Young people? Blow up the political system, for your own good

In my last column I wrote about why I would likely not vote in the upcoming election. Some readers took me to task for discouraging voters from fulfilling a basic democratic duty. Readers seemed particularly concerned that I was deterring young voters, who already vote at comparatively low rates.

My article, however, was largely aimed at two targets: the scale and complexity of the modern nation-state, and the moribund nature of our current party structures. To bring nuance to my previous argument, then, I would strongly encourage young voters to blow up our current party system.

Why? Because contemporary politics shafts younger Americans. Indeed, for all its supposed glorification of youth, America is in many ways engaged in a war against young people; in some cases literally, as in its ill-advised foreign military ventures, and in other cases metaphorically, as in its domestic policy programs.

What makes this “war” different from others is the fact that the victims don’t realize it’s being waged against them, although there are faint glimmerings of a growing awareness as the labor markets and financial markets begin their inevitable contractions.

Wealth is the most important factor in representation, and the wealth disparities between elderly Americans and young working Americans could hardly be more unfair. Elderly households have an average net worth 46 times the size of workers under the age of 35, more than double what it was just nine years ago and five times what it was 25 years ago.

Since 2010, Social Security has been paying out more than it is taking in, a shortfall that is only going to get worse, potentially adding up over the next 75 years to an inflation-adjusted number more than eight times the size of the current budget. Social Security taxes will have to increase by more than 50 percent to cover the growing deficits.

The primary function of political parties is to nominate and elect candidates, and as shifting coalitions they will always tailor themselves to groups that vote. When faced with a new entry into the political marketplace, or when an already existing group begins to change its allegiances in response to events (think white southerners in the 1960’s), parties will move to capture these votes, if those votes are of significant enough strength to alter elections. Given that their wealthier grandparents are a larger group in real numbers, and vote at about twice the rate, it will be enormously difficult for young people to make inroads through the current party system.

In a complex society such as ours, whose government is largely a managerial bureaucracy, politics is largely about satisfying demands of clients. Public democracy as governed through representative institutions has waned in America and been replaced by “interest-group” liberalism that exercises control over the public sphere through influencing bureaucratic management.

James Madison, in Federalist Paper No. 10, offered the conflict of different self-promoting interests as a justification for a more centralized government. Madison believed that expanding the number of interests would result in a kind of mutual negation, no one interest able to dominate the collective force of contrary impulses. But this structure only works if all interests are equally organized and active. A well-organized and well-heeled particular interest could come to dominate policy if the natural opposition was not so.

This is why 50 percent of federal funding goes to the 13 percent of the population over 65. There is no American Association of Young Persons, and even if there were they would not be likely to have the billion dollars-plus in assets held by their counterparts in the AARP.

Every year we delay changes to unsustainable entitlement programs both increases the associated costs, most of which will be absorbed by those now entering the labor market, and increases the likelihood of systemic collapse with its attendant violence.

In the meantime, we might appeal to the consciences of those in my and my parents’ generation. "Sacrifice for your children" and "leave a place better than you found it" are two pretty solid principles. Unfortunately, given the scale of senior entitlements no one person is likely to see their sacrifices as making any difference and thus will have little incentive to make any. But reality will have its due in the form of punitively high payroll taxes, at which point young workers will make themselves heard.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Sat, 10/18/2014 - 9:17am
The young don't vote and then whine about the outcome, a strategy Democrats have perfected, particularly in off year elections. The solutions for the grievances start with voting and can be significantly accelerated by working on campaigns and even running for office. A solution for the Social Security deficit could be pretty simple: remove the cap on FICA. A solution for the lopsided Medicare advantage for the old could be to make Medicare available to all and get in step with healthcare delivery systems around the world that actually work. The young could get their hands dirty and actually work toward specific political goals, or, continue to whine.
John S. Porter
Sun, 10/19/2014 - 7:17am
As an observation, I have never heard young people as a group whine as much as the seniors. That is a gross oversimplification I know, but what about young people demanding a youth discount? Seniors often ask for the senior discount. I was in a meeting in Mt. Pleasant when John Engler was running for something, before his governorship. A member of the audience said he thought property taxes were the only thing keeping home prices low enough for a young person to buy a home. Engler said. "I never thought of it that way." Until the current administration it, seems all tax changes were for the benefit of older people at the expense of the young. When I was young I thought young people were getting screwed. Now that I am old, I still feel that young people are getting screwed, starting with prenatal care and right on up. They don't vote because they aren't permitted to. Then they don't have enough knowledge to stand up and vote when they finally are permitted to. And by the way, not voting is the dumbest idea I've ever heard of if you want to change the system.
Jeff Polet
Sun, 10/19/2014 - 12:32pm
Maybe. But maybe not. Voting might just perpetuate the current system by granting it legitimacy. There is a lot of literature concerning the moral defense of not voting as well as the inefficacy of voting. There are the related thoughts of Mark Twain and Emma Goldman, but of which amount to the claim that if voting made a difference it wouldn't be allowed. Young people cannot work within the current party system, which determines the outcomes of elections, without seriously realigning the parties -- which is the point of my piece.
John S. Porter
Wed, 10/22/2014 - 11:14am
"Voting might just perpetuate the current system by granting it legitimacy." What troubles me is the lack of solution in the article. It seems to be a total loss of faith in our ability as a nation to address issues that are important. Rereading the article I see an appeal to equity or fairness, suggesting that it would be fairer if older people were poorer, or perhaps "standing outside of Federal office buildings with pitch forks and axes". For all the talk about our Constitution, there doesn't seem to be many people supporting political engagement as a solution. That leaves the field open for those that are politically engaged. If young people had leadership similar to Hong Kong, or others who have no democracy, our system of government, which implies political engagement, would be entirely suitable for resolving these issues. Bashing politicians and telling young people not to vote is a recipe for getting more kids in a hopeless state of mind. Why do some kids just freak out and start shooting people, like Columbine? I think that it is us older people telling them that they are getting screwed. Too many people in both parties claim that the system is hopelessly unfair and can't be changed, that politicians are bad. If we can't envision change, we sure as hell can't make it happen. There is no substitute political engagement. Talking about pitch forks and blowing things up is nothing but a distraction from the task at hand. Come on Mr. Polet. Throw me a bone on this one!
John S. Porter
Wed, 10/22/2014 - 11:17am
Correction . . . There IS no substitute for political engagement.
Sun, 10/19/2014 - 8:15am
Shame on those that don't vote and volunteer and don't support the needy. The Federal and State governments should be reduced down to the COMMUNITY.
Sun, 10/19/2014 - 5:23pm
“In America, the young are always ready to give to those older than themselves the full benefit of their inexperience.” Oscar Wilde It seems Mr. Polet fails to consider that those he is so jealous of were ‘young’ once and worked through their inexperience to acquire the wealth Mr. Polet feels they don’t deserve. Mr. Polet seems too quick to ‘blowup’ what has provided him and the ‘young’ a social/political structure that allows them to say what they will, do what they will, and the opportunity to grow old in the way they are willing to work for simply because the ‘old’ have more then he feels is 'fair'. I wonder if he can even define ‘fair’, if not then it appears to be simply some nebulous thing that is invoked to justify a point of view so he doesn’t have to think beyond what he wants. Mr. Polet seems to feel it is fair that the ‘old’ who have worked through their youth with sacrifice to acquire a level of wealth they didn’t have when they were ‘young’ should turn it over to the ‘young’ simply because they are young. Mr. Polet seems to feel by being ‘young’ deserves to have what the ‘old’ have without effort. He must think the ‘young’ because of their youth are somehow smarter than the ‘old’. Mr. Polet’s article rates a ‘whine with cheese.’ See Mr. Worthams’ article for more on the rating.
Mon, 10/20/2014 - 10:36am
I believe you've mischaracterized the basis of Mr. Polet's "your word,..whine". I suspect that all three of us agree and without resentment that the older generation in question should on average have greater wealth than the younger generations based on a longer accumulation period and the belief that they would be living off their savings and investments. But the hard work and efforts part of this story ends quickly when considering the programs that will never provide the benefits levels to younger taxpayers are maintained (largely with debt) for older benefit receivers just to avoid upsetting this powerful heavily voting interest group. Even the smallest adjustment to their benefits ("The Pension Tax") is meet with apoplectic hysteria, just think what would happen if we tried to tackle the $3 in benes to every $1 in recipient payments ratio for Medicaid. I believe Mr. Prolet's point is that if Millenials had a clue about more than craft beers and the best entertainment venues we'd see them standing outside of Federal office buildings with pitch forks and axes and I don't see how you'd argue with that point.
Mon, 10/20/2014 - 9:37pm
Matt, It is quite likely I misinterpreted Mr. Polet’s article, I am ‘old’. What I did read seem to be about how the ‘old’ have so much more than the ‘young’ and that is not ‘fair’. I must have overlooked where Mr. Polet offer ideas for change or he asked others for such ideas. I say that because to me a ‘whine’ is earned when a person complains and shows no interest in changing what is being complained about. It seems Mr. Polet discourage any efforts at change by blaming the ‘old’ for voting. It seems that when the programs he complains about were passed there were very few ‘old’. It might also be true that the fast growing part of SocSec in recent years is the disability assistance program (which is not for the ‘old’). He earned the ‘with cheese’ when he invoke fairness to justify his complaining, He made no effort to help the reader understand what ‘fair’ is or how it applies, he plays to the ambiguity so there can’t be a challenge. He wants to complain and wants credibility but shows no willingness to expose his thinking. Both of you seem to accept the rationale about why and how the ‘old’ have what they have since you make not effort to believe they maybe the best agents of change. Mr. Polet and you seem to only see things in money terms. A reason the ‘old’ have more than the ‘young’ is that they have learned to see things in value terms. They seem to value the vote, to value of work (beyond money), to value of sacrifice and investing, and to value personal responsibility. It is disappointing that neither your or Mr. Polet are interested in asking the ‘old’ what they think is valuable about the programs and how they might be changed to be available when the ‘young’ become ‘old’. Complaining with no interest in change is a ‘whine’, invoking ‘fair’ with no thought about what it means is ‘with cheese.’
Tue, 10/21/2014 - 11:58am
Duane, to throw your comments, back to you and considering the scope of Prolet's comments are toward governmental issues rather than other aspects What example can you give of Senior /Elder groups ("Agents of change"? ) proposing solutions to make their programs sustainable? I hope to be surprised but suspect cricket are all we hear. Seems anytime a solution is proposed all it is met with is charges of throwing gramma off the cliff - EXCEPT when the solution is to extract yet even more money from younger generations. And given the main interest of senior groups being no negative financial impact on their programs vs. younger voter's interest in gay marriage, free college, rainbows, and unicorns, along with their associated voting patterns, I don't see any real surprise who is winning the battle for resources.
Tue, 10/21/2014 - 9:53pm
Matt, Are you listening to 'old' people or to those who are self-proclaimed 'spokesman' for the 'old'? Are you truly interested in the issues or are they simply a ploy to obfuscate the issue of listening to the 'old'? When did you last ask 'old' individuals what they think about an issue? As an example; you mention 'gay marriage' which is a political tool for power rather than a concern about legal standing of partners. The 'old' have issues with civil 'marriages,' i.e. when there is a second marriage the legal status of family from a previous marriage is brought into question with the current laws. But those who made 'gay marriage' the issue showed no interest or consideration for the 'old', they would rather claim ‘old’ are opposed then make an effort to include the issue s of the ‘old’. If people were less about political power/leverage and more about addressing problems then the redoing of Michigan law would have included all other problems associated with it and drawn a wide range of support, even the 'old'. Could I be wrong and you were asking the 'old' about what issues they may have with current civil 'marriage' laws (not religious issues)? You want to hear ideas from the 'old' then you might try asking. Could it be you are only hearing 'crickets' because you aren't listening for what is being said and you only want to hear ‘crickets’? As for the battle over resources, it is what the politicians manipulate for power not what the old' or 'young' are clamoring for. If you were truly talking about resources and not simply money, you might consider the knowledge and skills of people, 'young' and 'old' people, as resources and be interested in to drawing them into addressing issues/problems. Mr. Polet never seem to spend time on the value for either the ‘young’ or ‘old’ he only talked about ‘wealth’. If you only want money and do describe what results it will deliver then don’t be surprised if those who know the value they are getting for the money are resistant.
Charles Richards
Sun, 10/19/2014 - 7:51pm
James Madison was correct in believing that it was impossible to eliminate "special interests." Very few people are sufficiently community oriented or have sufficiently long time horizons to put the community's long term interest over their particular, immediate interest. A psychologist has noted that human beings are ninety percent hierarchical chimpanzee and ten percent social bee. Professor Polet is mistaken when he says "Public democracy as governed through representative institutions has waned in America and been replaced by “interest-group” liberalism that exercises control over the public sphere through influencing bureaucratic management." There was no "golden age" of civic mindedness. It is true that there have been times when we have been better (or worse) at putting our common interest above our special interest. One such time was the era after World War II when we had become accustomed to cooperating for common purposes. (That era was of course derided by the sixties radicals as a time of stifling conformity.) In any case, we have no choice but to deal with a situation where everybody is trying to reap more than he sows. As Professor Polet points out, the senior citizens are particularly effective at that. (Something that Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post has often pointed out.) But Professor Polet's advice that young people shouldn't vote is wrong headed. How would that help their situation? As he says, senior citizens "vote at about twice the rate" of young people. He should be working to enlighten young people and urging them to vote. Admittedly, that would be a difficult chore, because it would entail asking them to vote Republican, for the uncool party.
Mon, 10/20/2014 - 1:50pm
I always get a chuckle when guys with English degrees try to parse social security. It turns out that it's easy to show that Social Security is the ruination of African Americans. The men especially, pay 15.3 percent of their life time earnings into the trust, retire at age 65 which is the average age at which African American men die. (Well, no; the average age at death is now 67 and the retirement age is also 67.) They work all their lives and get nothing back. If there were a sequestered account, their estates would have several hundred thousand dollars to pass onto their estates. Whites would have to use up their accounts in living to ages 78 or so. The difference is enough to cause the relative poverty of African Americans. Less dramatic alterations apply to men of any race who do physical labor. But there the gulls are, lining up to vote for Democrats and against their own interests. African Americans would be better off not voting at all. Young people are fiscally conservative and socially liberal; more libertarian in their ideals than the oldsters who vote their own interests and ignore romantic fancies. It's a shame that youngsters won't express their opinions and interests in the political arena.