Saturday, November 7, 2015

As A Boomer, I Plead Guilty--For All Of Us

I came across this column by Jim Tankersley in the Washington Post, while I was doing a little research for my previous post about last week's election results.  It is a complete and merciless indictment of the Boomer Generation and its me-first attitude in all things--especially economic things.  It chronicles in detail the material, social, and cultural advantages than those born between 1946 and 1964 grew up taking for granted.  From there, it proceeds to document how Boomers developed, in the process of benefiting from those advantages, a sense of entitlement to the good life that excluded any consideration of sharing those goodies with the less fortunate.  The idealism of their youth gave way to an all-consuming (pun intended) desire to "have it all," regardless of the cost to anyone.  The price tag for satisfying that desire is being borne not only by those that came after them, but generations as yet unborn and unnamed.

It is an absolutely scathing indictment that pulls no punches.  And it's 100% correct.

As a Boomer, I plead guilty to Tankersley's catalogue of sins by my generation.  From the earliest time in my life that I can remember, in school and elsewhere, a vision of unlimited future prosperity was painted for us, one that would extend far beyond this world and even reach into outer space. We were routinely told that, by the turn of the subsequent century, we would live in a world of glass-enclosed cities, flying cars, moving sidewalks, synthetic food and clothes, and computers everywhere.  Of course, some of that came true, especially the part about computers; everyone now carries one around in their purse or pocket.

By the middle of the 1970s, however, it was becoming painfully clear that the resources to fulfill these visions were far more limited than we wanted to admit.  And, as a consequence, a generation that had known nothing but prosperity suddenly had to deal with the idea of limits.  No aspect of American life in this period made that clearer than the oil shocks created by OPEC. Suddenly, we were no longer masters of a destiny with no boundaries.  Suddenly, we had to face a world in which everything we wanted might not be possible.  A world that was rapidly moving from dominance by two major superpowers to one in which newly liberated colonial nations were suddenly flexing their newly-found economic muscles in ways designed to benefit them, and not us.  In short, we needed to adjust our thinking by facing our problems.

And instead, we ran away from them.  It is not an accident that the ascendency of Republican politics and policies started right about the time that Boomers reached voting age and entered the electorate en masse.  And the GOP spinmeisters very cleverly took advantage of that fact.  Supply-side economics was the perfect political pitch to Boomers.  What self-respecting Boomer (is there any other kind?) could resist the not-too-subtle allure of self-financing tax cuts that paid for a great, big, beautiful tomorrow (to borrow Ronald Reagan's erstwhile employer, General Electric)? Suddenly, it seemed possible to "have it all" again.

Only, of course, it wasn't.  And Boomers pursued the Reagan illusion at the expense of Gen Xers and Millenials, as Tankersley rightly points out.  Money that could have gone into a better world for all of us, Boomers included, instead went into servicing the debt that grew as the price that needed to be paid for unsustainable tax policies.  Without the damage wrought by those policies, no one would need to talk about making sacrifices to pay for Social Security and Medicare.  Hell, maybe there actually would be a Howard Johnson's in space.

As it turns out, except for hotels, there isn't even a Howard Johnson's on Earth.  It, along with many business built from scratch were suddenly merged and acquired out of business, as wealth that was supposed to trickle down instead relentlessly shot up and investment bankers foolishly financed vulture capitalism.  Instead of patiently building wealth one dollar at a time, businesses went out and bought it at inflated prices with borrowed money that could never be paid off.  And Boomers not only tolerated this, they even participated eagerly in it.

And there is no way out of this mess except the old fashioned way:  sharing.  Sharing involves recognizing that complete self-sufficiency is impossible.  None of us is an island; all of us need each other in a multitude of different ways.  And sharing also involves recognizing limits.  We live in a world--in a universe, for that matter--of finite resources.  Each one of us has a finite life; no one can be indispensible, because everyone has an expiration date.  Like it or not, that's reality.  And, like it or not, our politics have to change, or we won't be able to face it.

On behalf of all of us, I apologize to all of the post-Boomer generations.  And I call on all of us to do the thing we Boomers said we wanted to do when we were young:  make a difference.  Even if there's a price we have to pay to do it.  It is not fair to ask others to pay that price by themselves. Their dreams deserve to take flight as well.

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