When politicians need to make a safe appeal to voters, one of their tried-and-true applause lines is to declaim loudly that “our children and grandchildren” should be the focus of our concern. And who could disagree? What we do today undeniably shapes the world that future generations will inherit, and any person with a sense of morality would want to consider how her actions will affect other people, even—or especially—the young and those who will be born in future years.
Once politics becomes involved, of course, the conversation quickly becomes simplistic and stilted. In the United States, the all-too-familiar framing of the generational divide is that Baby Boomers have been selfishly looking after their own interests, while the Millennial generation will be left to clean up the messes that their parents and grandparents have created.
To a significant degree, as I discuss below, this sentiment is accurate. Certainly, no one would claim that any generation has done all that it could to improve the lives of those who will follow, and there are plenty of things that Boomers have done that we should regret. But to a perhaps even greater degree, the sentiment is a severe distortion. After all, a generation that creates the next generation and that feeds, houses, educates, and preserves a modern form of government and an advanced economy to that generation—all at significant cost to and sacrifice by its own members—is not exactly slacking off when it comes to group parenting.
Even so, it is reasonable for people to decry the mistakes and shortcomings of the Baby Boomers when it comes to the world that we will bequeath to Millennials and those who will follow them. We can and should do better.
In an election year, it is especially likely that some politicians will present themselves as the spokespersons for younger Americans, claiming to represent the next wave of change that will wash over the country. The usual thought, after all, is that the political interests of a generation are best advanced by one of its own members. Baby Boomers themselves grew up on claims that we “can’t trust anyone under 30,” and Bill Clinton’s election twenty-four years ago was notable because it represented a generational shift, with the World War II generation finally giving way to the children who claimed to have learned from their parents’ mistakes.
As we begin 2016, however, this familiar morality play is being cast with actors who are playing “against type.” The only prominent members of the Millennial generation who are serious presidential contenders are Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Rubio in particular presents himself as a man who will be able to catch fire with the post-Boomer voters who are yearning for change.
Yet both Cruz and Rubio represent policy views that are—for good reason—anathema to most younger voters. Meanwhile, the person who best represents the interests of younger generations is the oldest man in the presidential field, the septuagenarian Bernie Sanders. At 68 years old, Hillary Clinton is also a strong advocate for younger voters’ interests, while her Republican opponents do everything possible to continue policies that are especially harmful to younger Americans.
Observing U.S. politics in 2016 is thus something like watching a movie version of “Romeo and Juliet” in which Betty White and Ed Asner take the title roles, and the cast of “High School Musical 4” plays the parents.
We thus have a political situation in which the youngest presidential contenders hold views that younger voters rightly reject, and where the cranky uncle steps forth and tries to get everyone to do the right thing for the kids. How did this happen?
The Baby Boomers and the Budget
When Republican politicians invoke the “children and grandchildren” meme, they usually do so in order to claim that we need to cut government spending. How many times have we heard the same claim that our children will be “saddled with debt,” or that “crushing deficits” are going to destroy the economy that future generations will inherit? Overwrought claims like those are so common that they have become background noise.
Such claims are also, of course, quite wrong. As I have argued frequently (for example, in a Verdict column this past October), the current budget situation in the United States is quite stable, and predictions of future disaster only add up if one assumes that medical cost inflation will suddenly accelerate and stay high for decades to come. Moreover, the most important medical cost-containment measure ever passed was the Affordable Care Act, which all Republicans (including Rubio and Cruz, the latter of whom led a rebellion that shut down the government in 2013 because of his dislike of “Obamacare”) have vowed to repeal.
Still, one could claim that there are other things that the Baby Boomers could have done that could bring health care cost inflation down still further. Of course, the most obvious way to do that would have been to adopt a single-payer health care system, in order to eliminate the budget-busting administrative costs and padded profit-taking in the current system. Again, however, Republican candidates (including the younger ones) are firmly opposed to this change, whereas ol’ Bernie Sanders is strongly in favor.
Interestingly, the one thing for which the Baby Boomers cannot be blamed is Social Security. I realize that this will sound counter-intuitive to many readers, because Republican (and some Democratic) politicians have spent decades claiming that Social Security is Exhibit A in the case against the Boomers. In fact, the Boomers’ (and especially their parents’) handling of Social Security is a perfect example of generational selflessness, to the benefit of Millennials.
As I explained in two Verdict columns last summer (here and here), the Social Security system is in fact not “going broke,” or any of the things that conservative politicians claim ad nauseam. In fact, the World War II generation put in place, and the Baby Boomers did not repeal, a system that made sure that Baby Boomer “prepaid” for their own retirements.
But, one might ask, what about those familiar claims that the Social Security trust fund is going to become empty and that it has nothing “real” in it in any case? The trust fund is, in fact, an accounting mechanism that properly credits Baby Boomers for the excess taxes that they paid into a system that was running huge surpluses for decades. Rather than giving ourselves a tax cut, or rewarding our parents with a huge benefit increase, the Boomers dutifully overpaid our payroll taxes year after year.
What happened to the money? It certainly did not go into a vault, nor should it. Running surpluses in the Social Security accounts allowed the government’s overall borrowing to be lower than it otherwise would have been. And even though the government was a net borrower during those years, there is no evidence that the Social Security surpluses caused borrowing in other areas to be higher than it otherwise would have been. The trust funds thus represent the extra money that the Boomers paid into the system, and which they can justly withdraw during their retirements.
Ironically, then, the one thing that Millennials most frequently blame Boomers for getting wrong is the one thing that we did best: paying for our own retirements. And both the Boomers and their parents have strongly resisted efforts to dismantle or weaken the system, against the efforts of Republicans. That resistance, moreover, was not self-interested. President George W. Bush, for example, tried to defuse opposition to his partial privatization plan for Social Security by essentially buying off the older generations, promising that the system would only be changed to the detriment of younger generations. Yet it was the Millennials’ parents and grandparents who stepped up and said no.
In short, the Boomers have resisted Republicans’ efforts to change Social Security in ways that would have hurt only future generations. Current retirees or those who are nearing their golden years will rightly be shielded from any proposed cuts to the system, but it is the interests of Millennials and their children that are at stake. Again, the younger Republicans like Cruz and Rubio have consistently been on the wrong side of that argument, advocating changes that would harm Millennials.
The Real Budgetary Issues and Generational Justice
Of course, even framing intergenerational budgetary fairness as nothing more than minimizing borrowing distorts the picture, because what matters most is the content of the government’s spending and taxing choices. Describing a government’s budget as fair or unfair to future generations only on the basis of whether it requires borrowing makes no sense, because we can damage future prospects by being excessively cheap just as much as we can enhance future outcomes by being willing to borrow and invest.
One of the major divides in budgetary politics, after all, has been the Republicans’ insistence on cutting government spending on social programs. In fact, when the stimulus bill was being negotiated in early 2009, a group of senators (including two so-called moderate Republicans and one conservative Democrat) withheld their votes in order to reduce the amount of spending in the bill and prevent “future generations from being handed a bigger debt.”
What was the spending that was finally cut from the bill? Education funds. Yes, that is correct. The much-ballyhooed concern for the wellbeing of future generations had become so badly distorted by budgetary orthodoxy that politicians actually cut spending on education in the twisted belief that this was somehow a favor to future generations.
Although dramatic for its naked illogic, that example is hardly an isolated one. This country severely underfunds public schools, and the past decade has seen governments at all levels cutting per-student spending on public universities. “Don’t worry about your crushing student loan debt, kids. We prevented taxes from possibly having to rise a bit in the future. We wouldn’t want you to be saddled with borrowing.” Meanwhile, funding for infant nutrition programs, Head Start, and other future-oriented spending has been slashed by Republican politicians who then try to don halos for helping children and grandchildren.
Unlike Social Security, in other words, the Baby Boomers can be fairly criticized for harming future generations when it comes to other budgetary decisions. However, it is not the post-Boomer Republican candidates who would reverse that trend. Indeed, they have gleefully joined into that orgy of generational theft. Meanwhile, all three Democratic presidential candidates have to varying degrees opposed these trends. Those Boomer and pre-Boomer candidates would make decisions that would most help Millennials and future generations.
The Environment, the Political System, and Inequality
“I’m not a scientist, man.” That was the infamous evasive response that Senator Rubio offered to a question about how old the earth is. And the anti-science stance of Rubio and his compatriots has real consequences for future generations when it comes to the environment.
It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the greatest failure of the Baby Boom generation has been in the area of climate change. We had inherited a world with virtually no environmental protections, and to our credit we created the environmental movement, getting even pre-Boomer Republicans to endorse environmental protection laws. (Richard Nixon even created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order!)
Soon after that flurry of pro-environmental activity, however, my generation lapsed into selfishness and short-term thinking. Even by the late 1990’s, far too many Boomers were willing to ignore the growing evidence not only of the immediate harms of pollution but of climate change as well. If Boomers can be credited for not taking action to undo a fair intergenerational deal in Social Security, they must also be blamed for failing to take the intergenerational responsibilities of environmental stewardship seriously.
From the standpoint of Millennials, what other issues are most pressing (and depressing), in terms of damaging acts of commission and omission by their parents? Certainly, the corruption of the political system by moneyed interests, especially in the past few decades, has been breathtaking and will make Millennials’ lives much worse. Similarly, the stagnation of incomes and the hollowing out of the middle class since President Reagan took office leaves younger generations looking with sadness on the chasm of inequality that has opened up because of the Boomers’ policy choices.
Yet, on each of these issues, it is not a post-Boomer politician who has stepped forward to take on the mantle of change, and to undo the damaging choices of his predecessors. Instead, we see Millennial politicians led by Cruz and Rubio saying, “Yes, more of the same,” while older politicians like Sanders and Clinton say, “Our children and grandchildren deserve better than this.”
Ultimately, what matters is the message, not the age of the messenger.