Makers and Takers

If you want to know the priorities behind Paul Ryan’s latest budget, “The Path to Prosperity,” look no further than the line he delivered to the audience at the American Enterprise Institute. “We’ve become a nation of net takers versus makers,” said the House budget chair.

The natural instinct of most liberals is to put this in stark class terms. In the language of Occupy, the makers are the “1 percent,” and the takers are the other 99 percent. But this ignores the degree to which the Republican Party is engaged in a form of generational warfare against the rising tide of younger Americans. For the last two years, Republicans have tried to defend the prerogatives of the elderly and near-elderly—opposing health care reform and anything else that would redistribute income to young people—for the sake of preserving their political coalition and providing benefits for the wealthy. The “makers” aren’t just rich people—it also includes the elderly people who feel entitled to the benefits they receive. I saw this last year, when I was reporting on Rick Perry in South Carolina:

To the older, white Tea Party voters Perry needs to win the Republican nomination, this simply isn’t true. “We paid into Social Security,” said Steven Anderson, a member of the Low Country 9/12 project and a retiree. His wife, Judie, chimed in, “It’s not an entitlement, it’s ours.” The same went for Art LeBruce, a retired Army medic and longtime member of the group: “That’s my money that I put into Social Security – I deserve it.”

“The Path to Prosperity,” then, is another step in that direction. First and foremost, it maintains the benefits enjoyed by the current generation of seniors. Medicare is preserved, and the premium support plan—which I discussed earlier this morning—is optional. Ryan lambasts Social Security as a key driver of debt, but doesn’t seem to want to do anything about it, asking instead that Republicans begin a “conversation” on the matter. The only entitlement program that comes under direct assault is Medicaid—which is designed to serve poor Americans as well the elderly.

As for the other set of “makers,” the rich, Ryan plans to cut taxes for them and their businesses, and pay for the difference with cuts to social programs for everyone else. Of course, this also includes the Affordable Care Act, which—in effect—redistributes wealth from the elderly and rich, and to the young and working-class, who are the most likely to be uninsured.

None of this is to diminish the extent to which this budget is also about a particular ideology. As Derek Thompson writes for The Atlantic, Ryan’s budget attempts to answer the question of how “to reduce the deficit by cutting government health care spending without doing something too unpopular?” For Ryan and other conservatives of his stripe, who see government as one of the “takers” in society, this is a natural question. But as far as understanding the politics of this crusade, it’s important to grasp the generational aspect of the fight. With their attacks on health care reform and other programs, House Republicans are standing up for their strongest supporters—old people.