Honor thy geezers

They know something we don't: Big government works.


Joe Conason
March 10, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

-->The cultural imperative of the moment is to honor our elders, whose achievements during the past half-century are now being celebrated in bestselling books by network anchormen Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, as well as in essays and columns and television specials. When it comes to values like ethics, patriotism, and sacrifice for the common good the generation that overcame the Depression and won World War II looks pretty good -- especially in contrast to the baby boomers now in power.

Implicit in this chorus of praise for Mom and Dad (or Grandma and Grandpa) is a conservative parable for America at the end of the American Century, a stark morality play about hard-working, self-denying citizens as opposed to their lazy, narcissistic offspring. Yet within this same fable lies another very different message that contradicts and subverts the conventional wisdom of our time. The venerable generation now passing into history knows something critical that we are being taught to deny.

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In their dotage, older Americans understand that their generation's best friend has been big government, which has saved so many of them from poverty, insecurity and medical bankruptcy. They know, from their own experience with Social Security and Medicare, that government can do big things and do them well.

To say this sounds almost shocking in the present political climate, when the corporatization of pensions, health care, schools and even prisons is so fashionable among Republicans and Democrats alike, that the suggestion of any new federal program encounters almost automatic derision. The old faith in public institutions has been discarded, and we are advised every day to bend our knees instead before the great Golden Bull of the Market, from which all blessings supposedly flow.

The sustained rise of the Dow Jones index has validated this new idolatry -- and now, in an irony few seem to appreciate, we are told that the systems of social insurance devised by our venerated elders must be dismantled. If only we will place our faith in Wall Street and turn our faces from Washington, then we can all be rich in our old age. All we have to do is "privatize" Social Security through individual investment accounts (and turn Medicare over to the managed-care industry).

Heroic media images of the World War II generation subtly reinforce those arguments, urging us by example to emulate the rugged individualism of a more upright and self-sufficient era. But even a glance at the real history of postwar America demolishes that free-market myth. Our parents and grandparents did work hard and sacrifice, but they also relied heavily upon the state to help them earn a better life. Government provided the G.I. Bill that educated them, the home loans that sheltered them, the highways that transported them and the student loans that educated their children.

And, unlike their parents, they had little fear of old age because government had helped them provide for themselves and each other, collectively, through Social Security and Medicare.

It may seem sentimental to say so, but the result is a powerful testament to democratic progress. Among the lasting achievements of the generation lauded by Jennings, Brokaw and the rest is the virtual elimination of poverty among the aged. They reached this milestone despite the dedicated opposition of corporate conservatives who tried for decades to kill Social Security, and who fought to prevent the passage of Medicare.

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While only a few of their generation actually set out to create or expand the federal apparatus that guarantees their security now, they became nearly unanimous in defending it. Not so long ago, before the current nostalgia took hold, the World War II generation was regularly slandered as a gang of "greedy geezers." All kinds of data were cranked out by budget-cutters and privatizers to demonstrate that the elderly were bankrupting the country for their own comfort, at the expense of future generations. But that wave of nasty propaganda didn't last long, in part because the political muscle of the geezers thumped any politician who uttered such slurs. (By the way, that's another bit of wisdom handed down from the aged: "Vote!")

Sometime in the next century, after the last of this generation has departed, Social Security may reach the point of fiscal deficit. Nobody really knows, because nobody can predict how fast the economy will grow decades from now. Medicare's future financing seems more uncertain because of rising health-care costs. The contentious debate over reforms and revisions has scarcely begun to engage the consciousness of those who will be most affected by its outcome.

Seductive chatter about individual retirement accounts will undoubtedly grow louder -- as will demands to increase the retirement age, cut benefits to the disabled and leave Medicare patients to the mercies of the managed-care executives. Experts will materialize on television to warn that government cannot be trusted to protect our economic security.

By then we may no longer be quite so preoccupied with the generation we now glorify in books and movies; amnesia, not memory, is more our normal state of mind. But if we mean to show respect, then we should honor them as they really were: a people who used government to improve their lives and their nation.

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Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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