The Least We Can Do

Self-absorbed, self-indulged, and self-loathing, the Baby Boom generation at last has the chance to step out of the so-called Greatest Generation’s historical shadow. Boomers may not have the opportunity to save the world, as their predecessors did, but they can still redeem themselves by saving the American economy from the fiscal mess that they, and their fathers and mothers, are leaving behind.

So, what’ll it be, folks? I’m not the only Boomer looking for a redemptive last act. Joe Klein of Time magazine, who early on sought the role of chief Boomer self-flagellator, wrote in Time a year ago:

For the past several years, I’ve been harboring a fantasy, a last political crusade for the baby-boom generation. We, who started on the path of righteousness, marching for civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, need to find an appropriately high-minded approach to life’s exit ramp.

Klein’s answer? You’ll never guess: a campaign to legalize marijuana. As the Boomers’ parting gift to the nation, it’s like giving your mom a baseball mitt for her birthday. Klein fantasizes stoned 80-year-olds toking away their golden years. Legalized marijuana may be a good idea and is probably coming anyway. But rocking on the front porch (I mean rocking in a rocking chair) watching the cars go by and uttering an occasional “Oh wow” will not strike many as the equivalent of fighting and winning World War II.

There isn’t much momentum behind Klein’s notion. A more popular suggestion, beloved of prestigious commissions and popular among those who worry about our national backbone, is some kind of universal national-service program. This could involve bringing back the military draft (ended in 1973) and combining it with other ways of serving the country, such as teaching, or emptying bedpans at veterans’ hospitals. Everyone would be expected to serve when around draft age. This expectation might be enforced by law, but most proponents, in order to maintain the pretense that it’s “voluntary,” foresee relying on peer pressure and civic hoo-hah, and making participation a condition for getting student loans.

As a monument to the Baby Boom generation, and in almost every other way, this is a terrible idea, a solution in search of a problem. Most obviously, Boomers are now well past draft age. So this is a clear case of “Do as I say, not as I did.” Apart from a nice biblical resonance (Abraham offering to sacrifice his son Isaac), it has little to recommend it. As a way to fill the military, it is almost comically inefficient. Only about 10 percent of American males who were of draft age during the Vietnam War ever went to Vietnam. To make service, military or otherwise, universal would have required coming up with nine do-good or make-work jobs in order to recruit each soldier. Whether a standby supply of drafted soldiers would make it easier or harder for a president to get this nation into a war is, at the least, an open question. Whether the vast majority who do nonmilitary service will likely be doing work of real value that’s now going undone is a question that isn’t even open. A universal national-service program would take jobs away from people who currently hold them and presumably want them, and force these jobs on people who don’t want them. All to satisfy some social engineer’s vision of what American society should look like.

So if not legalizing marijuana or reinstituting the draft, what should the Boomer legacy be? It should be concrete: not “a new spirit of patriotism” or any of those gaseous high-concept notions that presidents and newsmagazines resort to when there’s not much going on. It ought to be big. (Remember: the competition is victory in World War II.) It ought to be patriotic. And it ought to be accomplished by the time the last Boomer turns 65, which would be 2029. Boomers have 19 years to redeem themselves.

So what do you give the country that has everything? You give it cash. The biggest peril Americans now face isn’t Islamo-fascism. It’s our own inability to live within our means. It would be nice to give our country the wisdom and self-discipline to stop running up the credit card. And we should try. But it’s unlikely that we can remake the national character (including our own) in 19 years. What we can do is offer a lecture and a fresh start. We should pass on to the next generation an America that’s free from debt. Instead of ignoring it, or arguing endlessly about whose fault it is and who should pay for it, Boomers as an age cohort should just grab the check and say, “This one’s on us.”

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Michael Kinsley is an Atlantic senior editor and a columnist at the Atlantic Wire. 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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