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.

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As they prepare to leave the stage, even Boomers themselves concede that things have not exactly gone according to script. Generalizations about generations are often foolish. Who’s to say when one generation ends and the next one starts? And people are individuals: any characteristic intended to describe almost 80 million people will be inaccurate in most individual cases.

But the Baby Boom generation is more real than most. It had a clear starting point: 1946, just long enough after the end of World War II and the return home of American soldiers. (Its end point is set as 1964, although that certainly wasn’t the last year a World War II veteran fathered a child.) The Boomers’ heyday—the 1960s—stands out, even half a century later, as one of our more influential decades, which we romanticize (even if we were too young or too old to enjoy it at the time) and whose long tentacles still entangle us as the 1950s or the 1970s do not.

Most important, many Boomers—more than the generations before and after—have self-consciously thought of themselves, and have been thought of by others, as a generation. To be specific, they have thought of themselves as the “younger generation.” Boomers claimed a patent on the idea of “Youth,” even as people still younger inexplicably materialized—often in the Boomers’ own households. Every few years comes an attempt to carve out and name a generation of these post-Boomers: Generation X, Generation Y, the Millennials—but these labels tend not to stick, because they have less reality behind them.

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The indictment against the Baby Boom generation is familiar, way oversimplified, and only partly fair. In brief: the Boomers’ parents were the “Greatest Generation,” a coinage by Tom Brokaw that looks as if it will stick. Toughened by growing up through the Great Depression, the GGs heeded the call and saved the world in 1941–45. Then they returned home to build a prosperous society. They forthrightly addressed the nation’s biggest flaw (race relations), and defeated Communism on their way out the door. The GGs’ children, the Boomers, were “bred in at least modest comfort,” as the Port Huron Statement of 1962, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society, startlingly concedes. They ducked the challenge of Vietnam—so much smaller than the military challenge their parents so triumphantly met. They made alienation fashionable and turned self-indulgence (sex, drugs, rock and roll, cappuccino makers, real estate, and so on) into a religion. Their initial suspicion of the Pentagon and two presidents, Johnson and Nixon, spread like kudzu into a general cynicism about all established institutions (Congress, churches, the media, you name it). This reflexive and crippling cynicism is now shared across the political spectrum. The Boomers ran up huge public and private debts, whose consequences are just beginning to play out. In the world that Boomers will pass along to their children, America is widely held in contempt, prosperity looks to more and more people like a mirage, and things are generally going to hell.

Nobody actually wants the Boomers dead (or at least nobody has been impolitic enough to say so), but many wouldn’t mind if they took early retirement. From the day John F. Kennedy said “The torch has been passed to a new generation” to the day George H. W. Bush headed back to Houston, seven members of the World War II generation occupied the White House, for a total of 32 years. The Boomers had just two presidents, Clinton and Bush the younger, over 16 years, before the citizenry said, “That’s enough. Let’s move on.” Barack Obama, born in 1961, is technically a Boomer, but consciously ran against a version of Boomer values, and got a lot of self-hating Boomer supporters as a result.

Last year, a Wall Street Journal article noted and quoted from a few commencement speeches in which prominent Boomers (Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, etc.) apologized for their generation. Daniels (born 1949, age 61) said Boomers as a generation have been “self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and all too often just plain selfish.” Friedman (born 1953, age 57) said his was “the grasshopper generation, eating through just about everything like hungry locusts.” Filmmaker Ken Burns summarized: the Baby Boomers “squander[ed] the legacy handed to them by the generations from World War II.” Whether fair or not, this will be the Baby Boom generation in a sound bite unless Boomers act to change it.

This same story could be told with a different spin, of course. The so-called Greatest Generation came back from World War II to create a bland, soul-destroying prosperity, unequally shared, and then mired us in Vietnam, a war that should never have been fought. It was the Boomers, not the Greats, who forced the nation to address civil rights. And it was the Greats, not the Boomers, who got us addicted to debt. The GGs’ willfully blind sense of entitlement turned the government—and many private companies, too—into machines for taking money from working people and giving it to “seniors” (in amounts far in excess of what they had contributed). The collapse of the Soviet Union happened on their watch, but this victory was devalued by McCarthyism, the blacklist, CIA misbehavior, and, ultimately, Vietnam and Watergate. The Greats were the ones who got us into Vietnam and the Boomers were the ones who got us out. They did this by convincing a majority of the country that it was a mistake, which it was. (Their disinclination to kill and die for a mistake was, if not noble, certainly not cowardly.) Even as they “sold out” and eased into middle-class life, they changed it for the better. They made environmentalism, feminism, gay rights so deeply a part of middle-class culture that the terms themselves seem antiquated. They created an American popular culture—particularly music—that swept the world, and still dominates. They created the technological revolution that revived capitalism. And they did their share of sacrificing: they paid for their own schooling with student loans—becoming the first generation to enter adulthood already burdened by large debts. They also paid, publicly and privately, for their parents’ generation to retire in greater comfort than they themselves can reasonably expect. And now—talk about selfishness—many Boomers are supporting their children, too, into their 20s and beyond.

Whether the Boomers would have risen to the challenge of World War II is impossible to know. But the comparison with Vietnam is misleading. Winning the World War required the total mobilization of society. Vietnam never required more than a small fraction of draft-age men (and of course an even smaller fraction of all draft-age Americans). Most Boomers never served their country in the military, because most were not needed. Nevertheless, some of the poison in American politics over the past generation can be traced back to the unfairness of the Vietnam-era draft. The Atlantic’s James Fallows presciently predicted this in October 1975, in a Washington Monthly article called “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?” Even though almost all of the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam were Boomers, and even though there is general (though not universal) agreement that the Vietnam War was a mistake, the fact that Boomers from privileged backgrounds mostly avoided the fight has left a vague impression that Boomers as a generation failed some test.

But even if the anti-Boomer critique is mostly a bum rap, Boomers are right to feel at least a bit like a failed generation, because they—at least those who consciously thought of themselves as part of a generation—had hopes. They had an agenda. Peace and love—whatever happened to them? It is a crushing disappointment that Boomers entered adulthood with Americans killing and dying halfway around the world, and now, as Boomers reach retirement and beyond, our country is doing the same damned thing.

In his recent biography of 20th-century media baron Henry Luce, professor Alan Brinkley of Columbia discusses Luce’s famous 1941 essay, “The American Century,” in which Luce urged Americans to take on the burdens of world leadership, and “to promote, encourage and incite so-called democratic principles throughout the world.”

Brinkley, a Boomer but usually the most reticent of narrators, can’t resist stepping out of the story at this point to comment that he first read Luce’s essay in the 1970s and it struck him as “an obsolete relic of an earlier … and now repudiated American age. Little did I know how soon its sentiments would be popular again.” American exceptionalism—the belief that the rules of nature and humanity don’t apply to us—and American hubris about promoting our values in the world got us into Vietnam. This was the analysis of most anti-war Boomers. (The ones who rejected America and its values were a tiny minority.) Mainstream Boomers believed that Vietnam inoculated us against these vanities and would keep us out of trouble. (Hawks feared they were right.) But the inoculation lasted less than a decade. We started small, with Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, and now, like other imperial powers before us, we’re mired in Afghanistan.

But we’re still spry. It’s not too late for a generational gesture, something that will be the equivalent of—if not actually equal to—our parents’ sacrifice in fighting and winning World War II: some act of generosity or sacrifice that will inspire or embarrass the next generation, as the sacrifices and achievements of the “Greatest” generation inspire and embarrass many Boomers.

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.”

Fair? Of course it’s not fair. That’s the point. If it was fair, the gesture would be meaningless. 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. They’re the ones who notoriously want to “Stop the Government from messing around with our Medicare,” and Boomers are the ones who have been paying to support the last vestige of old-fashioned fee-for-service medicine—for the old folks. The Boomers themselves and their children are more likely to go to an HMO.

But that’s okay. You won World War II, so we are going to take care of your debts, cover your extravagances, and go along with your little pretense that you paid for it and are entitled to it. And to the post-Boomer generation, now approaching middle age: we’re going to make sure the currency doesn’t collapse, or the George Washington Bridge, either, for lack of maintenance. We’re going to reduce the national debt down to a reasonable level. We’re going to invest in research, catch up with all the deferred maintenance on our physical infrastructure, fix public education. You will not have to be embarrassed by the squalor that greets foreign visitors at our nation’s airports.

You’re welcome. Just don’t let it happen again.

Speaking of squalor, I’m sitting here in a pile of reports and studies by think tanks, public-policy schools, the Office of Management and Budget, and self-appointed grandee fiscal crusaders. They all make the same, tiresomely familiar point: that this can’t go on. I don’t know how to make that tiresome point vivid and fresh, but Anne Applebaum did pretty well in a rant of a column a few months ago:

If you don’t live in this country all of the time, and I don’t, here is what you notice when you come home: Americans—with their lawsuit culture, their safety obsession and, above all, their addiction to government spending programs—demand more from their government than just about anybody else in the world. They don’t simply want the government to keep the peace and create a level playing field. They want the government to ensure that every accident and every piece of bad luck is prevented, or that they are fully compensated in the event something goes wrong. And if the price of their house drops, they will hold the government responsible for that, too.

She did not add: But they don’t want to pay for any of it. Applebaum and I probably disagree about what we want the government to do for us. I’m fine with most of the items on her “no” list. But that debate—about the proper role of government in society—has been rendered almost irrelevant by our refusal to pay for whatever we do choose to order from the menu. Americans have been utterly unrealistic about this. We may legitimately disagree about the timing of any Great Fiscal Clean-Up: do we need a second or third jolt of stimulus first to nail shut the coffin of the Great Recession, adding a trillion or more in IOUs to the pile before turning to the task of reducing the pile? Maybe so. But money well spent is still money spent. The Great Recession may have been a legitimate reason for putting off the day of reckoning—just as a cold may be a good reason to put off a necessary heart operation—but the cold doesn’t cure your heart problem or eliminate the need for the operation.

Numbers are numbing, and I’m trying to avoid them. But pick a document at random from the pile. Here’s one: the latest annual “Long-Term Budget Outlook” of the Congressional Budget Office, published in June. The future is especially hard to predict at this moment, because current law includes several things that are unlikely to happen, such as the expiration of the George W. Bush tax cuts, and major unspecified cuts in defense and other spending programs. But making reasonable assumptions about these matters, the CBO projects that the national debt—nearly 62 percent of GDP—will rise to 87 percent of GDP by 2020 (a decade away), 109 percent (its previous peak, during World War II) by 2025, and 185 percent by 2035. “After that, the growing imbalance between revenues and noninterest spending, combined with spiraling interest payments, would swiftly push debt to unsustainable levels.”

The CBO says that these estimates “understate the severity of the long-term budget problem because they do not incorporate the significant negative effects that accumulating substantial amounts of additional federal debt would have on the economy.” To wit: higher interest rates, more borrowing from abroad, less domestic investment, lower incomes, and an increasing chance of a true crisis if markets lose faith in the U.S. government’s ability to pay off its obligations.

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. What’s especially scary about our fiscal situation is that everybody knows the facts and concedes the implication, but nobody is doing anything about it (except for grinding out books and reports and long articles in magazines like The Atlantic, complaining that everybody knows about it but nobody is doing anything about it).

And the national debt is just a fraction of the problem. State and local governments, unlike the national government in Washington, cannot print money, and many states have constitutions that forbid them to run a deficit. Nevertheless, they will be losing, together, about $140 billion this year. They’ll make up the money by “disinvesting”: firing teachers, putting off maintenance on public buildings, shutting libraries. We’ve been delaying maintenance on our public infrastructure of highways and schools and, yes, airports since at least the 1980s, and the shabbiness is really starting to show. Delaying maintenance is like borrowing against the future. Debt is everywhere you look. Here’s a short inside piece in The New York Times Magazine about state and local unfunded pension obligations for retired employees. They add up to between $1 trillion and $3 trillion. Until that article, I had given no thought whatsoever to shortfalls in state employee pension funds. You? Now we can only say, “Add it to the pile.” Then there is all that consumer debt—those underwater mortgages, those credit cards. And you can pick almost any number you wish, for what Medicare and Social Security will cost above and beyond their alleged “trust funds.”

Any use of the word infrastructure risks automatically classifying you as a “deficit bore.” People like Peter G. Peterson have been lecturing us for years—decades—about the dangers of the national debt, and their terrible predictions have yet to come true. That’s correct. But remember Stein’s Law, named for the late Republican economist Herb Stein: anything that can’t go on, won’t. And Americans’ piling up of debt—governmental in bad times, like now, personal in good times, like most of the past couple of decades—can’t go on.

Who knows how much this whole pile of debt adds up to? Certainly many trillions of dollars. Let’s say it equals one year’s worth of the nation’s output—that is, one year’s GDP, or about $14 trillion. That much money would, at any rate, be a big help. Boomers, those lazy, self-indulgent bums, those drugged-out draft dodgers, those mincing flower-power hippies who morphed into Wall Street greedheads with nothing left of their culture of peace and love except a paisley tie: we may not have the opportunity to save the world like our predecessors, but we can save the American economy from the mess our predecessors are leaving.

If you think of this in the context of normal American politics, any talk of paying off the nation’s debts and leaving the next generation with a clean ledger sounds not just boring but insane. (And yet, still boring.) Where are we supposed to get $14 trillion? In this nation of taxophobes, raising taxes by even 1 percent of GDP would be a triumph of leadership, and probably fatal to the career of whoever proposed it. How are we supposed to raise 100 percent of GDP?

However, think of this as an extraordinary historic gesture in response to an extraordinary historic threat to our country and the world. Not a threat like Hitler, perhaps, but a huge threat nonetheless. True, this time it’s our own fault. But that recognition does not do anything to solve the problem. So Boomers will have to step in. Think of our doing so as one generation’s once-in-a-lifetime parting gift to those who follow.

Looked at this way, $14 trillion—it’s not so much. A widely noted 1999 study estimated that at least $41 trillion will have been transferred from parents to children and grandchildren between 1998 and 2052. Most of the transfers in the last half of that time period will be Boomers passing money along to the next generation. But in the first half, money will mostly be coming from the previous generation to the Boomers themselves. Boomers could forswear all or part of this unearned inheritance. Or, more realistically, they could allow the government to tax it. At the moment, there is no federal estate tax. Congress, in a spectacular display of incompetence, voted a decade ago to eliminate it for one year only, and this is that year. Next year, unless Congress fiddles again, the law reverts to what it was in 2001, and estates of more than $1 million will pay rates of up to 55 percent. In 2009, the last year the estate tax was in force, it imposed a tax of up to 45 percent on estates worth more than $3.5 million, and raised only $25 billion—in other words, only a small proportion of the population paid it, but the few who did pay really got socked.

This would not be what I am suggesting here. I am suggesting a tax that reaches far more people—essentially anyone who inherits any significant amount of money—but at a much lower rate. The principle behind the current estate tax (or once-and-future estate tax) is frankly redistributive: to prevent large private fortunes from growing, generation after generation, with the recipients accumulating power as well as money. It does this very poorly, because of tax shelters and loopholes (all made possible by the power that people with large fortunes have already accumulated). But that’s still the idea.

The idea of my tax is to produce a lot of money that can then be used to pay off, or at least buy down, society’s debts. If we could collect just 20 percent of the alleged $41 trillion about to pass through two generations, that would be more than $8 trillion.

Critics of the estate tax like to say that it amounts to taxing the same income twice: once when it’s earned and again when you die. This is wrong, for the most part. People who leave estates of more than $1 million didn’t earn this amount through wages. Most of their fortunes consist of “unrealized capital gains”: property (paintings, houses, shares of stock, entire companies) that has become more valuable. As long as they don’t sell it, they pay no income tax. And there are plenty of other loopholes to provide untaxed spending money. Most of the people who would be affected by what we might as well call the Boomer Tax actually did pay taxes when they earned their money originally, because the loopholes and special rates don’t apply to plain old wages. They really will be paying twice, but that’s the idea. That’s what you do because you didn’t have to fight in World War II.

Here is another justification for taxing the money people leave behind when they die. According to a survey from the Federal Reserve Board, the average American household aged 65 to 74 has assets worth more than $1 million. Typically these amounts get spent down as people get older and sicker, so let’s say the second member of the typical couple dies leaving $500,000. That is far below the threshold for the estate tax. But for years, this couple has been collecting benefits from Social Security and Medicare. These are supposed to be insurance programs. Social Security protects you against the risk of being old and poor. Medicare protects you against the risk of being old and sick. Medicare operates like typical insurance: it pays to cover the costs of medical care and it pays out only if you actually are sick and suffer these costs. Social Security is different: it pays whether or not you’re actually poor.

But if a couple dies leaving assets worth half a million dollars, the risk they were insuring against—poverty in old age—evidently didn’t materialize. The money they received from Social Security, aimed at covering that risk, is instead passed along to their Boomer children. That, surely, was never the idea. Why shouldn’t they give it back? Or some part of it? Social Security sent out checks worth $682 billion last year, so there is real money here.

This involves all sorts of practical problems, of course. The big one is that you’re creating an incentive for old folks to spend down their nest eggs rather than let the money go back to the government. But then, as with proposals for universal national service, the government has two ways to induce desirable behavior. One is to legally require it. The other is the kind of combination of negative and positive inducements that supporters of national service tend to favor. Maybe returning the unused portion of your parents’ Social Security could become a social norm. Fashion and peer pressure might be more effective than a law.

One final thought: as we learned during the health-care debate, citizens of other advanced countries live longer than Americans, while spending far less per person on health care. How can that be? Well, it’s partly that they don’t try to save people through heroic, expensive, long-shot efforts, most of which fail. You’ve seen the figures: for example, last year Medicare spent $50 billion on the last two months of life. Trouble is, we don’t know when we’re two months from the end. CBS’s 60 Minutes reported last year that “20 to 30 percent” of this $50 billion “may have had no meaningful impact.” Of course, all $50 billion had very little meaningful impact, if the patient died within two months. It’s easy enough to be in favor of not paying for treatments that do nothing. The tough decisions involve treatments that do something, but not much. Or treatments they’re not sure about.

Even putting costs aside, if you could choose at the beginning of your life which health-care system you’d prefer to live under, you’d pick the one where you’d probably live longer, no? Yes, that medical system involves “rationing,” but rationing already goes on here, more than we admit. Why not make it official? Let’s be honest: such a system would cost some Boomers their lives, but they would die in their 80s or 90s, unlike the teens and 20-somethings who gave their lives in World War II. Just a thought.

Boomers: we’re all in this one together. You may be wondering, What’s stopping Mike from tearing up his Social Security checks [when they start to arrive—still a few years off!] or walking around with a permanent Do Not Resuscitate order tattooed on his chest? The answer is, I’m not doing this alone. That would not achieve the purpose of vindicating a generation. Anyway, democratic government is a way of saying “I will if you will.”

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not really pushing for Boomers to raise $14 trillion and use it to pay off the national debt and related obligations. I have no idea whether $14 trillion is even close to the right amount. I know that even if the money dropped from heaven, you can’t stroll into the bank with $14,000,000,000,000 in small bills and walk out a debt-free country. Sure, it’s much more complicated than that. But it’s not more complicated than D-Day. And it’s the least we can do.