To a generation saddled with college debt and facing bleak job prospects, the current Democratic hysteria over any sensible reform of Social Security and Medicare increasingly sounds just as surreal. In fact, the only question left about reforming entitlements is not if, but when: whether those in their forties and fifties will share the pain of cutting back, or whether the escalating burdens of keeping the system solvent will fall entirely on a younger generation that will have bigger debts and smaller incomes.
Tomorrow’s public employee is not likely to receive a generous defined-benefit retirement plan — but will still hear whining from his far-better-compensated superiors as to how unfair it is to question whether their own compensation is sustainable. And far fewer in the future will so easily land a government job at all: In California the unsustainable cost of the public work force is due not to overstaffing, but to too few younger taxpayers to meet the state’s existing obligations, given the lucrative compensation and retirement packages of a select elder few, who somehow believe that their own privilege is proof of their egalitarianism. Forgotten in the national acrimony over unfunded defined-benefit retirement plans for public employees is that the divide is not public versus private sector, or left versus right, but older versus younger. For the public unions the implicit message is something like the following: Keep borrowing to fund our generation’s unsustainable pensions and, in turn, we may concede that the next generation will never receive something so bankrupting to the public purse.
The soon-to-be-$17-trillion debt — run up largely by the Baby Boomer generation — will lead to decades of budget cutting, inflation, and higher taxes. A decade from now, as 30-somethings try to buy a home and raise children while they are still paying off their student loans, they may wonder why the national burden of repaying the debts of the better-off falls largely upon themselves. Indeed, a legacy of the Baby Boomer generation is the idea that it is natural for younger people to begin life with huge loans — not for a house or a car, but for an education of dubious market value.
The offspring of well-connected journalists, politicians, academics, professionals, and celebrities assure us in their documentaries and op-eds, and through their parents’ voices, that conservatives have lost the war for America’s youth. They certainly have, at least for a while, at in-the-news, private liberal-arts campuses. But for the vast majority of the state-schooled who have no such connections, little if any expectation of an inheritance, and lots of accumulated debt, there is nothing liberal about the values inherent in the present economy.
Given a choice between gay marriage, legalization of pot, and the banning of so-called assault rifles on the one hand, and, on the other, a good job with lower taxes, most young people will quietly prefer the latter. For that reason, conservatives should not outbid liberals to appear cool to new voters, but simply explain that a fair economy for all generations is no longer on the liberal agenda.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His The Savior Generals will appear in May from Bloomsbury Books.