The recent economic crises can be blamed on many persons and institutions. But the Baby Boomers running Wall Street and political institutions from 1992 to 2008 must bear a large share of the blame. Now, as Michael Kinsley correctly states (“The Least We Can Do,” October Atlantic), these Boomers are confronted with our huge private and public debt.
Kinsley suggests a radical change in the estate tax as a way to pull ourselves out of this hole. As a longtime Democratic policy adviser, I suggest instead that we must do it the hard way, starting with entitlement reform. Discretionary public spending for marginal purposes must be reduced. Pentagon spending, likewise. Tax rates should be lowered, and fewer brackets used, while billions in “tax expenditures” extended to favored sectors and companies should be erased. Are Boomers up to doing this? We shall soon see.
Ted Van Dyk
I think Michael Kinsley is shortsighted and premature in his dismissal of a national-service program as a partial remedy for our increasingly fragmented and, frankly, degenerate society. For one, an NSP, while mandatory, wouldn’t aim to replace our current soldiers. Instead, qualified people already in the NSP could opt into formal military training for concurrent service. While less efficient, our existing system—effectively a mercenary army deceptively recruited from the lower classes—is far more damaging to a putative republic. Is an NSP social engineering? To be sure. But that’s precisely what the mandatory sacrifice of the World War II draft did for America: engineer a vastly better human being than our purely consumerist and demand-nothing society does now.
Los Olivos, Calif.
My wife and I are the mid-70s couple Kinsley describes, who receive Medicare and Social Security (we both worked as professionals). He suggests that any money we have saved from these public funds should not be passed on as an inheritance to our children. I’ve wondered why we don’t act before the fact (of our deaths) and make both Medicare and Social Security means-tested during our lifetimes—that is, based on actual needs. Why should people in our situation get larger care and SS payments than some poor person who has a tenth of our retirement income?
Richard C. Massey
Michael Kinsley’s “The Least We Can Do” was an amusing read, but pretty pedestrian in its assumptions. We Boomers are not “reflexive and crippling” cynics because we want to be. It’s because we’ve been taught to be. The second and more disturbing assumption is that we’re all greedy materialists who don’t want to pay for anything. Sure, there are some of those around (of all generations), but the core of the problem is how we choose to spend.
You want a bold idea? I’ll give you two. The first is designated taxes. True democracy means voting with money. Instead of someone else deciding that half my taxes will go to the military, I’ll designate that half for education. We could have a national vote every 10 years, with buckets already identified: homeland security, education, social welfare, infrastructure, and so on.
The second idea is to rewrite the tax code itself to reward and punish behavior. Consumption of natural resources gets taxed. Heavily. Conservation gets credits. This would extend to all sectors—transportation, housing, business, government, nonprofit.
That’s the hopeful side of me. The reflexively cynical side says none of this will ever happen, because of the powerful interest groups that would stand to lose a whole helluva lot if any of these ideas were actually implemented.
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Michael Kinsley replies:
Many people seem to have misunderstood my notion of squeezing some money out of inheritances—too many to blame anyone but myself. The idea is to get the money from the estates of Boomers’ parents, not from Boomers themselves. I realize that means moving fast, and even so, it may be too late.
I was thrilled to finally see a critical review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (“Smaller Than Life,” October Atlantic). Making sense of Freedom is nearly impossible. This book is one of the worst written in many years; however, it has risen to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. The review by B. R. Myers is a refreshing reminder that not all people can be duped into buying books just because they are hailed by Oprah.
Thanks for exposing Jonathan Franzen’s fatuous prose for what it is: grossly overrated by the literary establishment. I was beginning to think I was a stupid fiction reader when I put down his last book, The Corrections, after 50 hopeless pages. Now I feel a lot better.
New York, N.Y.
In the magnificent Freedom, Jonathan Franzen captures our perverse alienation, existential dread, hypocrisies, vanities, and vernacular in a way that deeply offends B. R. Myers, driving him to call the novel a “576-page monument to insignificance.” I’m stunned that Myers would trivialize the very essence of what makes us human (trivialities!) in this way. I have to wonder if Myers even read the same book, as I could barely recognize his bitter and remarkably obtuse plot summaries or bombed-out character descriptions.
“Why was Freedom written?” he wonders. “Do writers really believe that every unhappy family is special?” I bet Myers doesn’t like Chekhov either—he probably thinks he’s “tiresome.”
Most tragically, I think Myers is missing another rather important piece of the puzzle: this novel is arguably the continuation of a long (albeit interrupted) conversation between Franzen and the late David Foster Wallace. The very vernacular and branding that Myers so roundly scorns is, I presume, a nod to Infinite Jest. But alas, Myers is missing all the fun with his obstinate daftness.
I’d like to thank B. R. Myers for reminding us that “every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread.” Just as reading Freedom in 2010 is a waste of time, so too was reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884, 1984 in 1949, and To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. In fact, I believe that aspiring writers should take Myers’s advice further and stop writing altogether, for there are classics to be read!
B. R. Myers replies:
Reading a contemporary novel is usually but not always a waste of time. My point is that we should not read something new unless it promises to be as good as the classics we thereby leave unread—classics like the work of Chekhov, whose careful use of language lends significance to each character he creates. I make this point to counter the many critics who praised Freedom in strong terms while acknowledging grave and numerous flaws. Typical was the Washington Post review. After remarking that “Franzen’s wit has mostly boiled away, leaving a bitter sludge,” that the novel “doesn’t offer its themes so much as bully us into accepting them,” that its satire of Republicans is “corny,” and the main comic scene “seems stale,” Ron Charles saw no reason not to recommend the novel as “brilliant.” This, Craig Schwab, is how a bad novel rises to the top of the best-seller lists. The eager self-abasement of so many critics and readers has been extraordinary even by American standards. To hear April Adamson tell it, the Great One is communicating not with mere readers, but with the deceased Great One whose mantle he has inherited. This may explain Franzen’s dead prose but does not excuse it.
In 1986 I read Leo Kanner’s seminal paper describing Case 1, Donald T (“Autism’s First Child,” October Atlantic), as I began my career in behavioral genetics, researching autism. At the time, autism affected 5 in 10,000 people, and the idea of genetic influences was just beginning to gain currency. We now know that genes play a major role in autism, it has a spectrum of severity, and it is very common. The nature-versus-nurture debate has been replaced by one in which genes and environment are inextricably intertwined. But perhaps what I have learned most is that well-being is not the absence of disease or disorder; it is living life with purpose and meaning, in a caring community. As is evident from John Donvan and Caren Zucker’s article, Donald Triplett exemplifies well-being. His sense of happiness jumps off the page.
This article brings to the fore the importance of knowledge about behavioral or psychiatric disorders to allay fears, reduce stigma, and eliminate criticism. A loving family and open-hearted community embraced Donald the boy and later Donald the man; in that process, Donald, his community, and we the readers were enriched.
Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D. Professor of Psychiatry
Semel Institute, UCLA
Los Angeles, Calif.
In response to Michael Kinsley’s October cover story, “The Least We Can Do,” many readers—not just Baby Boomers— wrote in with their own ideas for saving the Boomer legacy:
1. Save future generations from climate change. 2. Vote out all congressional incumbents.
3. Sell Alaska. 4. Establish a Senior Peace Corps.
In “Prep Is Dead, Long Live Prep” (October Atlantic), we should have referred to the writer David Riesman, not Paul Riesman.