Longevity Crisis? Kill Grandma.
By Barbara Ehrenreich
June 6, 2005
A specter is stalking the Western world, and it looks a lot like
Grandma. As President Bush has repeatedly put it, the problem with
Social Security is that "baby boomers will be living longer." Not
"too" long, he's careful to say, but long enough to create a fiscal
catastrophe. And it's not just Social Security. Medicare, as well as
any company rash enough to have offered pensions, may eventually sink
under the weight of its obligations to the elderly. A welfare state
designed in the era of bacon, eggs and Lucky Strikes cannot expect to
survive in an age of "active seniors" who wash down their Viagra with
soy milk and think a six-pack is something you get at the gym.
So far, the policymakers' response has been to gut the welfare state
before the greedy geezers can plunder it. For example, the Bush
administration has achieved deep cuts in Medicaid, which supports many
of the middle class in their post-golden nursing home years, and it
continues to fight for the evisceration of Social Security.
But can such namby-pamby solutions really get to the root of the
problem? Isn't it clear that there are just too many old people
around, luxuriating in their assisted-living communities and expecting
the government to support their statin and beta-blocker habits? Does
no one have the courage to confront the longevity crisis head-on?
There are exceptions - a few Americans brave enough to try. Some
credit should go to Burger King for its new "Enormous Omelet
Sandwich," and to Hardee's for its "Monster Burger" (two
one-third-pound patties.) Nor can we neglect the manufacturers of the
various cardiovascularly compromising painkillers, such as Celebrex
and Vioxx. In addition, Wyeth, the pharmaceutical company whose
aggressively marketed hormone replacement therapy pill turned out to
cause breast cancer and heart disease, deserves some retrospective
The longevity-fighting Purple Heart, though, goes to the Center for
Consumer Freedom, funded by the tobacco and restaurant industries,
which bravely battles restrictions on indoor smoking, repressive
limits on blood-alcohol levels for drivers and the relentless liberal
bad-mouthing of salt, fat, sugar and meat. And what has the CCF gotten
for its efforts? A challenge to its tax-exempt status from Citizens
for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Face it, nothing is really going to change until the federal
government tackles the problem itself. It might start drafting
60-year-olds, for example, for a few months of service in the Iraqi
desert. And what about transforming the Drug Enforcement
Administration into the Diet Enforcement Administration, with the
power to search drivers for stray bits of broccoli and tofu?
Of course, it could be argued that Bush's attack on the welfare state
will solve the longevity crisis without recourse to controversial
measures. Toss Gramps out of the nursing home, take away his Social
Security check and see how long he survives. Still, it's fair to ask:
Is Bush really doing enough, or is he being held back by his
oft-stated commitment to the "culture of life"?
Here is the contradiction in the tiny, dark heart of American
conservatism: Its values are solidly "pro-life," but its economic
policies lean toward death. While upholding the right of each stem
cell to blossom into a human, conservatives have curtailed the lives
of all multicellular citizens - by weakening environmental
regulations, for instance, and cutting social programs.
Right-wing ambivalence on life-and-death issues exploded into a
schizophrenic breakdown in the case of Terri Schiavo. With one hand,
the Republicans held her feeding tube firmly in place, while the other
hand reached for the ax to cut off the flow of Medicaid dollars that
were keeping that poor shell of woman alive.
It would take courage for a president to promote a consistently
pro-death outlook. Some Christian spokesmen will fret that we are on
the slippery slope to euthanasia, although they have never complained
about torture or war. Nevertheless, it might be tactful to frame the
new stance as a way of encouraging turnover - as at Wal-Mart, where
40% of employees leave every year - rather than death.
Get born, get into the crucial 18-to-35-year-old consumer demographic,
and have the good sense to get out before you've overstayed your
welcome. And it would take genuine heroism to confront baby boomers
with the question usually addressed to 18-year-old grunts: Are you
willing to die for your country? Like maybe right now? Because that's
what they want from us, folks, unless we can come up with a better
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of "Nickel and Dimed:
On (Not) Getting By in America" (Owl Books, 2002).