David Brooks and Neocon Advice to the Elderly

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“There you go again…” as a famous “B” movie actor once memorably said…memorable because he happened to be President at the time. Oh yes, we really did have an actor as President. But he was also a union president at one time. Granted, it was a union of actors, but he was elected.

One of these days, when the interest on the national debt has grown so large we have to cut back on toilet paper, we will look back on 2001-2008 and say something like “Remember the Dubya Era” or something memorable so that we never forget the Bush Era. We need something memorable because, the Neoconservative Republicans are like cockroaches. They were virtually exterminated in the 2008 election and by 2009, they were back.

They are seemingly indestructible. Perhaps it is like the saying that the poor are always with us. Maybe the ignorant are always with us too, so we need to keep reminding them that a disaster happened in 2008 and not just to everyone else. And it could happen again.

David Brooks is a conservative columnist and he is definitely not ignorant. But he often takes the anti-progressive, anti-middle class side of the political argument in order to gently push the conservative agenda, much of which, perhaps as a University of Chicago graduate, he believes.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Brooks talks about “geezers.” Wow. Isn’t that pretty “anti-pc?” Brooks quotes Freud and Shakespeare to somehow indicate that the elderly gradually withdraw from active life. While this is true in many cases, it is less and less true, and there are many contrary examples, like George Bernard Shaw, who could keep up with Brooks at way-plus-80, or Isaac Bashevis Singer who wrote for the New Yorker or Konrad Adenauer who ran Germany when both were well into their 80s.

Mark Twain, Robert Frost and Pablo Picasso all did some of their best work in their later years. Cezanne worked his whole life only to find success in the paintings he did after sixty. So what’s the point, David?

Brooks likes to take studies, especially those done by scholars at respected universities and explain and interpret them. But somehow the topic inevitably comes around to politics with a conservative bent. He says for example, after discussing how aging works and how the brain continues to be capable of all kinds of things in later years, that: “…the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children.”

Hmmm…Well, OK. But of course it would be less than that if the Republicans had their way. The SCHIPS program of health care subsidies for the children of poor working families and its renewal were voted down by almost every single Republican when they came to the House of Representatives. So, if the idea is to pit elderly against children, which side are the Neoconservative Republicans on?

He also points out that “federal spending has hovered around 20 percent of G.D.P. By 2019 it is forecast to be at 25 percent and rising. The higher tax rates implied by that spending will mean less growth and fewer opportunities.”

Well, the fact is that at one time we did have higher tax rates. We had much higher tax rates under the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. And the Clinton administration. Our economy expanded during all those periods. Wages for workers increased and more millionaires and billionaires were created. More importantly some of the world’s greatest corporations were created, ones that started in a garage or a warehouse and now employ tens of thousands.

The higher top marginal rates in those days simply meant that if you didn’t want to pay money in taxes to the government, you had to invest your money in something. That in turn created greater wealth for you and it created many more jobs. If you made over $1.2 million a year, you could actually see some of those 74% tax rates show up in your tax calculations. Not many people allowed that to happen.

Today there is one way we could cut spending immediately, and not raise taxes until we see how that would work out. We could get our troops home from every outpost around the world. Our military expenditures this year, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will cost us $700 billion.

But that is not what David Brooks wishfully-thinks is going to happen. He says that “…the only way the U.S. is going to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it on themselves to arise and force change. “Oldsters?” Sounds kind of insulting, frankly. Here’s more of his envisioned “changes.”

He continues, “Only the old can lead a generativity (his word) revolution—millions of people demanding changes in health care spending and the retirement age to make life better for their grandchildren.” He has to be a little off his rocker. Old people are going to demand “changes in health care spending?” Not likely. They are going to demand a change in the retirement age? Pretty much zero chance of that.

David Brooks’ problem is the same problem that Neocon lawmakers have. They simply do not have in their vocabulary the word “tax” unless it is followed by the word “cut.” We pay the lowest taxes in the world in this country. We spend more on defense than all of Europe combined and more than China and Russia, combined. We have a private, for-profit health care system, the costs of which could be cut in half in five years and have better outcomes. At the same time we could add 20,000 doctors to fill our vacant residencies, add more modern clinics and add another 20,000 doctors for rural and underserved areas of the country.

So David Brooks’ idea that we are somehow going to be destitute in 2019 unless the Gray Panthers get to work cutting Medicare and Social Security for their fellow aged is simply a fantasy. Why should they? Why should a hedge fund manager continue to take home—hold on to your seat—tax-free income of $50 million a year while David Brooks and the Neoconservatives apparently want you to raise the retirement age to 68?

And, by the way, remember that Brooks and “his kind” are always talking about tax rates as they are now, with the current top rate of 35%. We could probably solve all our problems, have health care for all, let alone just the elderly, if we simply raised the top marginal rate to 50% and cut the military budget by 15%. If we did, the military budget would still be higher than any other in the world by far. We could easily pull back in some areas. In fact it would probably be strategically sound. That and adjusting to some world challenges with more diplomacy (hello!) would do it, and that would add $100 billion a year to what we need for other things. That would be more than enough, for example, to pay for any kind of health care for everyone.

I love Brooks’ logic. “It may seem unrealistic…” he says, “to expect a generation to organize around the cause of nonselfishness. (his word) But in the private sphere, you see it every day. Old people now have the time, the energy and, with the Internet, the tools to organize.”

Frankly…aren’t you amused at this? CEOs having, let’s say, an employee base of 1000 employees or more, where the average income is let’s say $40,000. That CEO is often making 500 times what the average employee makes, or a tidy $20,000,000 per year.

This individual resents being taxed at more than 35% (which by the way, after everything, on average nets out at only about 23% of actual income) and spends an inordinate amount of time trying to get out of paying ANY taxes.

This does not include stock options. So we have many CEOs that take home $15 million a year after taxes and build up another $15 million a year in stock that will only be taxed at 15%.

Now if David Brooks’ friends can’t see their way clear to paying 50% (which would probably net out at 30%, and leave them with only $13 or $14 million to live on—see how that goes—plus the stock options—then how did they live before they made all that money?

But the big question is this. Why would you, if you are a senior citizen, go out and organize to save that guy or that woman an extra couple of million? You could go out and organize. But wouldn’t it make more sense to organize around having people live on only, say, $10 million or even, God forbid, $8 million rather than making some auto worker stay on the line until he’s 70 and then have to pay more out of his reduced Social Security for the “reforms” (which always means “cuts”) in Medicare?