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What do old folks care?

Atella and Carbonari ask whether the political economy of older societies appears different. Their answer is yes: older societies spend less per child. Of course that implies over time lower levels of human capital and lower levels of income.

The logic is straightforward: if you’re older, you will see no benefit from better economic performance. The weakest part of the US educational system is basic education; lots of kids enter school ill-prepared. (The United Way Success by 6 program — not at present implemented in Rockbridge County due to funding challenges — provides background on this issue. The basic issue is that kids tend not to catch up if they fall behind by middle school; early intervention is critical.) So let’s say there is a concerted effort to prepare kids for school, backed by additional efforts in elementary school, that is, up to about age 12. And it works. Obviously, though, it also costs — pre-K programs are not standard.

So … if these kids then finish high school 12 years later, with half continuing to college [in contrast to many failing to complete high school], then on average the it will be 14 years before the results affect the economy, and at first these better prepared youths will be only a small part of the overall labor force. The real impact will thus be near-invisible until 20 years out. Of course getting things up and running would take a few years, too. So if we’re interested in educational reform and you’re age 60 today, there’s nothing in it for you, even indirectly — and if you live in a retirement community, none of your grandkids will benefit. You have to be patriotic [altruistic?], willing to give up something today for the benefit of the nation’s future, else you’ll not vote for higher taxes to support expanded educational programs.

Now my casual observation is that Tea Party members are almost all age 60 or older. That’s consistent with the above analysis: they’re merely behaving in a self-interested manner. Note, though, that the plural of “anecdote” is “anecdotes” not data: I’ve not checked whether you can get a statistical profile of such conservatives, I only have a single observation of a local TeeP meeting. What Atella and Carbonari do is with real data. Sadly, their findings make sense.

Atella, Vincenzo and Carbonari, Lorenzo (2012). “When elders rule: is gerontocracy harmful for growth?”: University of Rome, CEIS Tor Vergata. Munich Personal RePEc Archive.

Addendum: Richard Florida followed up on an early map of the 47% by state to do a more detailed analysis, e.g., attempting to get down to party vote vs the share of those not paying Federal income tax [though those on minimum wage do pay the 15.3% retirement tax, vs Romney’s generous payment of 14.1%]. You can find his blog entry at He finds that standard measures of “conservative” are positively coordinated with the share who don’t pay taxes — consistent with my casual one-datapoint-observation about the demographics of the Tea Party — whereas those geographies where the greatest percentage pay income tax are the most liberal.