"While I feel sorry for every American who, like Dr. Boomer, wants to retire but can’t, there is a lot to like in this surge of experienced workers. Longer work lives mean more tax dollars, and that helps with America’s fiscal problems."
It's no secret that the Economics department and Business School at Harvard have produced their share of arrogant boors and ideological blowhards, but it is downright depressing to be subjected to newly spun realms of callousness and short-sighted stupidity from those whose past work would theoretically suggest they should know better. Edward P. Glaeser, 44, an Economist at Harvard with a regular column in the New York Times has purportedly earned accolades writing on topics such as segregation and strategies on fighting poverty. It's curious, then, to have to consign this piece which graced the front page of this past Sunday's New York Times Op-Ed section to the vestibules of Dante's infernal echelons where bad writing and shallow analysis circle, ever morosely, in perpetual, tortuous free-fall.
Not since Judith Miller and her editors enabled George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to lie thousands of young Americans into premature, pointless deaths can I recall a more disgraceful piece of journalism from the Gray Lady than Glaeser's piece of "work" here. Mark Sumner did address some of the article's more incendiary passages in Sunday's Abbreviated Pundit Roundup but due to the evanescent nature of that particular site feature and the pernicious quality of Glaeser's attitude I think it's worth highlighting this POS to the point where it shrivels up and dies like a cockroach under a heatlamp. Because the fact that it happened to be written two days ago doesn't mean its sentiments and message are going away. They're not, and all of us here have to be prepared to deal with them.
Glaeser's thesis is straightforward enough:
Retirement seems out of the question for increasing numbers of Americans who are saddled with debt and whose savings evaporated during the recent bust. Today’s workers should expect to labor longer, and companies should expect to employ more older workers.
So far, so good. Nothing we don't already know here, but certainly a point worth making. The United States of America, and most of the world, have been utterly fucked by the rapacious and reckless greed of Wall Street and their International supporting cast. Hundreds of millions of people have had their own futures and those of their children ripped away forever. Many have been plunged into poverty or something very close to it, and many who planned to retire simply cannot. And the really weird thing is that all the imaginary money, all the "collateralized debt," that traded hands, to the extent it can be found at all, seems to have settled into the pockets of a select few. So, yeah, we're aware of what you call "the recent bust." Go on.
Between 2007 and 2010, the number of working Americans over 65 years old jumped 16 percent; the number of under-65’s in the labor force shrank. The trend started before the current downturn: the number of Americans over 65 in the labor force increased from 10.8 percent in 1985 to 12.1 percent in 1995 to 15.1 percent in 2005 to 17.4 percent in 2010.
Yes we've been working longer, and have been doing so since before the "current downturn" (also known as the "recent bust"). Glaeser suggests, without providing any supporting data, that this is because workers are no longer "penalized" for working while they collect Social Security, and the work is so much easier for all those "healthy" older folks to do. He helpfully points out that elderly Americans are not working in "blast furnaces" or "coal mines:"
But today, comparatively few workers over the age of 55 work in heavy industrial fields like manufacturing, construction or mining. By far the largest portion of older workers today work in the education and health sectors. These jobs aren’t easy — just ask Dr. Boomer — but they beat working in a coal mine.
He doesn't seem to consider that it's more likely and more logical that the shift towards working past 65 is not because older Americans are enthusiastically chomping at the bit to work (in these vaguely described but apparently ubiquitous "education" and "health sector" jobs), but rather because wages for all jobs have stagnated for all but a few, the cost of living and basics like food, gas, heat, and health care have increased dramatically, and Social Security simply doesn't provide enough to live on. You'd think a Harvard Economist like Glaeser ought to consider that, but he doesn't. But he is right, there is probably a qualitative difference between standing ten hour shifts with two ten minute breaks and restricted bathroom access in a Walmart, and working in a coal mine. I guess we are supposed to feel better about that.
This is where Glaeser drops the pretense of rational thought, turns sharply right and descends into a weird combination of thinly veiled contempt and raw malice:
Nearly 40 percent of 55- to 64-year-old Americans don’t have retirement accounts. Less than a quarter of this group owns a single stock or savings bond. The median net worth of 55- to 64-year-old Americans has declined during the last years and is now $254,000 (including housing), down from $273,000 just three years ago. American households saved less than 4 percent of their incomes for every year between 1999 and 2008; during this time, thrifty Germans were saving about one-tenth of their earnings. A nation that prefers spending to saving is going to find it difficult to enjoy a comfortable retirement.
Those last two sentences are clearly meant to be provocative. I suspect they're not meant to be wrong. Perhaps Glaeser really isn't trying to be insulting here, but it's hard to believe a Harvard Economist could be so obtuse that he'd miss the fact that "three quarters" of the "nearly forty percent" of Americans age 55-65 who purportedly don't own a "single stock or savings bond" might be living paycheck to paycheck. They are the 100 million Americans classified as the poor or "near poor":
One surprising difference with the new measure, outlined in an article today, was the 51 million people with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line. That category, sometimes called “near poor,” was 76 percent higher than the official account, which was published in September. (The portion of people under the poverty line, meanwhile, increased by just 5 percent in the new measure.)
About a fifth of the people who appear near poor in the new measure are lifted out of poverty by benefits the old measure ignores, like food stamps and tax credits. But more than half were pulled down into near poverty from higher income levels by taxes, medical costs and work expenses like child care and gas. Taken together with people under the poverty line, a full third of Americans – or about 100 million people – live in poverty or in the economically vulnerable area just above it.
Indeed, "thrifty Germans" were saving their earnings. Thrifty Germans (Glaeser's father is German) also have the advantage of the oldest universal health care system in the world. No it's not "free" for everyone. But its effectiveness is shown by how few are not covered: In Germany, only .2 percent of the population is uninsured, compared to 18% (likely more) in the U.S.
Moreover, "thrifty Germans" also have a generous pension system, often characterized as a "three-pillar" system with one critical pillar being company (corporate) payment into each worker's retirement plan. In other words--a real pension. Maybe--just maybe--that's why so-called "thrifty Germans" feel secure enough to save "about one-tenth" of their earnings. It also helps to live in a society carefully structured by the post-World War II Allies and protected from the annoyance of a Cold War Defense budget for fifty years, but I digress.
The most glaring omission from this entire analysis is any acknowledgment or consideration whatsoever of the reason why the issue of elderly employment is even being discussed. There is no mention of the disappearance of pensions, the inadequacy of 401k's, or the skyrocketing cost of health care. There is no acknowledgment of the impact of obsessive tax cuts skewed to the super-wealthy on our country's ability to provide a comfortable retirement for its citizens. There is no admission that the very thought of burdening seniors with the prospect of working into their seventies and eighties is a morally bankrupt position from the viewpoint of any developed Western nation, let alone the richest nation by GDP (and the 7th richest GDP per capita) in the world.
What sets the US apart from most other countries in this list is its size. While most other countries in this list are among the smallest in the world the US has a population of over 300 million and a total land area of 3,79 million square miles (9.83 million sq km). The US is also home to the largest amount of billionaires in the world. It is speculated that as many billionaires live in the US as in the rest of the world.
Rather than face the fierce contradiction of a nation with unparallelled human and physical resources forcing its elderly to work until their backs break and their lungs collapse, Glaeser soothes us with happy talk about how all of this is maybe really a swell thing:
It's counterintuitive, but the forever work life of older Americans may turn out to be a good thing for young workers. The “lump of labor fallacy” envisions an economic order in which there is a fixed amount of work to be done. But we can make more or less, buy more or less, and most important, we can create new lines of enterprise. Over time, growth and innovation can create plentiful new work opportunities.
Got that? Growth, innovation and plentiful new work opportunities are just waiting in the wings! It'll all be OK kids! After all, for you old age is something Far Off In The Future!
We then move from Science Fiction to pure fantasy:
It’s not that older workers never crowd out younger workers, but there are myriad ways in which older workers also increase employment among the young. As older workers earn more, they can afford to buy more products produced by the young. Older workers may be entrepreneurs who employ younger workers, and they may pass along valuable skills to the young.
This is the kind of revolving door logic that I swear must be a product of the Harvard Economics departmental initiation ceremony. Or maybe it's just an undetected substance in the water. Old people generally don't buy "new products" of the young because by the time a person reaches his seventies and eighties his/her habits are largely ingrained and encased in amber. That is why advertisers don't cater to the elderly unless they're trying to smother them in pharmaceutical concoctions or "wealth management" seminars. The average eighty-year old is not excited by your Blu-Ray or your I-phone. He/She generally doesn't want to drive your S4 or drink your Disaronna. He isn't swayed by your perky, sexy, "edgy" advertisements depicting young people blooming like flowers on skateboards.
The air of pure condescension is suffocating:
Almost 60 years ago, when baby boomers were still rattling around in their playpens, my former colleague John Kenneth Galbraith imagined an “affluent society” in which we would be able “to dispense with the labor of those who have reached retiring age.” It’s a source of common sorrow that his words — and their promise — turned out to be a mirage. While I feel sorry for every American who, like Dr. Boomer, wants to retire but can’t, there is a lot to like in this surge of experienced workers. Longer work lives mean more tax dollars, and that helps with America’s fiscal problems. Older workers also bring a diversity of perspectives and experience to the work force.
"Longer work lives mean more tax dollars." Seriously, this is the best Harvard can do? TAXES bring in more tax dollars. And the "diversity" and "perspectives" those wise older workers are not going to magically create jobs. But let it be known, Glaeser feels sorry for you. Why? If the work is so easy, if the jobs are so plentiful, if the economic benefits are so grand, why does he feel sorry?
He doesn't feel sorry. He's just penned a loathsome, shallow piece of cloying pseudo-analysis and sold it to the New York Times. It's the New York Times that should be feeling sorry for printing rank idiocy like this, Glaeser's closing paragraph:
The United States has always had a Calvinist backbone. We’ve long been comfortable with shorter vacations and longer workweeks. In this light, the mid-20th century retirement boom seems like something of an aberration. In a sense, the current rise in the working elderly is a reversion to form, and perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. While some older workers will have to work because they can’t afford not to, there remains the sunny possibility that others, like Galbraith himself — who worked well into his 90s — will do so because they find fulfillment in their jobs.
The remainder of this sorry analysis focuses on how seniors can magically transform themselves into wealthy entrepreneurs. It's hard to fathom the depths of cluelessness which would prompt these fanciful notions about the broad spectrum of American seniors, their physical condition and their available resources. It's also hard to imagine a more rancid piece of asshattery than this Panglossian paean to the virtues of working forever--essentially until we drop dead.
Our forefathers did not fight a two-front World War to consign their grandchildren to a life of artificially-induced poverty brought on a heedless class of greed-driven bankers and Harvard MBA's. The very idea that average Americans should be forced to sacrifice their retirements to pay for the mistakes of greed driven bankers and Harvard MBA's is obscene, and this poisonous idea really must end here, and end now before it's too late. This new meme may seem radical but it's no less insidious in its inherent fraudulence than our elected officials pushing "austerity" as a solution to the Economic collapse wrought by these same greedy Masters of the Universe. Both ideas are patent examples of capitulation and appeasement to the same people who sold out our futures from the start, but one only has to look across the pond to see how easily the infection of freshly packaged idiocy can spread and become "conventional wisdom:"
-- Britain; 65 for men and 60 for women. The government has started plans to raise women's pension age to 65 by 2012. Authorities are also looking to raise the state pension age further to 68, although plans are not due to begin before 2024.
-- Germany; 65, but government is debating raising it to 67.
-- Italy; people in the private sector can retire at 60 if they have paid into the social security system for at least 35 years; Under a reform begun a few years ago, the age is being gradually raised and by 2018 it will be 65.
-- Netherlands; 65, but new government has pledged to raise it to 66.
-- Austria; women at 62, men at 65; there have been repeated calls to raise age but no concrete measures taken yet.
-- Spain; 65, but government has pledges to raise it to 67. This one of the reforms unions cited but unions that staged general strike in September;
-- Greece; 65 for men, 60 for women. There are plans to raise women's retirement age to 65 by 2013 for public service, and private sector likely to follow. As part of austerity measures in Greece, early retirement opportunities are being drastically cut back.
-- Switzerland; 65 for men, 64 for women. Business groups are pushing for it to be gradually raised to 67 for both sexes by 2030.
Indeed, "Longer work lives mean more tax dollars." And conversely, they mean less taxes to those who don't wish to pay them.
These are very dangerous times for the vast majority of Americans who do not control the levers of powers or the vast wealth that seems to be the sole thing that moves them. Their rights are being rolled back and stepped on by a class that has gotten used to getting away with it. But this surrender and complacency must end, and it must end across the political spectrum, because our lives do literally depend on it. Because it is not working that is the issue here, it is not really working that these people are proposing, but a rather brave, new, and different concept altogether: that of being worked.