A specter is stalking the Western world, and it looks a lot like Grandma. As President Bush has repeatedly put it, the problem with Social Security is that “baby boomers will be living longer.” Not “too” long, he’s careful to say, but long enough to create a fiscal catastrophe. And it’s not just Social Security. Medicare, as well as any company rash enough to have offered pensions, may eventually sink under the weight of its obligations to the elderly. A welfare state designed in the era of bacon, eggs and Lucky Strikes cannot expect to survive in an age of “active seniors” who wash down their Viagra with soy milk and think a six-pack is something you get at the gym.
So far, the policymakers’ response has been to gut the welfare state before the greedy geezers can plunder it. For example, the Bush administration has achieved deep cuts in Medicaid, which supports many of the middle class in their post-golden nursing home years, and it continues to fight for the evisceration of Social Security.
But can such namby-pamby solutions really get to the root of the problem? Isn’t it clear that there are just too many old people around, luxuriating in their assisted-living communities and expecting the government to support their statin and beta-blocker habits? Does no one have the courage to confront the longevity crisis head-on?
There are exceptions – a few Americans brave enough to try. Some credit should go to Burger King for its new “Enormous Omelet Sandwich,” and to Hardee’s for its “Monster Burger” (two one-third-pound patties.) Nor can we neglect the manufacturers of the various cardiovascularly compromising painkillers, such as Celebrex and Vioxx. In addition, Wyeth, the pharmaceutical company whose aggressively marketed hormone replacement therapy pill turned out to cause breast cancer and heart disease, deserves some retrospective recognition.
The longevity-fighting Purple Heart, though, goes to the Center for Consumer Freedom, funded by the tobacco and restaurant industries, which bravely battles restrictions on indoor smoking, repressive limits on blood-alcohol levels for drivers and the relentless liberal bad-mouthing of salt, fat, sugar and meat. And what has the CCF gotten for its efforts? A challenge to its tax-exempt status from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Face it, nothing is really going to change until the federal government tackles the problem itself. It might start drafting 60-year-olds, for example, for a few months of service in the Iraqi desert. And what about transforming the Drug Enforcement Administration into the Diet Enforcement Administration, with the power to search drivers for stray bits of broccoli and tofu?
Of course, it could be argued that Bush’s attack on the welfare state will solve the longevity crisis without recourse to controversial measures. Toss Gramps out of the nursing home, take away his Social Security check and see how long he survives. Still, it’s fair to ask: Is Bush really doing enough, or is he being held back by his oft-stated commitment to the “culture of life”?
Here is the contradiction in the tiny, dark heart of American conservatism: Its values are solidly “pro-life,” but its economic policies lean toward death. While upholding the right of each stem cell to blossom into a human, conservatives have curtailed the lives of all multicellular citizens – by weakening environmental regulations, for instance, and cutting social programs.
Right-wing ambivalence on life-and-death issues exploded into a schizophrenic breakdown in the case of Terri Schiavo. With one hand, the Republicans held her feeding tube firmly in place, while the other hand reached for the ax to cut off the flow of Medicaid dollars that were keeping that poor shell of woman alive.
It would take courage for a president to promote a consistently pro-death outlook. Some Christian spokesmen will fret that we are on the slippery slope to euthanasia, although they have never complained about torture or war. Nevertheless, it might be tactful to frame the new stance as a way of encouraging turnover – as at Wal-Mart, where 40% of employees leave every year – rather than death.
Get born, get into the crucial 18-to-35-year-old consumer demographic, and have the good sense to get out before you’ve overstayed your welcome. And it would take genuine heroism to confront baby boomers with the question usually addressed to 18-year-old grunts: Are you willing to die for your country? Like maybe right now? Because that’s what they want from us, folks, unless we can come up with a better idea.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” (Owl Books, 2002).