Are the old opposed to progress?
By Scott Sumner
The Economist has an interesting article (focused on UK politics), which suggests that the answer is yes. I’m less sure, but the article is full of interesting tidbits. Here’s how it begins:
Clive thinks immigration has overwhelmed the health service. Pat says her town is swamped by new housing. Elizabeth voted for Brexit, but doesn’t want a trade deal with America, “especially the pharmaceutical side of it, Trump and his chickens.” So did Kathleen, but she now thinks a no-deal exit will mean shortages of groceries and medicines. “I’m prepared to do without stuff,” she says.
They are part of a focus group organised by NatCen, a social-research institute, studying “affluent eurosceptics”, a Conservative-leaning middle-class tribe. Nearly half the group is over retirement age. They lament their children’s europhilia, their grandchildren’s idleness and the decline of Britain’s industrial prowess. Yet the thread that links their views is a preference for policies that harm growth, and an aversion to those which boost it. . . .
Onward, a think-tank close to the government, reported last year that the old are especially hostile to the “drivers of prosperity in the modern liberal market economy”. They are more likely to agree with statements such as “globalisation has not benefited most people”, “jobs and wages have been made worse by technological change” and “more people living in cities has made society worse.”
On the other side, younger voters tend to be more supportive of socialism, which in my view is a profoundly anti-progress ideology. Nonetheless, it is striking how older voters have recently shifted on a wide range of issues. They’ve probably always been more reactionary on social issues such as interracial marriage, gay rights and drug legalization. But they have also become more skeptical of trade and immigration, and more hostile to building new housing. Some of this reflects the fact that Nimby policies disproportionately hurt younger voters.
In the UK, older voters favor spending on health care (and pensions) over education. According to The Economist, they seem to have had their way, as spending on health care has risen from 6% to 7% of GDP while spending on education fell from 6% to 4% of GDP. I’m actually not convinced that public education does much to spur growth, but I’m almost certain that additional spending on health care doesn’t boost growth.
Leadership in the UK’s Conservative Party seems more pro-growth than the rank and file. Recall that Brexit was sold as a way of making the UK a sort of Singaporean free trading nation. That doesn’t seem to be happening:
Mr Johnson’s plan to offset the costs of Brexit by making Britain a nimbler, globetrotting place is not popular among the old. A trade deal with America will require loosening food regulations, to which pensioners are particularly hostile. Mr Johnson calls himself a Sinophile, but his mps have pushed him into banning Huawei, a telecoms company, from Britain’s fifth-generation (5g) mobile network on security grounds. Older voters, unlike the young, overwhelmingly support the move even if it harms trade with Beijing.
Prime Minister Johnson also seems to have lost out on the housing front:
Mr Johnson’s reforms to the planning system, announced on August 6th, might have threatened their back gardens, but concessions to nimbies ensure that the green belt, which prevents prosperous towns and cities from expanding, remains protected.
In America, the GOP recently bowed to reality, and switched from being an anti-zoning party (at the national level) to a pro-zoning party.
As populations age all over the world, we can expect an increasingly geriatric politics:
Increasingly, Britain is governed in the interests of voters with an insatiable demand for health care and pensions, while a sluggish economy struggles to fund them. But it would take a brave Tory to make the grey voter pay more tax. “Everything I’ve got I’ve earned,” says Kathleen. “The generation under me just seems to expect everything to be given to them.”
That last comment reminds me of amusing signs at Tea Party rallies: