Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 October 2007

Bye, Bye Boomers

As a person who looks at truth unblinking, I have to admit I’m a Boomer. In my youth, I celebrated the sexual freedom of the short post-pill, pre-AIDS era.

At the time, I was sure we were on to something big. But now, four decades later, I’m no longer certain we Boomers found the secret of life.

Our families are recovering from an epidemic of divorce, single parenthood and irresponsibility that has nearly destroyed our inner-city communities. Our celebration of a free-wheeling, “if it feels good, do it” culture has split our country right down the middle. A man who could have been one of our greatest presidents lost three years of his eight—and missed a chance to get bin Laden—because part of him (I won’t say which part) was stuck back in the sixties. I still don’t share social conservatives’ rigidity and intolerance, but I can’t say they’re all nutcakes, either.

As I look back at the accomplishments of my Boomer generation, I’m not particularly proud. We sure did well for ourselves. Besides having the most fun of any generation, we broke open the mold of the grey flannel suit and made it possible for all of us—female, black, white, brown, yellow and gay—to enjoy good careers.

But we spent like drunken sailors, building up the biggest deficits in our national history. Our greatest spending spree is just beginning—for our retirement and medical care in our dotage. You can say that our whole generation has been one long party, punctuated by two losing wars, for which we’re handing the next generation the bill.

As for leaving the world a better place than we found it, our record is mixed. We did help make our country the rainbow that it has become and has to be. We made a good start at cleaning up industrial waste and pollution. We revered our parents—as well we should—for saving the world from fascism and totalitarianism and having the patience and fortitude to win the Cold War. We helped give them the honor and the healing they deserve.

But on foreign affairs we stumbled badly. We fought the only two losing wars in our nation’s history: Vietnam and Iraq. With the bad example of Neville Chamberlain etched in our brains, we were far too quick on the trigger. We forgot to look in the mirror and notice that, since the Great War our parents won, we have been the 800 pound gorilla, spending more on “defense” than the rest of the world combined.

If the truth be told, our Boomer generation’s most prominent birthmark has been selfish excess. On the left, we were all about personal self-gratification and self-indulgence, to the point of weakening families. On the right, we were all about personal greed, to the point of weakening society.

The apogee of greed came during the 2004 campaign. The Republicans’ entire domestic program was letting us keep more of “our money.” They convinced us that government had to “go on a diet” for that purpose. We didn’t take much convincing.

So now we have a megachurch in Texas dedicated to the ludicrous proposition—contrary to every fiber of the New Testament—that Jesus wants us to be rich. So now we are leaving the next generation not only with the enormous burden of paying for our comfortable retirement, but with the bill for a war that had no justification or plan.

Most of us Boomers still don’t get it. Our infrastructure is falling apart for lack of attention and money. We allowed a major and historic city to be inundated for lack of investment in a few levees and pumps. Our broken health-care system is hobbling our commercial competitiveness, letting our competitors overtake us. And our political cohesion is disintegrating in mutual recrimination. Yet we still don’t understand that “every man for himself” is not the best way to build a healthy society, let alone a just one. Plato and Socrates could have told us that, and they didn’t have the Internet.

Our two presidents from the Boomer ranks (or nearly so) are metaphors for excess. Bill Clinton’s presidency ended in the sexual excesses of the sixties. His reputation as a leader paid dearly, as did we all for his mental absence. Bush’s excesses are still in process; they reflect all the zeal, self-righteousness and certainty of our generation. In a deeply ironic way, Bush’s and his neocons’ ideological certitude—on everything from the intrinsic evils of all government to America’s inherent right to tell other nations how to live—mirrors the vapid absolutism and intolerance that were so disturbing in the Communists.

Like so many people as they age, we’ve lost our flexibility, humility and sense of humor, on both the left and the right. So now it’s time to let the kids take over.

Our record as parents is not all bad. We’ve left the kids with some good values: hard work, tolerance, equal opportunity, and respect for innovation. We’ve left them in a flat world and with a marvelous medium of communication: the Internet. We’ve also left them in an enviable position of military predominance.

But our legacy includes enormous problems. Besides our failures of judgment in foreign policy and a gigantic bill to pay, we’ve left our kids with brand new problems that cropped up on our watch. They will have to deal with global warming or suffer the consequences if they don’t. They will have to find the right way to defeat terrorism, with a proper balance between aid and armament, security and civil liberties. And they will bear the enormous burden of making the world fully flat, so that human rights, environmental protection, social justice and freedom are as ubiquitous as the Internet.

We Boomers can’t do much more to help them because we’re limited by who we are. We are people of extremes, perpetually groping for a solid middle. Hillary Clinton is a victim of the sexual freedom that we enjoyed in our youth. She is a walking reminder of our generation’s bent for excessive action and reaction. George W. Bush and his neocons embody the reaction: rigid and hypocritical personal moralizing, authoritarian government, militarism and “Daddy knows best” politics. The current Bush Administration is our internal parent coming back to punish our permissive youth.

We Boomers are thus schizophrenic, personifying excess in both action and reaction. That fact explains a lot about our sorry field of presidential candidates. Giuliani’s and Romney’s ridiculous vacillations are just frenzied and pathetic attempts to find their nonexistent moral centers, or at least to simulate ones pleasing to their fellow Boomers. Hillary Clinton enjoys the sympathy of those who understand her victimhood, but she suffers the revulsion of those who think she symbolizes the excesses that caused it.

These Boomer candidates are fundamentally unappealing. They personify the unfinished business that we are too old, too tired and too morally exhausted to complete. So it’s time for us Boomers to stand aside and let the kids take over.

Of all the candidates, only Barack Obama represents a new generation. He was born in 1961, came of age after Vietnam, and reached adulthood in the eighties. His thoughtful, even-handed, understanding approach to issues is exactly what you would expect from a child of Boomers reacting against excess. He’s a man who cares about people, not ideology. He seeks moderation and common sense in all things. His own rock-solid family serves as a living counterexample to the Boomers’ excesses. Yet at the same time, his biracial background and inbred tolerance remind us of one of our greatest accomplishments—helping everyone see beyond race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation to individuals’ intrinsic worth.

So as we Boomers consider whom to vote for in the primaries, we might give a thought to the next generation. Do they need another one of us, with all of our excesses, reactions, and unresolved conflict? Will they benefit from another “ism,” whether liberalism, conservatism, neoconservatism, or progressivism? Or should they find their own way, without the labels for ideas that we taught them are so harmful as applied to individuals?

Good parents know when to let go. For us, the Boomers, that time is now.

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