Damning a Whole Generation to Make a Policy Point

By Todd Gitlin

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.

Generational hypergeneralization is the last refuge of the pundit. I get the feeling that even the playful Michael Kinsley half-knows that he's been snookered into pitching his political-economic views as a generational manifesto. This is what comes of standing pat conceptually as we move into the sixth decade of Baby Boom blather. Generation talk gussies up a position that, in my view, is part righteousness (restoring the estate tax) and part fetish (deficit hawkery).

"The indictment against the Baby Boom generation is familiar, way oversimplified, and only partly fair," Kinsley writes--and proceeds to speed through his own yellow light. Self-indulgent spendthrifts to a man and woman, he says, "the Boomers ran up huge public and private debts." But soon enough, he's giving himself the back of his other hand: "Boomers are not primarily responsible for America's debt crisis. Blame goes mostly to the World War II generation, which in this regard was not so Great." Hmm.
Can the Boomers Save America?
It's just as well that Kinsley momentarily interrupts the oh-so-easy generalization about the water-walking achievements of the Boomers' parents. Is Ronald Reagan, who spent the war making movies, to be honored in the same breath as his age-mate John F. Kennedy, the commander of PT-109? How easy it is to congratulate the Greatest Generation while averting one's eyes from the fact that a good many of them, just a few years earlier, were isolationists who opposed a foreign policy that might have helped stop Hitler in the Rhineland, in Austria, or in Spain. Don't get me wrong: No one dares underplay battlefield sacrifice, not to mention Rosie's riveting. The elders rose mightily to the occasion--as did the undrafted women--to help save the world. But their political wisdom came a bit late, and was largely forced on them.

Yet when Kinsley addresses the Boomers (an odd "generation" indeed, some of whom were struggling with the alphabet and others of whom were burning their draft cards during the Götterdämmerung year of 1968, but never mind), it's as if they, collectively, have a giant atonement to make. There's "a vague impression that Boomers as a generation failed some test."

Well, true, they failed to elevate America to city-on-a-hill status, though of course many of them made this a hell of a lot more decent country for people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and a lot of other people of various generations. Of course, when it came (or didn't come) to the draft, Boomers operated under rules dictated by the manpower personnel rules established by their seniors, but Kinsley still wants to hang as much callowness, shallowness, short-sightedness and greed as possible on them all, the better to play the grand game of generational preference, which is always a shoddy substitute for an outright political fight.

Indeed, he goes on, "some of the poison in American politics over the past generation can be traced back to the unfairness of the Vietnam-era draft." Somehow I don't see how hypocritical draft-dodgers George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh deserve the selfsame chastisement as honest Bill Clinton, who famously wrote that he didn't want to "kill and die" in a dreadful war. Nor does Kinsley offer the slightest evidence that boomers Newt Gingrich, Ken Starr, Sarah Palin, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, or Glenn Beck are channeling poisons circulated by the Selective Service System of the '60s. And speaking of Clinton, didn't that tricky boomer leave the budget in surplus, while tax-slasher Bush, Yale '68, ran two wars off the books and piled up deficits as if he'd invented the concept? Boomers all, under the skin, but with rather different politics.

As to the vital dangers of our time, is it really the case that "there are a dozen ways to look at the national debt and the annual government deficit, and they all lead to varying degrees of panic"? There's at least a thirteenth way, that of (among others) Joseph Stiglitz, three years too old to be a Boomer, who warns against a "deficit fetish" that gets wheeled out to arrest the sort of government spending that could help put people back to work and spare them the muddy slide into poverty. The same position is taken by Paul Krugman, who sagely observes that the bond market is blithely unworried about future U. S. solvency and doesn't seem to feel that the deficit is the monster of all monsters. True, Krugman's a Boomer, and has less pocket change at his disposal than Peter G. Peterson, whose eponymous foundation has a billion dollars to spend sounding alarms about...the deficit. Krugman and Stiglitz: chopped liver?

"The least we can do" is not smother political disputes with generational noise.

The debate continues here.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2010/09/damning-a-whole-generation-to-make-a-policy-point/63324/