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Saturday, October 13, 2012

In defense of the boomers, who don't exist

Going away for the weekend, freaked out by recent polls, holding my breath until Tuesday night...and so reposting one that got a little lost in the sauce, below.
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In an article pinging across the internets just now, 34 year-old reporter Jim Tankersley calls his 63 year-old lawyer father to the bar to defend the boomer generation against a broad indictment:
This is the charge I’ve leveled against him on a summer day in our Pacific Northwest vision of paradise. I have asked my favorite attorney to represent a very troublesome client, the entire baby-boom generation, in what should be a slam-dunk trial—for me. On behalf of future generations, I am accusing him and all the other parasites his age of breaking the sacred bargain that every American generation will pass a better country on to its children than the one it inherited.
Dad makes some very good points in defense, but he accepts the general terms of the trial: that it makes sense to indict a so-called "generation" for the course of human events, national and global.  I reject that premise. Generalizations about generations always send me around the bend.  Being admittedly predisposed to dismiss the case on conceptual grounds, I believe that the particular charges don't stand up to scrutiny.

First, the basic premise. Generations are the ultimate granfalloon, Kurt Vonnegut's term for an illusory community. Babies are born every second.  A baby born in 1945, just outside the traditional boomer ring-fence of 1946-1964, would have a lot more collective experience in common with someone born in 1946 than that '46er would have with someone born in 1963.

I'll grant that those living through epochal events like the Depression and World War II may be likely to share some very broad psychological imprints not shared by those who didn't live through them. But any age brackets placed around those alleged to have been shaped by those events must be so approximate as to border on arbitrary. And of course, the imprint of those events is as varied as human circumstance and personality. In any case, given the seamless continuum of birth, and the full age spectrum of responsible adult actors (say, 18-85) at any given decision point, the boundary at which one "generation" hands off responsibility to another is a mirage. Moreover, the most key decisions any adult makes pertain to child rearing, and as Bill Clinton is fond of asking, if the "Greatest Generation" was so great, why did they raise a generation of alleged self-indulgent fools and poltroons?

Let's look now at the specific charges. Here's Tankersley's core complaint:
Marginal federal income-tax rates have fallen steadily, with rare exception, since boomers entered the labor force; government retirement benefits have proliferated. At nearly every point in their lives, these Americans chose to slough the costs of those tax cuts and spending hikes onto future generations.
To his credit, Tankersley implicitly acknowledges that the problem is not that the safety net as a whole is a hammock, but that benefits are skewed too heavily toward the elderly.  (He does not address the overall inadequacy of the American safety net for pre-retirement-age adults.) He also acknowledges that Social Security does not pose a serious budgetary problem.  The "entitlement indictment" boils down, then, to an inability thus far to control healthcare cost inflation. There's no mention of the myriad attempts to tackle that problem in the Affordable Care Act, or any discussion of how that central economic challenge might effectively be addressed. Instead, Tankersley simply exudes the fallacious meme that morally laudable "sacrifice"  would entail forcing seniors to assume an ever-larger share of their own healthcare costs.

Further, the core policies that Tankersley objects to were set in motion by Presidents Johnson and Reagan: Medicare and massive tax cuts. If benefits to seniors are over-generous, note that boomers have been footing the bill for them for a full generation. The tax cut problem, moreover, was effectively taken care of by President Clinton and the 103rd Congress -- though the toxic ideology driving the Reagan cuts festered, grew more extreme, and returned with a vengeance in the administration of George W. Bush. Ultimately, Tankersley's indictment of "the boomers" boils down an indictment of W.'s administration:
... boomers chose short-term gratification when they had opportunities to secure a better future for generations to follow. Classic example: Instead of devoting the budget surpluses of the late ’90s to social programs that desperately needed them, they voted themselves tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, and an expanded Medicare benefit shortly after—a move a Congressional Budget Office study from that era suggests raised the expected tax rate on future generations from 29 percent to 53 percent. They borrowed heavily to cope with the economic sluggishness of the 2000s and, in so doing, inflated a housing bubble that, when it popped, triggered the Great Recession.
For "they, they, they," read Bush and the current GOP: "My father’s cohort has formed a generational majority in every Congress since the dawn of the George W. Bush administration." Well, yes -- and the W. administration was sandwiched between the Clinton and Obama administrations, which have labored pretty rationally to undo the budget-busting damage wrought first by Reagan and then by W.  U.S. voters -- so-called boomers along with their elders and juniors -- have alternated the parties in power, as they did throughout the twentieth century.  We don't have a generational problem -- unless you can find a way to pin the dangerous extremism of the Republican party on an arbitrarily defined cohort of adults born within an 18-year window ending in the year that extremism made its first serious bid for dominance.

The implicit Bush Jr.-equals-boomers equation points to Tankersley's broadest fallacy: blaming broad historical forces on political decisions that exacerbated but did not drive those forces. One such tidal pull is the southernization and subsequent ideological purging of the GOP, set in motion by the landmark civil rights legislation of 1964-1965. The extreme anti-tax doctrine that Tankersley places at the center of his indictment was a bacillus long latent in the GOP, unleashed by the party's absorption of south. 

Even more fundamentally, Tankersley's blames macroeconomic changes, driven primarily by global economic forces, on taxing and spending policies that exacerbated but did not cause the changes. American wages have stagnated mainly because of technological advances and global competition. To the extent that policy has contributed, the chief culprit is probably the Taft-Harley Act of 1947, which allowed states to enact right-to-work laws, weakening the power of unions to set national wage standards. As for rising income inequality, it's a global phenomenon, admittedly accelerated by tax policies such as serial cuts in the capital gains tax and the carried interest rule -- as well as by the long decline of union clout.

Tankersley uses sleight-of-hand to cast boomers as the prime beneficiaries of trends that policies that they allegedly chose helped drive:
The deal the baby boomers got from the Greatest Generation wasn’t so raw, economically: Gross domestic product growth from 1970 to 2000 was among the strongest in American history, and far better than the average growth so far in the working years of Generations X and Y.
First of all, boomers obviously helped drive that growth. Second, the 1970-2000 period overlaps substantially with the era of accelerating income inequality, from the late '70s through the present, in which incomes for Americans in most economic quintiles have stagnated.  To the extent that policy choices were malign -- the record is mixed -- and to the extent that poor policies can be blamed for current economic ills -- only partially -- and to the extent that boomers can be held primarily responsible for those policies -- very dubiously -- the alleged besetting sin of this "generation" would appear to be not greed but gullibility -- belief that tax cuts that primarily benefited the wealthy would advance national prosperity.

Really, this sleight of hand is pervasive. Boomers are in the first instance blamed for policies favoring the elderly that did not benefit boomers through the bulk of the period under discussion.  They are not credited for the offsetting policies of the first boomer president -- or the third.  They are also not credited with driving the productivity growth that characterized the core years of the arbitrarily-defined cohort's adulthood, and they are cast as beneficiaries, rather than as victims, of failure to share that prosperity broadly across the population as a whole.

Moreover, while Tankersley pere does point to gains in equality of opportunity for previously excluded groups, left off the ledger (for Americans) are positive trends extending through the boomers' adulthood: avoidance of major war; maintenance of more or less pacific global leadership that has fostered a great leap forward in global prosperity; reduction of death by violence globally; and reversal of the domestic crime wave of the seventies and eighties.

Finally, Tankersley exudes a pervasive but unexamined pessimism, dinged only momentarily by his father: "There’s no guarantee that young Max Tankersley won’t grow up to enjoy economic opportunities as sweeping as those his grandparents did. Economic conditions change in unpredictable ways, my dad says." Very true.  Americans' economic horizons narrowed dramatically in the thirties; it was not obvious then, as it is not obvious now, that a new era of prosperity would offset long-trending declines in household wealth. At the tail end of the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt, having reversed course after a disastrous dose of austerity inflicted early in his second term, asked the country in his 1939 SOTU to believe itself capable of a new era of strong growth:
The other approach to the question of government spending takes the position that this Nation ought not to be and need not be only a sixty billion dollar nation; that at this moment it has the men and the resources sufficient to make it at least an eighty billion dollar nation. This school of thought does not believe that it can become an eighty billion dollar nation in the near future if government cuts its operations by one-third. It is convinced that if we were to try it, we would invite disaster--and that we would not long remain even a sixty billion dollar nation. There are many complicated factors with which we have to deal, but we have learned that it is unsafe to make abrupt reductions at any time in our net expenditure program.

By our common sense action of resuming government activities last spring, we have reversed a recession and started the new rising tide of prosperity and national income which we are now just beginning to enjoy. If government activities are fully maintained, there is a good prospect of our becoming an eighty billion dollar country in a very short time. With such a national income, present tax laws will yield enough each year to balance each year's expenses.
We currently have a president making a similar argument for targeted investments in broadly shared future prosperity -- with what result who can say?

To my mind, it's an open question whether the U.S. is on the brink of a new era of prosperity or near the top of a long decline -- whether income stagnation, income inequality, and concentration of political power in the hands of elites are trends that we will reverse, as we did in the postwar era, or that will continue until our democracy is nominal, and opportunity, for most of the population, is notional. In neither case, however, will the primary story be one of generational conflict or generational depravity. We are all made of the same dough.

Related:
Thomas Friedman at his Thomas Friedmanest
The moral equivalent of warmongering

2 comments:

  1. Am I the only person who read the end as him essentially knocking down his own argument on purpose? When he says that X isn't doing any better so far and isn't poised to do better any time soon?

    It seemed like the entire point of the piece was to take the anti-Boomer arguments of my (X) generation to their well-argued, fact heavy extreme and then say, "But we're all parasites in the end and we're all terrible", thereby absolving the Boomers of the blame he had just spend the piece arguing for.

    Maybe I'm going crazy here!

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    1. Thanks for highlighting that semi-self-deconstruction that Tankersley inserted at the close, Ian. I did mean to deal with it, and thought more than once of adding a postscript. My impression, though, is that that final warning doesn't call the frame in question. To the extent that our species fails, it still fails in "generations," and some do better -- might be deemed "better" in some ultimate moral sense -- than others. I read it more as a 'never do as we have done' warning than a demolition of the core premise.

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