Government of the Elderly, by the Elderly, and for the Elderly Shall Not Perish

The American Values Poll from The Atlantic and Aspen Institute says most Americans want to spend more on the young. Meanwhile, we have built, renovated, and protected a government focused on protecting wealth rather than investing in it.


At a time when education is absorbing huge cuts and Medicare and Social Security spending continue to grow faster than the size of government, it's a question worth asking: Is Washington biased toward old people?

The easiest way to answer the question is: Of course it is. Older Americans show up disproportionately at the ballot box, in Congress (the average age of a senator is 63), and in our budget. Fifty percent of federal benefits flow to the 13 percent of the population over the age of 65, David Leonhardt reported in the New York Times last weekend.

But Americans of every age group think that the federal budget should focus more on young people than old people, according to the American Values Poll, from The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute, which was released today. Asked if Washington should aim its spending toward the young, 73% of twentysomethings and a plurality of senior citizens said yes.

As the questions got more specific, a rift opened between younger and older generations.  Two-thirds of respondents between 18 and 29 said we should spend more on education and infrastructure. Less than half of Americans over 65 agreed. Older and younger Americans were also equally likely to say the economy is on the wrong track, but seniors were 33% more likely to say the solution is lower taxes for families and businesses.


Beyond the broader points of agreement, the poll uncovered a dramatic generational gap between the youngest and oldest Americans. Most strikingly, their attitudes toward business and them middle class have diverged. People over 65 were 80% more likely to say that what's good for business is good for America and 70% more likely to say that the economy has been fair to the middle class. Meanwhile, the youngest Americans are three-times as likely to say that the economy is unfair to first-generation immigrants and twice as likely to say it's been unfair to them, personally.

This could have something to do with the fact that the economy has, as a matter of statistical fact, been worse for the Americans entering the workforce. Between the early 1990s and 2010, median family wealth for families with a head of household older than 75 has increased 65%. For household heads under 35, it's fallen by a third. Perhaps it shouldn't surprise, then, that young people more likely to assign wealth to luck rather than hard work (56-34) than old people (38-52).

Some results from the Aspen poll were downright shocking -- especially if you're a fan of stimulus or Keynesian economics. Younger Americans were a hair more likely to say a deficit undermines American values, and only one-third of respondents across all age groups said that running a deficit now is necessary for American growth.* No age group considered unions to have a mostly positive effect on American values --  though young people, at 47% positive, had the highest mark. Less shocking: Americans of all ages hate bankers. More than 70% of all age groups said Wall Street didn't share America's values. At least 60% said more bank executives should have gone to jail.


Older Americans generate the most votes, but younger generations generate most of the country's economic activity. So it's striking that there are major differences between the age groups when it comes to American's values and policy preferences. As Leonhardt wrote, younger people "view a boisterously diverse United States as a fact of life" and "wish the country would devote more attention to their future."

It's a nice sentiment, but also somewhat at odds with the reality of modern government. Infrastructure spending as a share of GDP has fallen 80 percent since the late 1960s. Public research and development spending has fallen, too. Education investments have been swamped by health care in the last generation. As much as we think of ourselves as a sprightly superpower, we have built, renovated, and protected a government focused on protecting wealth rather than investing in it.

We can say we want Washington and its budget to look younger. But American government by the old people, of the old people, and for the old people isn't in danger of disappearing from the earth any time soon.


*And yet ... Even the most conservative of deficit hawks I know doesn't think we should try to run a balanced budget next year.