This Slate cover article
by Steve Chapman, about the taxpayer burdens of supporting the elderly, is astonishing. While it makes a lot of logical points, its tone is so blatantly callous I have to wonder what the author's intention was.
If you're offended, you're probably not remotely interested in agreeing with him. But if you can laugh at his chutzpah, are you really going to take his arguments seriously? On the other hand, he makes a memorable case. While this article pretends to be addressed to Chapman's fellow baby boomers, it's real audience should probably be the "luckless 25-year-old, [who] by contrast, can count on paying $322,000 more in payroll taxes than he will ever get back in benefits." Just the audience most likely to have their eyes gaze over from yet another article on social security, and to be too worried about securing that entry level job to be hooked by a lede mentioning their own retirement. But also an audience that gets much of its news from The Daily Show and The Onion.
It reminds me of one of the only good scenes from the movie Boys and Girls, set in Berkeley. This scene was shot in Blake's, and the Freddie Prinze Jr. character's best friend/side kick, played by Jason Biggs, has finally acceped Freddie's admonishment to "just be himself." So on a double date with the heroine and a community service loving beauty, he goes on and on about how "old people are annoying and gross and freeloaders." (paraphrase, not exact quote) It's funny because while it's patently absurd, we all know that at least someone out there actually thinks it. Apparently Chapman is that person.
I disagree with his philosophy if not with his numbers. What's the point of civilization if people can't enjoy retirment after a long life of working hard? And what's the point of medical advancement if only rich people can use it to soothe the pain of old age, while the poor are left to suffer? It's cruel to just let someone rot away and die from high cholesterol, when we have the power to keep them healthy. There's nothing wrong with our cultural impulse to protect and care for the elderly.
There is something wrong with several our relatively new cultural impulse to do it out of sight, and out of mind. We all know that two can live almost as cheaply as one, but by relegating our elderly to retirement homes and home nurse checks, we increase the cost of their care. There was a set of Salon articles not so long about having children, or rather not having them, as several childless staffers explained their choice. Laura Miller's column
had the tagline:"News flash: Having children won't save you from a lonely old age." Cary Tennis wrote,
"My dad always said, Be independent, do your own thing. I took him at his word and put 3,000 miles between us. And now that he is 80 the terms of our pact of protection have been reversed. It is my turn to look after him. But from this distance I cannot look after him. That makes it all the more troubling that I may have let him down by doing what he suggested."
Why do these authors just take it for granted that that's the way it will be, or should be? I find it rather appalling. It's one thing not to take care of a parent that you're simply not able to take care of, lacking the medical expertise. But it's quite another to shrug of responsibility altogether. The cultural impulse that pushes all children out of the nest and frowns upon their "needing" their parents past the age of 22 is the flip side of this coin. Children who grow up believing that they must form their lives completely independantly of their parents in order to be "healthy" human beings
are not going to have room for them when their parents need them. I'm not advocating parents who inculcate neediness and dependency in their children as a means of insuring their retirement homes. But I think American society has too much of the other extreme--adults who have no real relationship with their parents, to whom the people who first passionately loved them have now become strangers or mere aquaintances.