Why Boomers Should Be Forced to Share Some Wealth


This post is part of our forum on Michael Kinsley's October cover story exploring the legacy of the Baby Boomers and what they owe the country. Follow the debate here.

Many thanks to Bruce Bartlett for his civilized and interesting response. One point of clarification: My idea was that the accumulated assets of the Boomers' parents—the so-called "Greatest Generation"—should be tapped to help reduce the debt that the Greatest Generation is running up and passing on to the Boomers and their children. Maybe it's too late for that. Bruce's notion seems to be that Boomers themselves should put the government in their wills. That's not a bad idea either.
Can the Boomers Save America?
Our main disagreement is whether Boomer contributions to reducing the debt should be mandatory (i.e., through taxes) or voluntary. I tend to think that if there is a social need, then society should supply the means to satisfy it. Using government as an instrument has three advantages. First, we as a society can make the decision—through our democratic process—about what we choose to regard as social needs (health care for the poor? Art museums? Science research?) and then pay taxes to fund them. Second, doing it through the government is less undignified for the beneficiaries. If it's a legitimate social need, why should they have to rely on private charity? And third, as I mentioned in the piece, government is a way of saying "I will if you will." No one need feel like a sucker, if everyone's in the game.

As I also suggested in the piece, there is a middle ground between actual legal coercion and true voluntary action. That is the pressure of social norms. If leaving money to the government—or to some special fund set up for the purpose, or just to existing institutions doing good works—became routine and expected, this could be almost as effective as taxes. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are trying to establish a norm that every billionaire gives away at least half of his or her assets either while living or at death. Maybe some smaller share would work as a norm for the rest of us.

The debate continues here.

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Michael Kinsley is a longtime political journalist and commentator. More

Michael Kinsley is a longtime political journalist and commentator. He has an accomplished record in print, television, and online. He graduated from Harvard, went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and came back to study at Harvard Law. While in his third year of law school, Kinsley began working at The New Republic. He was named editor and wrote that magazine's famous TRB column for most of the 1980s and 1990s. He also served as editor at Harper's, managing editor of Washington Monthly, and American editor of The Economist. Kinsley was a panelist on CNN's "Crossfire" from 1989 to 1995. In the mid-1990s, Kinsley started working for Microsoft and became the founding editor of the company's online journal, Slate. He worked as a senior writer and columnist at The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire in 2010. In 1999, the Columbia Journalism Review named him Editor of the Year, and in 2010 he was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame. He is famous for defining a gaffe as the moment when a politician tells the truth.
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