There’s a war going on. While there are no bullets being fired, no blood being spilled, and no bodies lying on the ground, there are millions of casualties. You almost certainly know one of them. You might even be one of them.
What “war” could I be speaking of? It’s one of numbers and laws, accounting gimmicks and misguided policies, false promises and wishful thinking. It’s called “generational warfare,” the act of taking from the young to give to the old, without a shred of regard for the former, and with widespread support from the latter.
This issue has been on the radar of free-market types for generations. The latest examination comes in the form of a new book by the Manhattan Institute’s Jared Meyer and Diana Furchtgott-Roth, titled Disinherited: How Washington Is Betraying America’s Young.
There have been many attempts to make this argument in the past, but they often fall flat when it comes to most important point: one of simple accounting. When talking about things like the national debt, it’s easy to get lost in the minutiae of how the national debt and accompanying tax burden will impact future generations.
This book, however, excels by making this major point both powerfully and briefly, backed by plenty of statistics, before moving on to the myriad other ways wealth is transferred across generations. The authors raise and debunk many “common knowledge” arguments that one encounters when talking to average US Americans about issues of debt and taxation.
For example, in a distinction that separates the best commentary on fiscal policy from the mediocre, they succeed in defeating the pervasive argument: “I paid into these entitlement programs like Social Security, so I should get my money back.”
Yet the book is about far more than debt and taxes. It addresses two other notable intergenerational transfers as well: education and the job market. On education, the authors examine both the nation’s mountain of college debt, fueled by student-aid programs, and the failure of public schools to provide quality education.
Meyer and Furchtgott-Roth explain how teacher tenure laws and restrictions on private and charter schools keep children from getting the best education possible. Their explanation of how firing practices push talented young teachers out the door when school budgets are tight, even as low-performing older teachers keep their jobs, shows how existing laws directly harm the young in favor of well-off older teachers.
They also look at labor-market regulations, focusing on the minimum wage and occupational licensing. Both chapters systematically show how current regulations disproportionately harm young people attempting to enter the workforce, either through basic labor in the case of the minimum wage, and by entering a trade in the case of occupational licensing. The statistics the authors bring to bear are convincing evidence that the young are truly the losers when government attempts to micromanage the labor market.
Older generations’ risk aversion leads them to support laws that fill jails with individuals far younger than themselves.
While Disinherited proves both interesting and worthwhile, there are a few ways that it could be improved.
The authors took great pains to interview a number of people for the book, both younger people and others from older generations. Many commented anonymously, while others were willing to go on the record to explain their views.
In some cases the interviews were valuable, but in many cases they feel somewhat superfluous to the piece. They seem to be used not as evidence, but in place of the authors’ commentary. I’d have preferred more direct analysis, which the authors are certainly more qualified to provide than anonymous interviewees.
There was also an issue with topic choice. While there is only so much one can write about in a short book, I’d have liked to see more on a couple of topics that may well affect the young even more than the notable labor-market issues they examine. One would be over-criminalization. It is hard to underestimate the effect this issue has on the young.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and a single teenage arrest will often exclude an individual from a broad swath of the labor market. The same aversion to risk that leads older generations to back “disinheriting” programs like Social Security often prompts them to support laws that fill jails with individuals far younger than themselves.
A second would be land use. Older generations have systematically calcified the current uses of property under banners such as “keeping communities together” and “historic preservation.” The nation’s largest cities, where job prospects for mobile young workers are brightest, are becoming ever less affordable for young people. I would have loved to see the authors explore this issue, as it has similar negative effects to the examples they raise in the book.
Overall, Disinherited is an excellent primer for anyone seeking to understand the many challenging issues that take from the young and give to the old. While the work could be improved by expansion in some areas and cuts to others, it’s undoubtedly a valuable read.
Meyer and Furchtgott-Roth write accessible prose throughout, and the piece is highly readable, remarkably so given the density of stats it contains. They make it clear that we must act to change the status quo and end inter-generational conflict. Whether policymakers take their advice, and end the countless economic casualties of the war, remains to be seen.
Edited by Laurie Blair.