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Stop Scapegoating Baby Boomers—Remember We Helped Forge American Prosperity

CULTURE WARS - Baby Boomers, who have now morphed into “young seniors,” certainly did not contribute to the economic decline of America.  On the contrary, this huge demographic bulge—as we have moved through our highly-publicized life cycle-- helped create the country’s consumerist prosperity with our teenage allowances and middle age purchases.  

Yet running through the debate on the national debt is the subterranean belief that “young seniors,” once known as Baby Boomers, are stealing from future generations by having too many hip replacements and using up too much medical care to stay healthy and active.

Just recently, for example, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, as he wandered through the streets of Greece,  wrote [link] with Athenian authority that Baby Boomers were responsible for this country’s huge debt. Just because Eric Cantor and seventy-eight million other people fit into the rather vague category (1946-1964) of the Baby Boomer generation doesn’t mean that a particular generation caused the housing bubble, or turned our nation into one gigantic gambling casino.  

Yes, Virginia, there truly are people who daily bet against the economic health of the nation.  

This is hardly the first time that Tom Friedman has seemed delusional.  He supported the Iraq war because he somehow believed that President George W. Bush would fight the war in Tom’s way, for Tom’s beliefs, for Tom’s goals.  What was he thinking—or smoking? Now he wants us to applaud as he substitutes ‘generational clash” for the former “clash of civilizations,” which he has decided is the real struggle our nation faces in the future.

Let’s get real. If Friedman accuses Baby Boomers of “behaving badly,” is he still fighting the cultural wars?  If so, he’s right that some boomers have largely been responsible for expanding democracy by fighting for the human rights and legal equality of racial minorities, women, gays and lesbians and disabled.  Did we dance and smoke too much?  I’m not sure.  But we didn’t drink nearly as much as the “greatest generation” and many of us have spent our lives fighting for the common good, especially the preservation and health of the planet.

But if Friedman is accusing the baby boom generation of creating the debt that will burden the next generation, he ought to resign from the Times with dignity, before his analyses get him laughed off the Sunday morning talk shows.

Unfortunately, Friedman is not alone in believing that the Baby Boom is  responsible for the nation’s economic decline. True, President Bill Clinton, another Boomer, helped create the financial crisis by deregulating the financial industry.  And true, some Boomers in the financial industry turned the country into a gigantic casino, while the corporate sector has outsourced America’s skills to workers in other countries.  Also true, George W. Bush nearly bankrupted the country with two wars and tax cuts for the wealthy.

But is this part of Boomer culture, or what market fundamentalists have accomplished since President Ronald Reagan first dabbled in what his vice-president once called “voodoo economics?”  And Ronald Reagan was no Boomer.

Surely, Tom Friedman must read his colleagues Paul Krugman and Robert Reich and know that those who created the housing bubble and the madness of the subprime mortgages, who outsourced jobs, crushed unions, have tried to dismantle government, destroy public education, erode health care for the poor, do not represent the views of a particular generation.  They represent the ideological insanity of  right-wing Republicans, market fundamentalists,  who are holding our country hostage to their belief in markets, as opposed to the health and welfare of the common good.  Indeed, as ardent fans of Ayn Rand, they don’t believe in a common good.  Greed is good.  Self interest is what makes the country great.

If right-wing Republicans get their way, and refuse to raise revenue, we may indeed leave a tattered America, including an immense debt to the next generation. But this horrific burden is the result of right-wing Republicans who have given incompetent CEOs millions of dollars in bonuses and but refused to cut the taxes of the wealthy.   

Baby Boomers are not the problem.  There has been no generational cry to dismantle government, public education, keep the financial industry unregulated, outsource jobs or keep profits hidden out of the country, or any refusal to tax the wealth.  It is not Baby Boomers who prowl the corridors of power as they search for ways to eradicate Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.  
Oh, that we were so powerful. The truth is so much more complicated

Friedman’s problem is that he confuses generational clash with the clash between classes.   Is the Baby Boomer generation responsible for the lack of progressive taxation that created and maintained a broad middle class until the 1980s, when “greed became good?”  Who created the insane idea that the rich need tax cuts while the poor need to pay their fair share?  

There is a simple and clear way to avoid burdening the next generation with debt.  It’s called taxes.  It’s our dues to the common good.  Students today are shocked to learn that the much-publicized prosperity of the 1950s was achieved when the very wealthy paid as much as 90% in taxes.  They are unaware that the wealth of this nation depended on making things, not simply betting for or against a particular stock or commodity or the failure of this bank or that insurance company.

I realize it’s old fashioned to talk about class struggle, but the reality—which Friedman misses with his muddle-headed analysis---is that the wealthy have successfully waged class warfare against those who used to be proud members of unions and enjoy the security of a middle class life. Now unions have been crushed with concessions by businesses that operate in a global economy and in an atmosphere of greed.

Nor does Friedman even mention the impact of a global economy. Does he also believe that Baby Boomers all over Europe are responsible for the growing economic crisis in the European Union?

The idea of a “generational clash” is bogus and Tom Friedman should be ashamed of such a simplistic and unsubstantiated analysis.   But these are the pundits that our newspaper of record pays to explain the world to us, which is why we look elsewhere for intelligent and penetrating journalism.

(Ruth Rosen, Professor Emerita of History at U.C. Davis, is a former columnist for The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Right-Wing Studies at U.C. Berkeley and the author, most recently, of The World Split: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, 2006. This article was posted first at alternet.org) -cw

Tags: baby boomers, Tom Friedman, future generations, human rights, gays and lesbians, disabled

Vol 9 Issue 78
Pub: Sept 30, 2011