Austerity and Dependence

Welcome to the era of the gerontocracy. The call for austerity measures, in the forms of the Ryan and Obama budgets, has been issued. The American public has been asked to reckon with the facts:

Today the ratio of working taxpayers to nonworking pensioners in the developed world is around 3:1. By 2030, absent reform, this ratio will fall to 1.5:1, and in some countries, such as Germany and Italy, it will drop all the way down to 1:1 or even lower. While the longevity revolution represents a miraculous triumph of modern medicine and the extra years of life will surely be treasured by the elderly and their families, pension plans and other retirement benefit programs were not designed to provide these billions of extra years of payouts” (Peterson, G. Peter. Grey Dawn: The Global Aging Crisis. Foreign Affairs. Jan/Feb 1999).

Faced with the financial crisis on one hand and the demographic crisis on the other, neoliberalism presents us with a false choice – cut education and social services for the young and the most in need while leaving Medicare and Social Security untouched, or cut entitlement programs for the current generation of retirees. Agreeing to any kind of cuts affirms the logic of the existing capitalist paradigm and its arsenal of moral conceptions regarding debt and deficits.

The youth of today are going to foot the bill for the profligacy of the ruling generation – a generation that includes the Baby Boomers, the first cohort of which is about to retire. Students and recent graduates already drowning in debt are being asked to pay for the continued state support of their parents, whether through taxes or cuts to public education. Yet this generational politics described by Connor Kilpatrick in this essay at Jacobin and Malcolm Harris in this essay at the New Inquiry will not be solved by fighting the elderly for the last scraps of government assistance. Such an argument does not break from the logic of the existing economic model; it uses the very language of this model to make its case. To truly fight austerity and those who use it to rationalize the current economic order, we must throw out the market-based conception of “dependence.”

One of the biggest obstacles in the way of successfully fighting austerity is the continued use of “dependence” by the left. Kilpatrick exemplifies this tendency in his article “Thirty More Years of Hell.” “Batten down the hatches,” he writes, “because if there’s one thing they’ve made abundantly clear, the Boomers are going to cling to life and power until the very last EKG blip, fleecing us all the while.” Such a statement is eerily redolent of the reactionary argument provided by Reagannites and Thatcherites for cutting social services.

The reasoning behind portraying the elderly as parasitic is as follows: Since the elderly, like the unemployed, do not participate in the productive process they are not entitled to any kind of support. Retirement, accordingly, becomes a subcategory of unemployment. And, because those populations do not participate in productive life, the rest of the able-bodied population is forced to subsidize their indolence. A serious challenge to the rationale for austerity rejects the idea of dependence completely and reframes government assistance as an issue of freedom.  In an essay for the Nation last year, Corey Robin discussed how this might be done:

We must develop an argument that the market is a source of constraint and government an instrument of freedom. Without a strong government hand in the economy, men and women are at the mercy of their employer, who has the power to determine not only their wages, benefits and hours but also their lives and those of their families, on and off the job.

Social Security and Medicare do not abridge freedom; they expand it. Social Security frees the elderly from the threat of starvation, the restrictions of a fixed income, and the threatening vicissitudes of post-employment life. Austerity measures, contrary to what Democrats and Republicans say, do not expand freedom. Placing the fates of those citizens most in need – students, the poor, and the elderly – at the mercy of the market does not enhance individual freedom; it limits it.

Asking the younger generation to pay for the elderly with cuts to healthcare and education, constitutes a curtailment of freedom. And yet, the way to prevent this state of unfreedom is not to cut social services and entitlement programs for the elderly. That, too, curtails freedom. A democratic state can instead expand support for at-risk populations. Expanding social services could resolve generational conflict and refute the worldview of capitalist ideologues.


The irony of living in a gerontocracy is that when the government is run by old people in possession of fantastic wealth – Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, John McCain, to name a few – it is easy to forget that the many older Americans are not so fortunate. Baby Boomers, from the union-shop manufacturer to the schoolteacher, have been also been fleeced and exploited. They, too, have seen wages stagnate, houses foreclosed on, savings wiped out, and debt increased. The response to the crisis should not be a cry of “eat the old.” It should be the cry of “eat the rich”, accompanied with a hearty shout of “no one is dependent!” The wealthy are probably far tastier.

Don’t cheat the elderly simply because, after years of drudgery, they finally get to step off the unceasing economic treadmill. Fight those who argue that anyone deemed “unproductive” does not have the right to a basic level of social security. Fight the idea that people are only of value to society when they have productive potential. If neoliberalism is an economic model that awards power to those with the fattest wallets, fight for an economic paradigm that insures everyone has an equal ability and equal resources to engage in the political process.

The young bear a disproportionate burden of the austerity measures that have come out of the financial crisis,. They will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Students and recent graduates are suffering from cuts to state-funded colleges and social services because of bailouts for profligate bankers. The students, in the event that they find a job, will then pay for those profligate bankers to retire, while the students, when they grow old, will not have the luxury of the same kind of safety-net. All of this is tremendously distressing and reason enough to take to the streets. But, at the same time, the pensioned factory worker or school teacher is not the enemy; they are partners in the fight to alter the status quo that forces us to make the false choice – to side with either the youth or the aged. When you face off with the police during the next occupation, remember to stand side-by-side with your parents, not face-to-face against them.

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