Now that the Super Committee has ground to a halt, the threatened "sword of Damocles" is poised to slash $1.2 trillion in federal spending. As we move to this next phase of the budget wars, deficit hawks will rev up one of their most phony arguments -- namely, that protecting entitlement programs rewards the old at the expense of the young.
The debt ceiling deal last summer calls for automatic cuts to start in 2013, absent a Super Committee deal, with the reductions split evenly between defense and domestic spending programs -- but Social Security and Medicare are mostly exempt.
Deficit hawks already were predicting the break-out of intergenerational warfare before the Super Committee reached stalemate. Former Senator Alan Simpson attacked an AARP television ad reminding lawmakers that seniors vote, and warning them not to cut Social Security or Medicare. In his Super Committee testimony, Simpson called the ad disgusting and called on young people to remember AARP in 2036, when their benefit checks will be slashed 20 percent or more.
Simpson previously has called AARP a bunch of "greedy geezers" who don't care about future generations. Republican Presidential contender Rick Perry calls Social Security a Ponzi scheme designed to rob the young. Deficit commissions demand a higher Medicare eligibility age and more privatization.
I'll stipulate that the budget sword -- if Congress does indeed let it fall -- will hurt many Americans in need of help. But the domestic cuts won't affect only the young. Dozens of federal programs will be affected, ranging from the Women, Infants & Children nutrition program and Head Start, to senior housing and home weatherization.
The deficit hawks are trying to force a false choice: cut entitlements, or help the young.
Social Security shouldn't even be part of this debate, since it doesn't contribute a dime to the deficit and its long-range solvency problem can be rectified fairly easily by eliminating the cap on income subject to the payroll tax. Medicare's ballooning cost reflects the broader problem of exploding healthcare expenditures in our economy; higher eligibility ages or privatization would only shift costs elsewhere without getting at the root problem.
Fortunately, few Americans are buying this attempt to drive a wedge between generations. A new study of more than 4,000 Americans of all ages turned up scant evidence of resentment or friction between age groups over entitlement spending.
The Pew Research Center polled Americans on their views of key issues in the 2012 election. Pew found that the public resists the idea of cutting entitlements to reduce the deficit or to cut taxes by a 58 percent to 35 percent margin -- and the differences by generation were minor. Pew also reported that Millennials are just as likely as GenXers, Baby Boomers and seniors to say the government does too little -- not too much -- to support seniors. Nearly 90 percent say the programs have been "good for the country over the years," and that cuts across at least 80 percent of all age groups.
Likewise, Pew found seniors and baby boomers just as likely to worry about the future financial footing of Social Security and Medicare as younger people, and to say that the programs will need reforms in the years ahead.
Why? "Most people live in families," explains Michael Dimock, Pew's associate director. "Young people just getting out of college and joining the workforce also have family members who receive these benefits. Our own experiences mitigate the idea that generations would fight each other over these programs. We'd be fighting with our own grandchildren and children."
Politicians are unsettled when AARP throws its weight around, but it's not clear that older Americans will vote as a single pro-entitlement bloc in next year's election. Although seniors want to protect entitlements by huge margins, Pew found that they also lean toward conservatives and the GOP.
The boomer-dominated Tea Party faces a similar ideological conflict, says Fred Lynch, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of "One Nation Under AARP: The Fight Over Medicare, Social Security, and America's Future. "The most important demographic segment of the Tea Party movement is baby boomers, and they care about their Social Security and Medicare benefits. A day of reckoning is coming -- they will have to choose."
"This debate goes to the role of E pluribus unum and the nation state," Lynch adds. "Do we remain a national community -- a family that looks after one another through government programs? Social Security and Medicare are intergenerational compacts that we're going to take care of one another. The answer to that question will have much to do with our cohesion as a society."
The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own. DISCLOSURE: The author has written for the AARP Magazine.
(Editing by Jilian Mincer and Lauren Young)