Ridiculing the French is an obnoxious right-wing cliche that I thought I'd outgrown. But sometimes they make it so hard to resist.
Right now, France is paralyzed by Greek-style anti-“austerity” protests, triggered by President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to raise the retirement age — one of the lowest in Europe — all the way from 60 to 62.
Across the West, aging populations have exposed the false promise of retirement schemes based on intergenerational transfer payments. By 2050, every French working couple will have to carry one retiree on their backs as France's public debt hits 337 percent of GDP.
Sarkozy's plan thus looks like a modest gesture toward fiscal sanity. Yet the French masses see it as cause for torching cars and barricading streets. Sigh. Pass the “Freedom Fries.”
Most galling is the zeal with which French youth have joined the retirement-age riots. They're the ones who are going to pay the tab for a sclerotic entitlement state that eats its young.
Yet by Monday, student protests had rocked some 300 schools, with French youths throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at police in Paris suburbs. If there's a better example of misunderstanding your own class interests — what Marxists call “false consciousness” — I don't know what it is.
On Thursday, just as French students hit the streets, U.S. President Barack Obama held an MTV “town hall” before a hand-picked student audience — part of his all-out effort to mobilize the youth vote for November. This gives rise to an important question: Are America's youth as dumb as the French?
Maybe not. Two-thirds of under-30 voters pulled the lever for Obama in 2008, but the bloom is coming off the rose. “College students' Obamamania wanes,” the Associated Press reported last week. A joint AP-MTV poll had Obama's job approval among students down from 60 percent last year to 44 percent now, with his negatives up 12 points.
Seeking to rekindle the flame, Obama bragged to the MTV audience, “I'm proud of the fact that a lot of the young people here are going to benefit very directly” from health care reform.
Hardly. In a recent Cato study, “Obamacare: A Bad Deal for Young Adults,” economist Aaron Yelowitz argues that the so-called “Affordable Care Act” rests on young workers “implicitly subsidizing older workers.” It “essentially creates a price-control scheme where healthy 25-year-olds pay the same premiums as 55-year-old smokers if they buy insurance in the individual market.” But hey, maybe they can save money by staying on their parents' insurance while living at home.
You'd like to think waning Obamamania is that rare case of the Millennial Generation wising up. A recent Pew survey suggests it's more like attention-deficit disorder. Where 53 percent of over-30 voters report “giving a lot of thought” to the upcoming elections, only 31 percent of the under-30 set is similarly engaged.
Over the long term, though, apathy won't cut it. The Congressional Budget Office projects a mid-century public debt of $123 trillion, largely driven by health care and retirement costs.
As the entitlements crisis worsens, young Americans' ability to save and plan for their future will be eaten up to provide yet more benefits for the wealthiest age group in America. We're fast devolving into what you might call a “geronkleptocracy,” from the Greek roots “geron,” old man, and “klept,” to steal. (With Google, you too can fake erudition.)
The current GOP — increasingly dependent on older voters and dead-set against Medicare cuts — looks ill-suited to push the reforms needed. Let's hope that with age comes wisdom because neither party will change until younger voters wise up and start defending their interests.
Examiner Columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”