Friday, April 27, 2012

Generational warfare?

There's a post from Esquire Magazine that is circulating the web.  I am even including some excerpts below.  It claims that somehow the boomers have sucked all the air out of the economy and have actually waged a war on the young.  Now I take second place to one on earth in my horror at the world we are leaving the young.  At least once a day I feel a twinge of relief that I didn't produce an offspring that will inherit this earth. But to blame this mess on the boomers is pernicious nonsense.

Let me explain.

First of all, I have no problem understanding why Mr. Marche would come to the conclusions he has.  The most obvious reason for his worldview is that he was born in 1976.  He turned 20 the year my car was built.  He was born in Canada.  This fellow has NO idea of what living in a world exploding with new knowledge and job opportunities is even like.  And since the real reasons for that world of real prosperity are never taught in school, there is NO reason—except by sheerest accident—for him understanding why those times up until 1973 were good and why today's most certainly are not.  So it is with concern and affection I would like to straighten him out.

1) There are REAL reasons based in physical reality for this destroyed planet with such a grim future.  A LOT of that prosperity in post-war USA was simply not sustainable.  At some point, you simply cannot build more roads and cars and sprawl.  That life requires insane amounts of oil.  There is not enough oil to fuel the cars we can build and the atmosphere refuses to accept more carbon gasses without becoming extremely violent. That game is over and it will never come back.  There is simply no way all 7+ billion people on earth can fill their garages with Lexus.  What is true for the automotive industry is true for everything else—we may have already reached the limit on how many occupations there are that can support an upper-middle-class lifestyle.  Cranking out more students with expensive degrees hoping to get one of those jobs does NOT increase the number of those possible jobs.

2) The boomers had VERY little to say on how the world came to be arranged as it did.  Let's make one thing perfectly clear.  Being unemployed at 59 sucks just as bad as at 26.  The same forces that are screwing up the lives of the kids are screwing up the lives of their parents.  And don't you kids even DARE bring up Social Security.  There are plenty of boomers who have been paying into that fund for 40+ years.  But let me tell you the big secret—there has NEVER been a way to "save" for the future.  The idea that some money not spent in 1975 will pay for caregivers in 2012 is actually preposterous.  The money that has been paid into Social Security was spent to provide care for our parents—when it was collected.  And whether there will be people to change our drool buckets in 2025 will depend entirely on the economic conditions in 2025—not whether or not some larger or smaller slice of a paycheck is diverted to old-age care in 2012.  While it is quite possible to invest for the future (solar-powered old-age homes, building a stable and prosperous society, etc.) you cannot "save" for one.  And this fact is equally true whether the mechanism is Social Security or privately-funded pensions.

3) Yes the boomers have been incredibly foolish—allowing themselves to be distracted by a host of minor issues while the big issues about how an economy organizes itself to provide for the common survival have just disappeared—even (especially?) in political debates where they should be front and center all the time.  But most of this was not our fault.  We grew up in a culture and were taught in schools utterly cowed by the Cold War, the arms race, political assassinations, and other joys.  So it is not surprising we were taught to enjoy the infinity of toys (waterskiing?) and "alternate" realities (Burning Man?) and ignore the big questions.  Anyone asking serious questions was answered with a curt, "Trust us, you don't want to know" and most of us did NOT want to know.  Anyone who persisted in asking was told, "We can and will throw you into the outer darkness of irrelevance."  And so we were presented with a real-life version of American Graffiti—the idea of cruising main street in overpowered cars while engaging in some primitive version of mating was actually the perfect metaphor for the times.  If you find this preposterous, wrap your mind around the fact that in the culture of perpetual adolescence we have been forced to occupy, there are those among us who thought American Graffiti was DEEP.

4) Trust us young citizens, this really wasn't a war on you.  It was a war waged by thieves against anyone who had, or could produce, something of value.  There is nothing special about your plight—you are just another target of the biggest con games in history.  But we boomers and you young doomed have different roles to play here.  My days in the streets are behind me.  But what I can offer is a link back to the knowledge that produced the Great Prosperity.  And what the young can bring to this table is their energy, their inventiveness, and their spirit.

I can assure you there is plenty of useful work to be done and the tools for survival are incredibly sophisticated.  A meaningful life IS possible.  But we MUST not split into factions on the big issues because our very survival is at stake.

The War Against Youth

The recession didn't gut the prospects of American young people. The Baby Boomers took care of that.
BY STEPHEN MARCHE   March 26, 2012

Twenty-five years ago young Americans had a chance.

In 1984, American breadwinners who were sixty-five and over made ten times as much as those under thirty-five. The year Obama took office, older Americans made almost forty-seven times as much as the younger generation.

This bleeding up of the national wealth is no accounting glitch, no anomalous negative bounce from the recent unemployment and mortgage crises, but rather the predictable outcome of thirty years of economic and social policy that has been rigged to serve the comfort and largesse of the old at the expense of the young.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, human potential has been consistently growing, generating greater material wealth, more education, wider opportunities — a vast and glorious liberation of human potential. In all that time, everyone, even followers of the most corrupt or most evil of ideologies, believed they were working for a better tomorrow. Not now. The angel of progress has suddenly vanished from the scene. Or rather, the angel of progress has been sent away.

Nobody ever talks about generational conflict. Who wants to bring up that the old are eating the young at the dinner table? How are you going to mention that to your boss? If you're a politician, how are you going to tell your donors? Even the Occupy Wall Street crowd, while rejecting the modes and rhetoric and institutional support of Boomer progressives, shied away from articulating the fundamental distinction that fills their spaces with crowds: young against old.

The gerontocracy begins at the top. The 111th Congress was the oldest since the end of the Second World War, and the average age of its members has been rising steadily since 1981. The graying of Congress has obvious political ramifications, although generalizations can be deceiving. The Republican representatives tend to be younger than the Democrats, but that doesn't mean they represent the interests of the young. The youngest senators are Tea Party members, Mike Lee from Utah and Marco Rubio from Florida (both forty). Here's Rubio: "Americans chose a free-enterprise system designed to provide a quality of opportunity, not compel a quality of results. And that is why this is the only place in the world where you can open up a business in the spare bedroom of your home." He is speaking to people who own homes that have empty spare bedrooms. He will not or cannot understand that the spare bedrooms of America are filling up with returning adult children, like the estimated 85 percent of college graduates who returned to their childhood beds in 2010, toting along $25,250 of debt.

David Frum, former George W. Bush speechwriter, had the guts to acknowledge that the Tea Party's combination of expensive entitlement programs and tax cuts is something entirely different from a traditional political program: "This isn't conservatism: It's a going-out-of-business sale for the Baby Boom generation." The economic motive is growing ever more naked, and has nothing to do with any principle that could be articulated by Goldwater or Reagan, or indeed with any principle at all. The political imperative is to preserve the economic cloak of unreality that the Boomers have wrapped themselves in.

Democrats may not be actively hostile to the interests of young voters, but they are too scared and weak to speak up for them. So when the Boomers and swing voters scream for fiscal discipline and the hard decisions have to be made, youth is collateral damage. Medicare and Social Security were mostly untouched in Obama's 2012 budget. But to show he was really serious about belt tightening, relatively cheap programs that help young people like the Adolescent Family Life Program and the Career Pathways Innovation Fund were killed.

His intentions may be good — he may want to increase support for AmeriCorps — but the program shrunk last year. Three quarters of the applicants were turned away. He resisted Republican efforts to slash Pell grants by $845 per student, but then made other changes to the program that will save the government — or cost students, depending on your perspective — a projected $100 billion over ten years.

The youth vote still supports Obama, but in a chastened, conditional way. In hindsight, Obama's 2008 campaign looks like an indulgent fantasy in which the major conflicts in life simply don't exist. There may be no white America and no black America, no blue-state America and no red-state America, but one thing is clear: There is a young America and there is an old America, and they don't form a community of interest. One takes from the other. The federal government spends $480 billion on Medicare and $68 billion on education. Prescription drugs: $62 billion. Head Start: $8 billion. Across the board, the money flows not to helping the young grow up, but helping the old die comfortably. According to a 2009 Brookings Institution study, "The United States spends 2.4 times as much on the elderly as on children, measured on a per capita basis, with the ratio rising to 7 to 1 if looking just at the federal budget."

The biggest boondoggle of all is Social Security. The management of entitlement programs, already weighted heavily in favor of the older population, has a very specific terminal point that coincides neatly with the Boomers' deaths. The 2011 report by the Social Security trustees estimates that, under its current administration, the fund will run out in 2036, so there's just enough to get the oldest Boomers to age ninety.

Only 58 percent of Boomers have more than $25,000 put aside for retirement, so the rest will either starve or the government will have to pay for them. But the government's future ability to pay is decreasing rapidly precisely because the Boomers splurged so heavily during the Bush and Clinton years. Public debt per person in the United States currently stands at $33,777. George W. Bush inherited a public-debt-to-GDP ratio of 32.5 percent and brought it up to 54.1 percent during a period of economic growth. (The money borrowed from the future paid for massive tax cuts, with no serious reductions in domestic spending, two expensive wars, and a prescription-drug benefit added to Medicare.) Under Obama, the debt-to-GDP ratio has risen to 67.7 percent and is projected to rise to 74.2 percent this year.

This is no conspiracy; no nefarious backroom deal by political and corporate overlords. The impasse of the moment is, tragically, the result of the best aspects of the Boomers' spirit. The native optimism that emerged out of the explosively creative postwar world led them to believe that growth would go on forever; that peace and prosperity were the natural state of things. Their good intentions seem like willful naivete today, but the intentions were genuine. Clinton actually believed that globalization would export the First World rather than bring the Third World home; it did both. The prescription-drug benefit was the "compassion" in compassionate conservatism. All those tax cuts were intended to liberate opportunities, not destroy them.

Cynicism rises to fill the emptied space of exaggerated and failed hope. It's all simple math. If you follow the money rather than the blather, it's clear that the American system is a bipartisan fusion of economic models broken down along generational lines: unaffordable Greek-style socialism for the old, virulently purified capitalism for the young. Both political parties have agreed to this arrangement: The Boomers and older will be taken care of. Everybody younger will be on their own. The German philosopher Hermann Lotze wrote in the 1870s: "One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future." It is exactly that envy toward the future that is new in our own time.

And we will not talk about any of it. We will keep mum. We will hold our tongues lest we seem ageist, lest we seem bitter, lest we seem out of touch, lest we seem pessimistic, lest we seem divisive.  more


  1. I simply cannot agree with you on this. Every German was tarred by the Nazis, and every Boomer has been tarred by the actions of Wall Street and corporate Boomers.

    This is not the same as saying Boomers are collectively guilty, but all the enabling legislation and deregulation came from Boomer politicians and lobbyists.

    Our generation has committed economic war crimes and if you don't think this is generational, I suggest you go to your next class reunion and count all the times less affluent classmates call out their richer peers for cashing in on this world class screw job known as the U.S. economy.

    After WWII all Germans were guilty, and I do not think it unfair to castigate Boomers in the same way. Yes, most of us are less guilty, but it's still our generation who gamed the system and rigged the books, and hardly any of us stood up to their rapacious flim-flammery.

  2. I stood up to this. Every cell of my body has been at war against the Predators since at least 1981. If the boomers are the new Nazis, then I was Willi Brandt—hiding out from the bad guys and hoping to survive until the winds had shifted. And what is more, I don't know anyone personally who "gamed the system" and got ahead. And that includes you.

    I will stick to my assertion that the overwhelming majority of boomers are as solid in their membership of the 99% as anyone else. Yes indeed, there ARE 1%ers who are boomers but they didn't become that way based on when they were born.

    1. And Germans didn't become Nazis just because they were Germans, but they all got to share the bad rap afterwards.

    2. Actually, assessing collective guilt is ILLEGAL based on treaties this country has signed and laws on the books. But you are certainly correct that due to a lot of cheap propaganda and some insanely bad movies, the Germans have been smeared with collective guilt in USA—even IF the practice is obviously illegal. However, that does not change the facts on the ground that there were heroic examples of folks who resisted the madness.

      And those facts are not hard to find. Tour Dachau and you will notice they had a special barracks just for preachers who had gotten out of line. And preachers are NOTORIOUS for being spineless in the face of authority. I also noticed that at Dachau, they only needed ONE building to house their preachers with a conscience.

  3. I can see Mark's point, how culturally people will paint all boomers with a economic Nazi brush because we were there through entire period, and thus in theory able to stop the ruling party. Plus it is always easier to point a finger at someone else instead of working with that person to find common ground and a workable solution.

    The problem is the same now as with the Germans then, that the ruling party had controls in place to create propaganda to manage perceptions and handle resistance. We face equally daunting efforts to hold the ruling parties accountable and reverse their destructive policies now as the Germans did then. Where we first must take time plus responsibility and find courage to rise up, and in doing expose ourselves to all the mechanisms in place to manage us and marginalize us as crazy men.

    Which of course is easy...since anyone pushed hard enough to act, does end up two stages into wingnutland before being driven to speak up. And our American culture too has been carefully groomed to make any political discussion seem outrageous...only a crazy man dare go there (or is paid to do so), eh?

    This Esquire article itself is classic ruling elite propaganda. It takes statistics of inequality between young and old and spin it into an age-group attack on the two remaining vestiges of meaningful social assistance--social security and medicare. WHY--Your #4 above answers this...because these are the exact programs the ruling party predators want to cut off and replace with a Wall Street based funding and industrial/medical complex healthcare.

    Just look at how strained the Social Security argument is...that we should worry now about a gov't policy that is ONLY fully funded until 2036!! We should be congratulating these folks instead of pillaring them...what other program is doing that well?

    This article is written is even in the face of numerous polls that show Social Security and Medicare have 70+ percent citizen support...while actually it is written precisely because so, as they try to weaken this support via twisted media messaging like this Esquire spin piece. Which they can then repeat and echo on their Rushbo and Fox News-ish propaganda machine until unwitting citizens once again vote against their own best interests.

    And even us who might see this happening, we can wave our arms and jump up and down, and make sure everyone we know is against the idea...and still things of this ilk get passed into law, leaving us to wonder if we somehow live in the only neighborhood of sensible people. I see more and more how the Nazis accomplished their evil...and see more and more why people can only have hope in an afterlife that will finally deliver justice where none seems possible on earth.

    Still, for us here, the daily question is what do we do now?

    1. In the old days (1969) the only appropriate response to this comment would be "You speak the truth, brother." When I consider how freaking difficult it was to turn around the argument on Vietnam, I can understand why MOST people just want to understand what the party line is so they can follow it. It can be a perversion of a pretty good social instinct. But I must tell you, it still bothers me how few people actually had principled objections to what was happening in SE Asia as opposed to not wanting to be drafted, etc. By now, I have reduced my count of the principled to some tiny fraction of 1%. As Veblen pointed out, the instincts for status emulation run second only to the survival instincts—and sometimes not even in second.

      The big problem with the economic arguments is that resisting those was like punching a cloud. All that had to happen was that the big awards were given to right-wing crackpots. From there on, status emulation kicked in and soon you could not get a paper published or a job as an economist unless you were a raving neoliberal. And since all the "important" economists were saying the same thing, neoliberalism became a force of nature in the minds of nearly everyone. Perhaps the most successful anti-neoliberal protest, Seattle 1999, certainly changed nothing of importance because they shut down a gathering that clearly didn't need to be held anyway. You had to change minds and the neoliberals had captured the whole intellectual army.

  4. As someone born in 1982, viewing American Graffiti for the first time circa 2007 was like looking into some strange, exaggerated alternate reality. Teens really just got in their cars and drove for hours up and down the street? WTF? But it did help explain much of our car culture here in the US, even though it has changed over time.

    As for generational warfare, it doesn't make sense. The Boomers probably make up something like 30% of the population right now. That still leaves 29% of the population that are Boomers and that are not fabulously wealthy. They're being screwed just as much as we are.

    I think some tension does arise between the young and old when the old don't really understand just what the young are up against. My parents are Boomers right on the edge of the 1%/99% border. About two years ago my wife and I were visiting them and ended up discussing politics, work, education, and various other issues over dinner. I think my dad had an inkling about what it was like, but my mom was clearly amazed. And my wife and I are actually doing really well by the standards of almost all our peers--it's just that we know so many people who have $100k+ student debt, who have advanced degrees but can't find more than part-time work, who haven't yet found a job, etc. And housing prices, even after the bubble deflated somewhat, are still high. Most new jobs are less secure or come with lowered benefits. My wife and I both went to an Ivy League school, but we've seen the entrance requirements for it jump even further in just the last 10 years, to the point where we wouldn't stand a chance today. Etc.

    So, there may be an ignorance gap between the generations, with somewhat more Boomers not realizing just how bad it is getting out there while more Xers and Yers are living in the muck. We've spent decades in a largely Predatory mode of accumulation, with speculation, asset inflation, disinvestment in real infrastructure, and so on. And it is now coming back to bite us, very hard. There hasn't been a flat-out drop like in the Great Depression, but the pressure and the desperation have been slowly ratcheting up for decades. It's hitting the breaking point now, and the only ideologies currently on the scene in the US tell us that government is the problem and if we'd just cut our taxes and stop protecting the environment, everything would be fine...

  5. Oh bolo! I cannot imagine how stupid "cruising main" must have looked like to someone in 1996. I thought it crazy in 1965 when it was literally the only alternative to going home and listening to the wind rattle the windows.

    American Graffiti had modifications in western North Dakota. The big advantage was a killer heater—factory heaters just were not designed for -35°F (-37°C) temperatures so this was a mod. If you could get your car warm enough, you might convince babes to come into your car—which was pretty much the whole point of this exercise. The outsider initiation came when you had gotten hot enough in the back seat to open your coat. The guys up front would yell, "Freeze Out!" and roll down the windows. -35 air going 50 mph through an open windows is quite bracing.

    As for your economic comments. Spot on. But here's the Americans-don't-want-to-hear-this truth, until we understand that we are all in various versions of the same shit, nothing will change. So long as the robbers can keep us divided along lines of age, education, qualifications, whatever, they win. We find ourselves alone in an economic hurricane because we choose to ignore what binds us together.

    1. 2007 NOT 1996. Good lord, by 2007, cruising main must have looked like cave men grunting around a fire throwing bones. I did it. I am NOT proud.