the 1950’s and 60’s was 9%, for the Carter-Reagan recession in the early 1980’s, it was 15%.  Neither was as bad as this one.  Since 1980, outsourcing and offshoring were invented and have spread like the chestnut blight, denuding factories and staff departments across America.  GM alone has lopped off more than 400,000 jobs.  Discrimination against the middle aged and unemployed is common.  Older men looking for work are more likely to have been union members or to have worked in manufacturing.  None of those characteristics endear them to 20-something recruiters and 30-something hiring managers.

Part of that gap is also explained by the details Brooks left out, which his source, David Leonhardt didn’t.  The low 4% figure for 1954 reflects a post-war employment high.  It followed the Second World War and the Korean War, and the first draft of soldiers who had taken up their GI Bill benefits with open arms and earned the qualifications that gave them lifelong careers in a booming economy.  Careers that provided good pay, health care and retirements.

That’s not Bobo’s story.  His tale is about a dark and stormy night of spending on the elderly.  He focuses on the 4% figure, not the 9% or 15% figures from earlier recessions, to make the 20% 18% figure seem generational.  Brooks’ rounding is convenient, but distorts.  He aims to castigate the undeserving:

More American men lack the emotional and professional skills they would need to contribute….

The result is this: There are probably more idle men now than at any time since the Great Depression, and this time the problem is mostly structural, not cyclical. These men will find it hard to attract spouses. Many will pick up habits that have a corrosive cultural influence on those around them. The country will not benefit from their potential abilities.

Brooks also throws a spitball at Paul Krugman, arguing that we have a “big problem” that:

can’t be addressed through the sort of short-term Keynesian stimulus some on the left [Krugman] are still fantasizing about.

He acknowledges some structural problems, but in a way that excuses without informing:

manufacturing, agriculture and energy have been getting more productive, but they have not been generating more jobs. Instead, companies are using machines or foreign workers.

Bobo offers a hodgepodge of suggestions for lowering unemployment.   Like uncooked spaghetti thrown at the wall, they won’t stick.  Some don’t relate to the American scene, such as adopting German-style apprenticeship programs, which work in Germany because they come attached to different educational systems, labor laws and employer practices.  Some are useful, but ignore the employment side, such as increasing investment in “community colleges”.  He ignores public 4-year schools whose budgets Republican governors and legislatures are gutting.  Some suggestions are counter-productive.  Changing “labor market rules to stimulate investment” is GOP-speak for right to fire work laws, for lowering wages and for gutting union protections.

Like the rest of Washington, Brooks’ concern is not employment.  It’s not health care costs or how to control them.  His concern is to limit spending on health care and to redirect that money in order to “revitalize” America.  Apart from re-employing a few of those missing Fifth, his revitalized America is a nirvana he leaves safely undefined.

Eluding Bobo are four reasons we might have too little discretionary money.  His Republicans are in a frenzy to cut discretionary spending.  They are fighting attempts to reinstate tax cuts, to raise new revenues, to push the tax burden upward, to those not suffering in the current depression.  We are increasing spending on military and intel activities, with little or no oversight.  A similar bipartisan effort deregulated the financial sector, which led to a catastrophic depression.

None of that is news to FDL readers.  What is startling is Bobo’s Randian claim that health care for the elderly “provides comfort to those beyond working years”.  We can’t afford to spend on the unproductive:

Health care spending, which mostly provides comfort to those beyond working years, is expanding. Attempts to take money from health care to open it up for other uses are being crushed.

Spending on old folks’ health takes the bread from babies’ mouths and keeps their parents from getting the training they need to find and keep work.  Change that and we can preserve our national vitality and our purity of essence.

In the developed world, health care is a civil right paid for by taxes.  Costs are contained via government oversight, regulation and market power.  A retirement spent off the streets, in modest, heated and fed circumstances is a civil right, an earned right, and a sane expectation for social peace and social justice.

According to David Brooks, those are benefits companies no longer want to provide and which government can no longer afford to provide.  Government funds spent on health care for the elderly is a waste of money.  Better to throw momma from the train; let Atlas shrug and let nature take its course.

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