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Generation Gap

There was a time not long ago when the “generation gap” in American politics implied that young people didn’t know or care enough about what was best for the country, and as a result, didn’t vote or participate meaningfully in civic life. Now, when it comes to the ongoing struggle for health care reform, the “generation gap” is trending in the opposite direction, and the consequences could be ominous.

According to the latest CNN poll, and a host of other indicators, a majority of Americans under the age of 50 favor President Obama’s plans, while a majority of those over 50 oppose them. There are all sorts of understandable reasons for elderly resistance to change, but there’s also a frustrating irony: A Fox News poll found that 56% of those over 65 oppose a government-run insurance plan to compete with private plans.

But those are the very people enjoying government-run insurance!

And the cost of that insurance plan — i.e. Medicare and Medicaid — is growing rapidly, eating up more and more of federal spending, and digging deeper into our children’s future. It also enables us to become a culture that can’t and won’t confront the serious ethical and communal challenges of end-of-life care. Should taxpayers fund expensive and questionable treatments to prolong the life of the very old, especially when that comes at the expense of health care for the young? As the writer Richard Dooling noted recently, 8 million children have no health insurance, but their parents pay 3% of their salaries to Medicare to ensure that seniors get the very best prescription drugs for all manner of ailments, including erectile dysfunction.

The need to address this imbalance is only going to grow as the American population continues to age, but for that very reason, reforming health care will become even more politically difficult. The political establishment is loath to speak honestly to the powerful senior lobby, and Republicans, especially, have employed cowardly tactics to scare grandma into noisily objecting to reform — another irony of this saga, since the GOP is supposed to be the champion of smaller and more rational government.

Our tradition implores us to care for the elderly, as every moral people should. But our tradition also implores us to worry about the next generation, and the next. If bubbe and zayde work only to protect their own entitlement, their grandchildren will inherit a much sicker world.

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