As the Aging Stoop to Their Labors, Prosperous Pundits Lecture Them About Sacrifice

The aging American workforce is being vilified, in much the same way the poor were in previous decades. Politicians and pundits who once might have spread myths about "welfare queens" are now describing retired people as "greedy geezers."
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The aging American workforce has been vilified a lot lately, in much the same way the poor were in previous decades. Politicians who once might have spread myths about "welfare queens" are now describing retired people as "greedy geezers." Not to be outdone, well-paid pundits are rushing to lecture people on their moral failings and urging them to rediscover the nobility of sacrifice. But sacrifice for whom, exactly, and to what end? It doesn't seem to matter -- and that's the problem.

Fortunately, not everyone's joining the crusade. Today's shining example is John Leland from the New York Times, who took the time to review the data on aging workers. What's more, he even went out and talked to some of them.

Here's what Mr. Leland learned. As a new analysis by the Center for Economic and Policy Research demonstrates, "one in three workers over age 58 does a physically demanding job ... including hammering nails, bending under sinks, lifting baggage -- (a job) can be radically different at age 69 than at age 62. " Leland also met workers like 58-year-old Jack Hartley, who "works a 12-hour shift assembling tires: pulling piles of rubber and lining over a drum, cutting the material with a hot knife, lifting the half-finished tire, which weighs 10 to 20 pounds, and throwing it onto a rack."

As Leland explains, "Mr. Hartley performs these steps nearly 30 times an hour, or 300 times in a shift." Says Jack Hartley, "The pain started about the time I was 50. Dessert with lunch is ibuprofen. Your knees start going bad, your lower back, your elbows, your shoulders."

Politicians from both parties -- some Democrats and many Republicans -- have been contemplating raising the Social Security retirement age for some time, and their efforts are endorsed by analysts like Eugene Steurle of the Urban Institute. According to Leland, Steurle believes Social Security is threatened financially because people are living longer. That's a doubled-barrelled mistake: Social Security isn't threatened financially. It can pay full benefits until 2037, and could be made permanently stable just by raising the cap on payroll taxes. And the "living longer" part is a common misconception that's easily dispelled by looking up some census tables and other data.

While I disagree with analysts like Mr. Steurle, at least he's civil in expressing his views. That stands in sharp contrast to Deficit Commission co-chair Alan Simpson, the Id of the Washington Elite. We won't re-litigate Simpson's behavior, except to say that his candid articulation of the elite consensus paved the way for a growing wave of prosperous pundits who are now castigating middle class Americans for clinging to their dreams of retirement.

Consider Alison Schrager, a blogger for the The Economist, who wrote this: "I don't know if it's ever going to be realistic that everyone saves enough to spend the last third of their life on vacation." (Emphasis mine.) Or the Atlantic's Megan McArdle, who exults that Schrager's "vacation" comment is my favorite line in my newest column for the magazine." Adds McArdle: "It was nice that a combination of rising life expectancy and broader pension coverage allowed a large segment of American workers to take what amounted to a multi-decade vacation .... But this was never going to be sustainable."

Pop quiz: Which of these two financially comfortable, sedentary writers has written the sentence that best captures the spirit of Scrooge's "are there no workhouses" speech? Is it the one who thinks retirement from a life of physical labor is a "vacation," or the one who says that's her "favorite line" while adding that letting manual laborers retire before their bodies fail completely was "nice" while it lasted?

(It was a trick question: They've both channeled Scrooge beautifully, and added a more than a pinch of Simon Legree.)

So who are these older workers with wild vacation fantasies, these shirkers looking for an all-expenses-paid trip to Margaritaville? Here are the statistics: Among workers 58 and over, 37% of men and 32% of women do physically demanding work. (The figure's 62% for Hispanic men.) They're janitors, maids, gardeners, carpenters, cooks, and people who carry out the other physically taxing jobs listed in the study. You can almost picture Megan McArdle and Alison Schrager glowering as these working Americans mow their lawns and mop their floors, looking down on them through golden lorgnettes perched on noses wrinkled in disapproval. Imagine: After paying their payroll taxes for thirty or forty years, these workers actually hope to collect a benefit that averages out to more than $1,100 per month (about $920 for women)! No wonder Schrager and McArdle are tut-tutting over the self-indulgent dreams of the hired help.

Then there's Anne Applebaum. In her latest Slate piece, Applebaum thrills to the descriptions she says have been given to Great Britain's new leadership and its fiscal policy: "Vicious cuts." "Savage cuts." "Swingeing (sic) cuts." "Axe-wielders." Never before has a government budget been greeted with such lurid, sado-masochistically charged imagery. Her piece reads like a cross between The Story of O and Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom. "Articles about the nation's finances are filled with talk of blood, knives, and amputation," Applebaum writes. "And the British love it," she adds enviously.

No debt, please, we're British.

Just in case you didn't get the moral point lying beneath the slasher imagery, Applebaum spells it out: "Austerity is what made Britain great." (And we thought it was the food.) She contrasts the British population's posture of enthusiastic submission, at least as she sees it, with the American people's unwillingness to submit to discipline. We just want "instant gratification," she says -- except, quoting a "quip" from Britain's Deputy Prime Minister, "it isn't quick enough for some people."

While Applebaum calls for our country to embrace "savage cuts," however, she fails to take note of the base from which those cuts would be made. The British have a fully nationalized system of publicly funded healthcare. Their current retirement age is 65 (60 for women born before 1950), where ours is 66 and scheduled to reach 67 by 2022. The British retirement age is scheduled to rise at a much more leisurely pace: to 67 by 2036 and 68 by 2046. But never mind the details: Jack Hartley must start sacrificing now. No more "instant gratification" for you, pal!

Applebaum saves her most jaw-dropping statement for the final paragraph: "I don't hear anyone in America talking about cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security," she writes. Really? She hasn't heard Simpson's repeated calls for cuts? Or John Boehner's suggestion to raise the retirement age to 70? Or House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who made the same suggestion?

Applebaum doesn't even seem to realize that Obama created a Deficit Commission, or that he specifically (and in my view unwisely) authorized it to look at Social Security and Medicare. Let's read that sentence again: "I don't hear anyone in America talking about cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security."

Applebaum's Scrooge moment comes when she contrasts Americans unfavorably with their blade-happy British cousins, and then offers this explanation: "The last period of real national hardship Americans might remember is the 1930s, too long ago for almost everyone alive today."

She might want to run that whole "we can't remember real hardship" notion by the more than six million Americans who are trapped in long-term unemployment, or the other 10 million who are currently unemployed. She might also want to double-check it with the 45 million Americans living in poverty as of 2009, after the highest single-year increase in the number of poor people since they started tracking their numbers. Or with the one out of five children in this country now living in poverty.

The United States now has the third highest poverty rate among developed nations, according to the OECD, behind only Turkey and Mexico. Household participation in the food stamp program passed 41 million for the first time ever in June. A"period of great hardship" is anything but a distant memory for these Americans, who would presumably be among those expected to 'sacrifice.' Which gets us to back to our original question: Sacrifice for whom? She doesn't say.

Neither does Tom Friedman, who devotes most of today's column to scolding children from a lordly height (based on Paul Samuelson's inability to accurately interpret school test scores -- but that's a topic for another day). Friedman's displeased with their parents, too. Like Applebaum, Friedman believes our unbalanced budget proves that the nation has a "values problem." "All solutions must be painless," he says dismissively of his fellow Americans. "Which drug would you like? A stimulus from Democrats or a tax cut from Republicans?"

That's a false equivalence. The stimulus Friedman dismisses as a "drug" is really an urgently needed cure, but you have to be aware of the suffering around you to know that. Many economists who worry about killing the recovery too soon are urging immediate stimulus spending to get the economy moving again. They say cuts should come later, after the economy is stabilized, and shouldn't be applied unjustly. Friedman can't wait. He's too eager to hear "our generation's leaders ... utter the word 'sacrifice'." And he's not too interested in the specifics, either. He never mentions Social Security or any other program by name, but his calls for denial complement and reinforce the anti-Social Security stance of his fellow commentators.

Friedman holds up the "Greatest Generation" as an ideal, the apogee of national self-denial in service of a greater cause. Sure, they're to be honored for their hard work and nobility of spirit. But that same generation enjoyed income equality, retirement security, and prosperity built on the purchasing power of a thriving middle class. Those are the things that are most threatened by Friedman's rhetoric.

Friedman says our elders called for sacrifice "the only way you can, by saying: 'Follow me'." But that generation sacrificed so that their children could have a good education that would lead to even greater opportunities than they themselves had. They sacrificed so that they could look forward to a financially secure retirement. They sacrificed to reduce poverty, and to build a society where everyone had the opportunity to work and prosper.

What kind of world do Friedman and Applebaum want us to sacrifice for? As we said, that doesn't even seem to matter to them. They're making a fetish of austerity, without any greater vision or purpose. That's fatuous and dangerous, especially when their calls for self-sacrifice are applied with false even-handedness in the face of rising income inequality, unemployment, and poverty. Sacrifice for the greater good is a fine and admirable thing. But sacrifice for sacrifice's sake, bloodletting for the thrill of seeing a swinging axe, the yearning for a vicarious sense of national nobility at the expense of others -- these are the thoughtless expressions of people who prefer symbol over substance. They're the product of an indulgent form of self-mythologizing that interferes with analytical thinking and anesthetizes the human conscience.

And as for McArdle and Schrager, there's not much more to say. A "vacation"? That's just horrible.


Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at ""

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