We Have Met the Enemy and She is Old

Richard Eskow

“When you are old and grey and full of sleep,” the William Butler Yeats poem begins, “And nodding by the fire …”

Our culture has always been emotional – sentimental, even – about old age. So when did older people become The Enemy? Last week a judge ruled that Detroit could move forward with its plan to cut pensions for retired city workers. This week Washington is celebrating a budget deal that harms older people economically in several ways.

And a society that grows teary-eyed with each new viewing of On Golden Pond seems okay with that.

In a December 5 opinion, a U.S. bankruptcy judge ruled that Detroit could go forward with its plans to cut city workers’ pensions. He did so despite a state law making such cuts illegal, and despite his observation that Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s unelected city manager, “did mislead the public about the status of pensions in bankruptcy.”

In the kind of Bizarro-world inversions common to today’s corporate-funded politics, Orr and the Republican governor who appointed him argued against the conservative principle of states’ rights in order to move forward with their plan. When principles conflict with profits, apparently profits win every time.

Detroit’s manufacturing industry was outsourced, with no thought given to preserving our industrial heartland – or, for that matter, to preserving its covenant with working people. Wall Street banks were hired to manage Detroit’s pension money, and large sums vanished from the fund. Bankers may be asked to compromise on outstanding fees as part of a pension deal, but they won’t be asked to account for the missing money – and they’ve already been paid millions.

“Detroit ruling opens door to pension cuts across the nation,” said a headline in the Los Angeles Times. That’s the point. Pro-corporate politicians have been planning to break pension agreements all across the country, and they’ve been looking to Detroit for a green light.

And yesterday it was announced that Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray had reached a “bipartisan” budget deal that singles out older people in at least three different ways: by requiring new Federal workers to pay more for their pension, by reducing pensions for military personnel who retire before the age of 62, and by cutting Medicare provider reimbursements (which will make it harder for seniors to find participating doctors).

The budget deal “opens doors,” too. Its “cost-of-living” cuts to military pensions resemble the benefit cuts our “bipartisan” leaders have been trying to impose on Social Security. Its Medicare cuts could be the first step toward shifting the excessive cost of health care to America’s seniors. And its pension changes for Federal employees suggest that the promise of financial security after a lifetime of work is null and void.

Somehow we’ve turned against older Americans. And since we’ll all join that group someday – if we live long enough – that means we’ve turned against ourselves.

In earlier, more socially responsible days – 1970 or so – the cartoonist Walt Kelly drew his Pogo characters walking through a trash-filled swamp and saying, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” (He was paraphrasing Commodore Perry’s famous quote from the Revolutionary War: “We have met the enemy and he is ours.”)

Kelly’s line, which was turned into a poster, emphasized our collective responsibility for the environment. But in today’s money-driven culture, apparently collective responsibility is for suckers – especially when those who are most responsible for a problem are underwriting most of our political leaders.

If we’re to take responsibility for our ongoing economic crisis, we must take responsibility for our failures to rein in the individuals and institutions who created it. But it’s hard to do that when our political leaders won’t step up – and why would they? Republicans are, unequivocally, the Corporations Party. And now we have the spectacle of the Democratic Party’s presumptive 2016 nominee reportedly arguing (for a fee estimated at $200,000 or more) that vilification of Wall Street is counterproductive.

It would be reasonable to ask Wall Street to pay the lion’s share of the cost for cleaning up problems they created through massive fraud – including municipal bid-rigging and LIBOR interest rate fraud. But you can’t ask them to pay up if you’re not allowed to criticize them. And if you can’t blame Wall Street for our problems, who can you blame?

The elderly, apparently.

Which raises the question: How, exactly, do self-interested executives, politicians, and pundits convince an entire society to turn against its elders? Here’s how: By dismissing the value of a lifetime’s work once it’s done. By calling seniors selfish if they expect their government to honor its part of a bargain they kept for half a century. By convincing frightened Americans that their financial problems were caused, not by Wall Street, but by the bus drivers on their city streets and the teachers in their children’s schools.

They do it by making older people “the Other,” the antagonists, the “greedy geezers.” They do it blaming our economic misery, not on themselves, but on municipal Detroit’s retired gardeners and security guards and police officers and firefighters and secretaries. They do it by blaming our problems on retired Green Berets, Park Rangers, and accountants, on the people who, however “old and gray and full of sleep” they may be today, once processed your paperwork and fought your wars and maintained your roads and made your life better in a thousand unseen ways every day.

They’re trying to convince us to break a lifetime’s promise to others, and to ourselves, by telling us: We have met the enemy and she is old.

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