WASHINGTON - Probably no political platitude is more invoked or more ignored than this: Let's do it for the kids. Everyone recognizes the moral power of making present sacrifices for our children's future well-being. That's why most politicians embrace the promise, as President-elect Barack Obama has. "We know that we have to get spending under control in Washington so that we're not mortgaging our children's future" was a favorite line in campaign speeches. The trouble is that politicians don't practice what they preach.
Generational conflict, and maybe generational war, is an inevitable part of the Age of Obama. Everyone knows that America is graying. Today, one in seven Americans is 65 or over, but by 2030, it's expected to be one in five. What's less understood is that the whole political system favors the old over the young in this fateful transformation. We risk becoming a society that invests in its past.
Younger workers victimized
The plight of the U.S. auto industry provides an ominous warning. For years, the "Big Three" and the United Auto Workers constructed an ever-more generous system of early retirement and retiree health benefits for autoworkers. But ultimately the costs became oppressive. The main victims: younger workers, whose jobs, wages and fringe benefits were squeezed to preserve retiree pension and health benefits.
Similarly, the promises made to retiring baby boomers may impose crushing costs on society. Taxes may rise, other government programs - from national parks to college grants - may suffer, and long-term economic growth may slow. Again, the main victims would be today's young, who would pay higher taxes and receive fewer public services.
Already, the three major programs serving the elderly population - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid - account for two-fifths of federal spending. In fiscal 2008, that was $1.3 trillion out of total spending of $2.98 trillion. By contrast, all defense spending totaled $613 billion.
The impending bulge of baby-boom retirees presents no good choices. Taxes? To pay for higher Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid spending would require massive increases in federal taxes - about 50 percent from present levels by 2030, according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office. This estimate assumes that other federal programs remain constant as a share of national income. Well, what about cutting some programs? Paying for baby boomers' added retirement costs this way would require eliminating most defense spending or most other domestic programs.
Underfunded state pensions
State and local governments face parallel, though lesser, pressures. As their workers retire, swelling spending on pensions and health benefits will intensify pressures to raise taxes or trim local services - schools, police, mass transit. In theory, there's a way to cushion the shock: Make annual contributions sufficient to pay future benefits. Unfortunately, that's only partially occurred. States and localities still face significant unfunded costs for retirees.
How large is unclear. Studies suggest that state and local government pensions were about 85 percent funded in 2006, with wide variations. Wisconsin was 100 percent funded, Illinois only 60 percent, reports the Pew Center on the States. But the stock market decline has been devastating. Through October, it reduced state and local government pensions by $1 trillion, or about a third, estimates the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Another problem: Promised health care benefits are largely unfunded. In 2006, these long-term costs totaled $370 billion, Pew says.
What looms is a massive income transfer from workers to retirees. Ideally, we would consciously decide how much it should be. In practice, the choice occurs semiautomatically. Social Security, Medicare and pension benefits are set by law. Unless the laws are changed, the payments go out, and the pressures on taxes and other government programs are inescapable.
Obama hasn't confronted the conflicts. He's been all things to all people. Rhetorically, he's for the children. But he's also for the elderly. Indeed, in the campaign, he opposed proposals for reducing the future costs of Social Security and Medicare - higher eligibility ages, lower benefits for wealthier retirees and larger Medicare payments from retirees. Obama is in a box of his own making; he cannot fulfill his promises to children without repudiating some promises to the elderly.
As a society, America is in the same box. There are genuine conflicts between generations, but we are loath to acknowledge them. Everyone sympathizes with needy retirees, but many retirees are healthy and financially self-sufficient. We are reluctant to make distinctions despite huge increases in life expectancy, personal health and household wealth since World War II.
The conflicts may or may not erupt in generational warfare, but either by design or default, we will be making decisions about America's future. The old are well organized and highly protective of promised benefits, while the young are politically passionate but unfocused. For the young, the odds look lousy.
Robert J. Samuelson writes for Newsweek and the Washington Post Writers Group.