In a world that is stranger than anything we ever could have expected to experience, we are now so regularly shocked that it actually becomes shocking when something still shocks us.
That has been true in a general sense for several years, as people have been dismayed by how many norms and precedents Donald Trump has handily destroyed—and by the Republicans who have abandoned seemingly every principle they ever claimed to hold dear in order to enable and abet their new leader. But the coronavirus pandemic is creating entirely new standards of what counts as shocking.
Even in this sad new world, of course, Trump is still the primary source of shocking statements and actions, including his recent claim that he “felt” that this was a pandemic all along (even though he had continually denied that it was even a problem) and his bizarre digressions about the TV ratings of his press appearances. And that is to say nothing about his stream of insults aimed at reporters and governors (with special bile aimed, of course, at women).
So it takes a special kind of depravity to break through the fog of lies and self-serving disinformation coming from the White House. Texas’s Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, however, figured out how to steal the spotlight of ignominy, at least for a few news cycles.
As has now been widely reported (and rightly mocked), Patrick went on a Fox opinion program and blithely said that senior citizens, because anti-coronavirus efforts are harming the economy, ought to be “willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren.”
Again, this bizarre assertion (which Patrick made last week) has already been roundly and appropriately rejected on any number of grounds. Here, I will briefly comment on the most important reason that people have rejected his suggestion. More importantly, however, we must keep in mind just how common this particular heartstring-tugger—the “Do it for the grandkids!” move—is among Republican politicians.
I write this column because a big part of my research and writing over the past fifteen years or so has been devoted to exploring questions of justice between generations. Do older people have any obligations to younger people; and if so, what are they? It turns out that the answers are not at all obvious.
Even though Mr. Patrick’s version of this was especially silly, it does offer a moment to reflect on why and how Republicans have beaten this meme into the ground and to contrast their claims with what a true commitment to the interests of future generations would look like.
The Most Obvious Problem with Patrick’s Call for Generational Sacrifice: It Won’t Work
After Patrick set up his tradeoff—asking if seniors should be willing to risk their lives to save the economy—he added: “And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.” Why, he wondered, would older people not be willing to put their relatively few remaining years on Earth at risk if doing so was the price of keeping their children’s and grandchildren’s economy afloat?
The simple answer is that this is most definitely not the exchange that is on offer from the coronavirus. The more frequently and recklessly older people put themselves at risk (or encourage younger people to disregard the risk), the more people will become infected and seriously ill—including younger people. And that will harm the economy even more severely, because more widespread transmission will lengthen the amount of time necessary to bring the pandemic under control.
Moreover, the damage could be worse under Patrick’s approach not just in degree but in kind. That is, it is not just that the level of economic activity will be reduced even more and for much longer, but an uncontrolled pandemic could cause the entire economy to collapse.
After all, when it reaches the point where there are too few healthy workers to keep supply lines open—to say nothing of keeping basic utilities like water and electricity (and the internet) running—we are talking about economic damage of a completely different type. And we should never force our children and grandchildren to rebuild the economy from the rubble of that kind of fundamental damage.
This is not simply bartenders losing two months of tips—although it is truly bad when anyone loses her livelihood, and such harms should be kept to a minimum and fully compensated by government relief efforts—but the entire economy falling apart. Seniors should, if they love the younger generations, be leading the efforts to get people to end the coronavirus threat as aggressively and quickly as possible.
Are Older People Feeling Generous?
What is especially bizarre about Patrick’s idea is that he apparently believes that it is obvious that older people feel that younger people are worth dying for. Perhaps Patrick feels that way, but plenty of older people might disagree.
Although this is an extreme anecdote, I offer the following as a way to think about intergenerational conflict. The other day, in my medium-sized university town, I was taking a walk in an effort to maintain my sanity during these challenging times. At one point, I heard someone on the other side of some trees quite literally shrieking at the top of his lungs at another person. The exchange was fascinating.
The shrieker appeared to be about sixty years old, and the object of his ire appeared to be a college student. It seems that the younger person had walked too close to the older person on a nature trail, violating (at least in the shrieker’s mind) appropriate distancing requirements. The shrieker shrieked: “You come at me? What’s wrong with you young people? You’re all pricks.” The other person responded: “I’m sorry.”
Shrieker: “You should be. You people—all you young people—are just pricks. I can’t believe that I’ve spent my entire life educating you pricks, and this is the gratitude that I get. Think about your prickness. Think about your prickness. Think about your prickness!” After walking about fifty feet down the trail, he turned back and started shouting about “prickness” awhile longer, as the younger person walked in the opposite direction.
Again, I do not believe that this deranged individual (and, if his statements can be taken at face value, fellow professor) represents the norm. If anything, the exchange shows just how differently people are handling (or not) the stresses of life today.
My point, instead, is simply that people—even (or especially) older people—do not generally seem to think, “Oh well, I’ve had a good run.” Instead, they view their remaining years as precious. When Dylan Thomas wrote that older people “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” moreover, he was begging his father to “not go gentle into that good night.” It is not a selfish act for older people to try to extend their lives. Their children want them to do exactly that.
And honestly, what kind of child would say: “Well, generally I want to you to stay alive—but only if it’s not at my expense. If your continued presence comes at the expense of the economy, then maybe it’s time for you to walk out on the tundra, Dad”? My father died when I was fifteen years old. I do not even know how to calculate what material pleasures I would give up to have had more time with him.
Even when the situation is not merely about economic performance but about lives for lives, it is not obvious ex ante how anyone would choose. In a classic lifeboat situation, where one person has to be thrown overboard to save the others, one can imagine the older people swallowing hard and volunteering to die; but one can just as easily believe that their children and grandchildren would not view it as a simple years-remaining-before-death calculation. Indeed, bioethicists say that it would be abhorrent to give a ventilator in the current situation to one patient over another because the former is younger.
The point, then, is that it is not in any way clear that most people would—or even should—simply say “the old must die first.” Again, however, what we face now is nowhere near that kind of tragic choice. In the midst of a pandemic, we should be heartened that our best path forward is win-win for everyone. Both for the economy and for people’s lives, Lt. Gov. Patrick’s analysis is simply wrong.
What Do We Owe Future Generations?
As I noted earlier, I have spent a great deal of my time pondering issues of generational justice. It is instructive to understand how I found myself doing so, given that I am trained as an economist and a lawyer but not as a philosopher. How did I end up being one of the scholars who writes most frequently about intergenerational justice?
My primary research focus in my early years as an economist was federal debt and deficits. Because those academic issues have strong real-world political resonance, economists who write in that area frequently echo what they hear from politicians. By far the most common normative claim that I came across—from both conservative economists and from anti-debt politicians—was some variation on this basic idea: “We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to pile debt on their backs.” This was the all-purpose showstopper for conservatives of all stripes: How dare liberals harm innocent children—including generations yet unborn—by being fiscally irresponsible?
This is, it turns out, warmed-over nonsense. Debt can be good or bad, both for current generations and for future ones. Indeed, if the government takes on debt today to put people to work building better electrical grids, smoother transportation systems, and so on, that means that current generations are sacrificing even though the money is borrowed. Why? Every person whose labor is used today for the benefit of future generations cannot be put to work increasing economic benefits for today’s needs and wants. That is generational sacrifice.
The most absurd variation on the debt-harms-our-kids argument that I ever heard, however, came during the 2009 fight in Congress over the stimulus bill to help end the Great Recession. The last holdouts in the Senate were two Republicans and a conservative Democrat, the latter of whom argued during a news interview that it was important to reduce the total amount of borrowing “for the good of our children and our grandchildren.”
That is, of course, merely standard treacle, but the kicker was that the $30 billion that these senators succeeded in cutting from the bill would have gone to improving schools and universities. The conservative Democrat weakly claimed that, “when I was a governor, I didn’t like being told what to spend my money on,” but he had no answer when the interviewer said, “Yes, but governors would be given this money, not told to repurpose other state funds.”
Rationalizations aside, however, consider the argument here: Debt harms young people, so it is essential that we not spend money on education for young people! Decades of research show that the return on spending on all levels of education—even when the spending is financed by borrowing—more than pays for itself. That is why this is properly called public investment, because it gives young people an economy prosperous enough both to service the debt and to give younger people higher standards of living.
Of course, if conservatives actually cared about the interests of future generations, they would not only revise their views about debt and deficits but about environmental policy as well. Even this week, the Trump administration weakened environmental rules once again, supposedly to strengthen the economy. Not only does dirtier air not increase living standards, but the effects on very young children can be severe, as developing bodies in particular are harmed by those poisons.
And need we mention climate change? There are many reasons that young people are the most anti-Republican demographic in the country, and conservatives’ climate denialism is high on the list. Why do people who claim to care about their children and grandchildren insist on ignoring them? Perhaps children are meant to be used and not heard.
Again, Dan Patrick’s comments were astonishingly insipid in many ways. But he did not suddenly invent the idea of using young people as a political prop. “Let’s do it for the grandkids” is practically a nervous tic for Republicans—but only in the service of reactionary policies that ultimately hurt the younger generations that they supposedly hold dear.