Many of us of a certain age are increasingly concerned about the growing popularity of socialism among the younger generations. We rightfully point out that the horrors of communist life in the 20th Century have been minimized in our history classes, so that the siren sound of “equality” has regained some of the appeal it lost amid prior carnage.
The truth, though, is that America has been flirting with socialism for about a century ourselves — we just haven’t called it that. And while the young may not be as wise as we might hope, they’re not completely blind to the hypocrisy:
…the irony is that these old anti-socialists already live in a wonderland of government generosity that bears a passing resemblance to the socialism they so dread.
The federal government already guarantees single-payer health care to Americans over 65 through Medicare. Senior citizens already receive a certain kind of universal basic income; it’s called Social Security. While elderly Americans might balk at the idea of the government paying back hundreds of billions of dollars in student debt, they are already the grand beneficiaries of a government debt subsidy: The mortgage-interest deduction, a longtime staple of the federal tax code, effectively compensates the American homeowner (whose average age is 54) for their mortgage debt, thus saving this disproportionately old group approximately $800 billion in taxes owed to the federal government each decade. The economist Ed Glaeser has likened these policies to “Boomer socialism.”
In this framing, Sanders is not offering his more youthful constituency a radically new contract. Instead, he is extending the terms of an existing social contract to cover more—and, necessarily, younger—Americans.
Now, while I’m inclined to agree with this diagnosis, I don’t agree with the proposed treatment: “Some, but not all, of the problems facing young adults would be well addressed with an expansion of government.” The socialism we’ve tacitly accepted since the days of the Progressive Era and FDR has already warped our society and economy in harmful ways. Government spending in the areas of healthcare and education (much of it debt subsidy in the latter) has allowed prices in those arenas to skyrocket far beyond the rate of inflation (itself a result of government meddling with the currency). Want to reign in health costs? Put the consumer back in control by forcing providers to post price lists and compete for business that’s paid for at the point of sale. When someone else is paying the bill, there’s no incentive to reduce costs, and those who don’t have that “someone else” are left priced out of the market altogether. Same with education – get the government treasury out of it, and institutions will suddenly no longer have funding for “diversity coordinators” that add little value to the transmission of useful knowledge that leads to gainful employment.
For many years I’ve said I’d love to have the option to sign away my claim to any Social Security benefits in exchange for never paying the tax again. As I get closer to retirement, that’s obviously less of a good deal for me. But while I’d love to have the taxes I’ve paid in my private accounts rather than in Uncle Sam’s, the fact is that *if* I draw what Social Security currently projects for me (something I certainly don’t count on), I’ll recoup my contributions in less than 6 years. So if I live another decade or more after that, where’s the money coming from?
The paychecks of younger workers, that’s where — the very generation that realizes the system will not work for them as it has their elders. Where their contributions don’t cover it all, Uncle Sam’s uses his credit card, the balance of which is a drag on everyone’s fortunes whether they realize it or not. For example, Sam is desperate to keep interest rates low, so he can continue to carry that balance (and add to it!). But in doing so, he robs those who dutifully save of the interest they would normally make as a result of their frugality. Since the elderly on a fixed income can no longer live on interest earnings, Social Security becomes an essential part of most people’s retirement plans… and the cycle begins anew.
That which can’t go on forever, doesn’t. Our current structures are unsustainable. We are at a crossroads: either we double down on what is known to be a failed economic model (planned economies), or we get the government out of the driver’s seat. We need to find a way to set the sun on Social Security and Medicare (just for starters), while putting consumer protections in place like truthful labeling of medical costs and investment risks. Government is supposed to police abuses of the market, not become the major provider of a good or service. I’ve said it before: the worst result of our current hybrid system is that it isn’t true market capitalism in many respects, but is believed to be. As a result, truly free market economics gets a bum rap.
So it’s worth keeping in mind the difficulty of convincing Bernie Bros not to point our nation toward full-blown Marxism when we’re already relying on programs of which Karl would have heartily approved.