Members Only | October 16, 2018 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

A New Order Struggles to Emerge

But it won't as long as the country is in the grip of gerontocracy.

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I was ahead of the curve in talking about gerontocracy, or rule by the old. (I have also, less charitably, called it “geriatric fascism.”) The argument seems to be catching on.

Daniel Bessner and David Austin Walsh wrote about the politics of an aging republic for the The Guardian two weeks ago. It’s a rangy piece touching on many themes, but this one popped out at me: “Perhaps most significant is the fact that gerontocracies prevent new ideas from entering into the small elite that makes national policy.”

Today, Eric Levitz, over at New York magazine, talked about gerontocracy vis-a-vis Americans under 30 who don’t vote in numbers equal to the elderly. Levitz found this eye-opening nugget from the Public Religion Research Institute:

PRRI finds that 39 percent of Americans under 30 say that they do not vote, or engage in any other form of political participation, because doing so “wouldn’t make a difference”; 49 percent say that they do not “know enough about the issues” to get involved in politics; and 9 percent believe that voting is less important than “being active on social media,” which is the “most effective way to create change” (My bold.)

All in all, it’s no wonder that we have a geriatric president and a geriatric Congress arguing about issues relevant more than 40 years ago while the planet keeps getting hotter; while white collar crime abounds; while corruption rots our society from the inside; while low wages make a mockery of hard work; while agents of the state kidnap children and put them up for adoption; while people are one illness away from financial ruin; while the rich extract wealth without giving in equal return; while the national debt blows up; and while the Supreme Court sits ready to hand down rulings for the benefit of the old political order while a new one struggles to emerge.

When young people do not vote, they get the government they deserve. Yes, there are impediments to voting, but most are surmountable. And anyway, voter suppression tactics do not explain why so many Americans don’t vote. Here’s what explains that: We do not have a culture of voting in this country, and so far, we do not know how to create one. We think of ourselves more as consumers than citizens. While the old folks busy themselves arguing about jobs, inflation and “political correctness,” the young wonder why the hell we aren’t talking about corruption, justice and reform.

Why? Because the young don’t vote.

They probably will over time. I take my duties as a citizen more seriously in my forties than I did in my twenties. I presume aging will affect others similarly. During that period, however, we will see a long transition from one political order to another, from one that privileged tax cuts and low regulation to one that privileges something else.

What that something else will be I don’t know. Levitz implies it will have something to do with democratic socialism, which I take to mean political priorities springing from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. That may be so, but we should bear something in mind, which is that the biggest barrier separating Sanders voters and Hillary Clinton voters was fundamental faith in the old order. As Lee Drutman said:

Among the Democratic rank-and-file, the more consequential divide is between those willing to trust the existing establishment and those who want entirely new leadership. It’s a divide that Democratic Party leaders ignore at their peril.

Some take this to mean ousting Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. I don’t necessarily disagree (though I think they’re fine), but there’s more to it than that.

What’s needed is recognition by the Democratic leadership that the old order was breaking apart long before Trump arrived on the scene. What’s needed is recognition that the old order was breaking apart thanks to corruption and decadence at the top and demands for justice from below in the form of Occupy Wall Street, Sandy Hook Promise, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo, not to mention smaller outbreaks of political agitation happening in states and localities around the US.

The Democrats are already planning to launch a litany of oversight hearings should they take the House. That’s good. But let’s hope that whatever comes out of those hearings, the party uses that to guide a political order that’s struggling to emerge, one that calls for an expansive practice of democracy fueled by demands for justice.

By then, I hope, young Americans will start voting.

Decadence at the top

One consequence of old people making all the decisions is that statements like this get a serious hearing from the news media when they should be thrown in the garbage.

Mitch McConnell and the Republicans rammed through tax cuts for the rich without one Democratic vote. Those cuts have ballooned the national debt to its highest level in six years. But today McConnell said the national debt is a “bipartisan problem.”

“It’s disappointing but it’s not a Republican problem,” McConnell said in an interview with Bloomberg News when asked about the rising deficits and debt. “It’s a bipartisan problem: Unwillingness to address the real drivers of the debt by doing anything to adjust those programs to the demographics of America in the future.”

Those “real drivers,” he said, are “entitlement programs,” things like Social Security and Medicare. Given that old people are the Republican base, the Republicans are not going to propose cutting entitlements for old people. They will propose cutting them for young people who are not yet old, who won’t know what they are missing once they’re old, and who don’t vote for Republicans anyway—if they vote at all.

It’s win-win all the way around for McConnell.

The old order isn’t worth defending

Joe Stiglitz explains why in “The American Economy Is Rigged.”

Morale is lower in unequal societies, especially when inequality is seen as unjust, and the feeling of being used or cheated leads to lower productivity. When those who run gambling casinos or bankers suffering from moral turpitude make a zillion times more than the scientists and inventors who brought us lasers, transistors and an understanding of DNA, it is clear that something is wrong. Then again, the children of the rich come to think of themselves as a class apart, entitled to their good fortune, and accordingly more likely to break the rules necessary for making society function. All of this contributes to a breakdown of trust, with its attendant impact on social cohesion and economic performance.

Speaking of children of the rich

Per the Times:

Over the past decade, Jared Kushner’s family company has spent billions of dollars buying real estate. His personal stock investments have soared. His net worth has quintupled to almost $324 million.

And yet, for several years running, Mr. Kushner—President Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House adviser—appears to have paid almost no federal income taxes, according to confidential financial documents reviewed by The New York Times.

His low tax bills are the result of a common tax-minimizing maneuver that, year after year, generated millions of dollars in losses for Mr. Kushner, according to the documents. But the losses were only on paper—Mr. Kushner and his company did not appear to actually lose any money. The losses were driven by depreciation, a tax benefit that lets real estate investors deduct a portion of the cost of their buildings from their taxable income every year.

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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