June 13, 2012

Hear me, Americans under 35!

There’s plenty that divides the parties in this pivotal election — from taxes to drones, from public workers to private equity. But there’s one uber-policy that brings Democrats and Republicans together that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

That policy involves you, younger Americans. You’re in big trouble. You don’t even know it. You’re busy trying to get a degree, land a job, start a family, save for a home. You don’t follow the news. But trust me — you’ve been taken for a ride by your elders.

The question isn’t whether such talk will stir up generational war. That’s already being waged — and you’re losing. The question is whether you’ll wake up and engage in a little generational self-defense. Let me see if I can motivate you.

How are you being swindled today? Let me count just some of the ways:

As many as 100 million Americans live in households today that are earning less than their parents did at a similar age. And this is happening well before we feel the full impact of global economic integration with rising economies like India and China.

Now, I can’t entirely blame the two political parties for this downward mobility — globalization and rapid technological change are the big culprits. But no one’s saying a word or doing a thing about it.

In 1980, a year at a public college cost about 12 percent of median family income; the maximum Pell grant covered 70 percent of that. Today, public colleges cost a staggering 26 percent of family income each year, and Pell grants cover at most a third. Republicans ignore this entirely. Democrats say that without their modest Pell grant boosts, things would be even worse.

They’re right. But does anyone think those teeny steps — or the sideshow over interest rates on student loans — is a remotely serious attempt to solve the problem of soaring student debt?

The job market for young people is a disaster, the toll of a burst financial and housing bubble that both parties let fester. The crisis has reached the point where years of unpaid labor (in the form of internships) have become a way of life for millions of Americans in their 20s.

Our K-12 schools have slid from the best in the world to mediocre under both Republican and Democratic presidents and governors. That’s largely because for decades we’ve embraced a bipartisan policy of recruiting middling students to become teachers.

Our roads, bridges, sewers, airports and power grids desperately need upgrades. Our investments in research and development as a share of our economy trail that of our peers. Republicans don’t seem to care. Democrats care enough to propose token sums that would fund a fraction of the need.

There’s no cash for such investments in the future because pension and health-care programs for seniors (plus a bloated Pentagon) take up so much of the budget. At the federal level, seven dollars go to programs supporting elderly consumption for every dollar invested in people under 18. Nationally (after taking account of the fact that most education is paid for at the state and local level), the ratio is still 2 1 / 2 to one.

And that’s just today’s elderly tilt. We have trillions in unfunded liabilities in these programs coming due as more and more boomers retire.

Yet amazingly, both parties would exempt every current senior from participating in the inevitable adjustments in these programs. Paul Ryan and Barack Obama lock arms in agreeing that everyone over 55 must be spared such changes, even though most of these Americans are getting back far more than they paid into the system. And millions are well-off.

The Democratic president and the Republican budget chairman do this as a matter of bipartisan principle — the principle that avoiding undue risks to reelection is more important than any reasonable notion of generational fairness.

Want more? For years, states have let public pension managers assume their investments would grow 7.5 or 8 percent a year, when 3 to 6 percent has been more realistic. This bipartisan ploy hides trillions more in pension shortfalls, funds that will have to be forked over one day by (you guessed it) younger Americans.

Add it up, and what’s it all mean? Younger Americans don’t realize they’re coming of age in an era in which both parties have pre-committed virtually all public resources to seniors. They’ll inherit a government without the cash or flexibility to address emerging non-elderly needs — choices that should be every generation’s birthright. Want to help a poor child or fix a bridge? Sorry, kids, the till is empty.

There are answers to these challenges that are fair to young and old alike. But we won’t hear them until younger people wake up to what’s happening.

In 1995, when I was a (younger) generational equity worrywart, I asked then-Sen. Alan Simpson how to fix what was clearly coming. Simpson told me nothing would change until someone like me could walk into his office and say, “I’m from the American Association of Young People. We have 30 million members, and we’re watching you, Simpson. You [mess with] us and we’ll take you out.”

Simpson was right then. He’s still right now.

Matt Miller, a co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly online column for The Post. His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com.