All in It Together


November 06, 1990|By Richard Reeves

MONTAUK, NEW YORK — "I DON'T THINK senior citizens should have to pay school taxes -- unless they have a kid in school.'' So went the wisdom of the New York state assemblyman John Behan, a Republican, during a debate between local candidates at the firehouse here.

Hey, great idea! How about this one? I don't think junior citizens, those of us younger than 62, should have to pay Social Security or Medicare taxes.

It happens that Assemblyman Behan had a tough race this year, so perhaps he should be forgiven a bit of demagoguery. He's just another politician trying to stay off unemployment. And he's not the only one with the relatively new idea that Americans should pay taxes only for the government services they actually use.

In our village, Sag Harbor, senior citizens take the lead in defeating the school budget each year, and last year, for the first time, they also were a factor in defeating the budget for the public library. The American Association of Retired People helped form a political-action committee with a single agenda item: reducing the school budget, which means reducing property taxes.

These senior citizens are not rich people, quite the opposite, and they are probably no more or less selfish than the rest of us. They do, however, have more political savvy -- the wisdom of age -- and more free time to organize and vote.

If there is generational warfare in the United States, and I think there is politically, senior citizens have become the most powerful army in the democratic field. The American Association of Retired Persons is now the most important special-interest group in Washington, and it has become a critical player in protecting Social Security and many other government programs important to older people from the budget-cutting of the past decade. (I remember that one of the things that struck me on election night of the 1988 Iowa presidential primary was that the AARP had a bigger victory party than any of the Democratic or Republican candidates.)

These have been good years for older Americans in many ways and for many reasons, including their own political energy and the fact that they had been on the other end of the power stick after the 1960s and early 1970s. Those were the days of stories dTC about old people in Miami Beach eating dogfood or catfood because that was all they could afford. I don't know whether those stories were literally true, but they symbolized a real problem: People were living longer, and the rest of us, younger people then, moved very slowly to expand the share of the American pie reserved for senior citizens.

So, the old folks, beginning with organizations such as the Gray Panthers, took matters into their own hands. They organized, they voted, they lobbied -- and they got what they wanted. One of the results of the War on Poverty and subsequent programs was a significant shift of wealth and government largess from young to old. Twenty years ago, poverty in America was disproportionately old and female. Now it is disproportionately young, including children, and female.

That generation of older Americans was the driving force behind such political revolutions. Howard Jarvis, an unimpressive-looking curmudgeon in his 70s, led the first successful effort to cap property taxes, Proposition 13 in California. The real idea of that measure, which is still being copied in other states, was to allow old folks to keep their homes after their big earning years were over.

That sounded good, then and now, but like rent control, which allowed elderly New Yorkers to keep the big apartments where they had raised families, it tended to keep adequate housing away from young and growing families. It could be argued -- and was, unsuccessfully -- that everybody would be better off if many senior citizens had cashed out, sold the big places and moved into smaller digs with a lot of money in the bank. A lot of Americans of that generation got rich just by sitting in houses whose value multiplied 10 and 20 times in the boom years.

That generation prevailed, partly because they were so tough and talented. They survived a Depression and won a war, as one of them, Ronald Reagan, likes to say. In his autobiography coming out this month, he tells a pointed story about a confrontation with a University of California student at the end of the 1960s:

'' 'Governor, we want to talk to you, but I think you should realize that it's impossible for you to understand us. . . . You weren't raised in a time of instant communications or satellites and computers solving problems in seconds . . . You didn't live in an age of space travel and journeys to the moon, of jet travel or high-speed electronics . . . '

''While he paused to take a breath, I said: 'You're absolutely right. We didn't have those things when we were your age. We invented them . . . ' ''

True. And wonderful. But now we have to educate and encourage new inventors. Education is arguably the nation's most important problem now. And ''nation'' means all of us, old, young and in-between. It is only fools and politicians who do not understand that we are all in this together. School children don't vote, but their needs -- and our future prosperity -- are at least as important as my Social Security payments.

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