Hope You Die Before You Get Old

As a Baby Boomer, I'm
sure not encouraging generational warfare in America. I have everything
to lose from such a battle.

On the other hand, though,
as a political analyst, I can hardly believe we're not seeing it.

Never has it been so
manifestly logical. Never would it be so thoroughly deserved.
And yet, never has it been so astonishingly absent from the playing
field of American politics.

As a Baby Boomer, I'm
sure not encouraging generational warfare in America. I have everything
to lose from such a battle.

On the other hand, though,
as a political analyst, I can hardly believe we're not seeing it.

Never has it been so
manifestly logical. Never would it be so thoroughly deserved.
And yet, never has it been so astonishingly absent from the playing
field of American politics.

I grew up in a period
of generational conflict. "Never trust anyone over thirty",
"Hope I die before I get old", etc. But I have to say that
my generation got a way better deal from our parents than we're leaving
for our kids.

Sure, our parents bequeathed
us Vietnam and Nixon. But I think those politics were a matter
more of naivete, really, rather than malice or greed. I remember
how my own parents reacted to the war and to Watergate. Having
struggled collectively through the Depression, and having fought the
good fight of World War II, I think they were wholly unprepared for
the levels of deceit and callous indifference to harm they came inescapably
to find that their government was capable of. This was an existential
challenge of the kind we jaded Boomers can probably never appreciate.
They were true believers, and they were rattled to the core when Toto
pulled back the curtain. Their children, on the other hand, were
raised to become cynics, for whom no such political crime can ever quite
surprise us.

And it's funny, too
(though certainly not hah-hah funny), to think of how our generation
- as much as you can speak of such a thing without falling into stereotypes
worthy only of some PBS pledge-break docudrama - how we mocked the
materialism of our parents. At one level, we were right to do
so. Big cars with tail-fins were not exactly means for enrichment
of the soul. No one was ever gonna transcend the material world
and get to nirvana by purchasing a TV set and watching the latest episode
of Ponderosa (in living color!). But, on the other hand, we might
have been a whole lot more charitable too. Given where they came
from, and what they'd been through, it was not so outrageous for them
to seek a little prosperity and comfort. Moreover - on the other
other hand - there's that whole nagging hypocrisy thing. The
truth is that the rocket-fueled materialism of their kids makes Mom
and Dad's modest suburban house with the single TV in the living room
seem awfully quaint by comparison. Today, if there isn't a satellite-fueled
TV in every room of your McMansion (and, of course, your cars as well),
with a DVD player and game box hooked up to each, Child Protective Services
might well be dispatched to cart your kids away in order to protect
them from neglect.

But even if the Greatest
Generation wasn't so great when it came to some of the items higher
up on Maslow's laundry list, their kids - the Boomers - could
only dream of being as devoted parents as were their own. Indeed,
if there's any one great crime for which the World War II generation
may be most guilty, it is the raising up of the most narcissistic, self-centered,
self-aggrandizing crop of kids ever. In China they call the analogous
generation the Little Emperors. I guess we're a bit too self-reverential
for even that little bit of comedic introspection. Just the same,
though, not for nothing are we known as the Me Generation. To
get a sense of our sense of ourselves, just look at the two presidents
we've contributed to the pantheon: Bill Clinton and George W.
Bush. Of the latter nothing need be said that could meaningfully
add anything to the eight years of experiencing this president's capacity
for self-indulgence and his unparalleled sense of entitlement.
As for Monsieur Clinton, he is said to have lamented, especially after
9/11, the fact that no major crisis occurred on his watch, so that he
could join Lincoln and FDR and Washington among the greatest presidents
of all time. Now, if I sat down for six weeks trying to think
of the most self-centered sentiment I could conceive of in all the world,
I doubt seriously I could top that one. Imagine wishing that thousands
of people could die in order to enhance your reputation for the history
books. And this after you've already had the privilege of serving
two terms in the most exclusive position in the world.

Gee, what a legacy we've
left in presidential politics. But it only gets worse if we consider
the more general picture. I cannot think of a single time in American
history where one generation left their children such a stunningly large
and complete a mess to clean up.

The fiscal part of it
is astonishing, though only the most visible element. A wrecked
economy that may sink below the depths of the Great Depression is just
the latest contribution. But even before that, economists have
been predicting that today's young people will be the first generation
in American history to be less well off than their parents. That
doesn't even account for the nation's crumbling infrastructure,
which has been almost completely neglected for thirty years, so that
we could party now and pay later. It also doesn't include bills
encumbered as Baby Boomers begin to retire and demand their promised
Social Security and Medicare. These would be almost impossible
to meet by virtue of demographic and rising healthcare factors alone.
But we might have had a chance at doing so had we set aside the revenues
coming in all these last decades while Boomers were working, for use
at the time when the payers would became the payees, en masse.
But, of course, that would have meant raising taxes or spending less
- and we can't have that! - since we've been using that money
instead to pay for general budget expenses.

Or, should I say, to
not pay for general budget expenses? Could you imagine parents
so reckless that they would party themselves into a drunken stupor by
stealing the funds from their children? I'm not talking about
burning through the inheritance, which, after all, is the parents'
money to do what they want with. No, I'm talking about spending
the money the kids have saved themselves for their own college education,
or for a down-payment on a house. Outrageous, eh? Well,
guess what? That's exactly what the Baby Boomers did.
Because they wanted all the government services they got, plus the tax
cuts that put a little extra jingle in their pockets, plus the luxury
of being so stupid and ill-informed that they didn't have to grapple
with the questions of where that tax 'cut' money was really going,
or how utterly bogus were the administration's claims about its policies,
especially concerning the hugely expensive Iraq war. Put it all
together and it equates to living well beyond your means. And
when you do that, there are only so many ways to deal with the difference
in what you're spending versus what you're bringing in. Cue
the kids here.

The math is astonishing.
The current amount of the national debt is a staggering 10.667 trillion
dollars, and climbing fast (indeed, it has already risen substantially
since I typed that number). Let's leave aside for the moment
that it is rising every year with each annual deficit - which some
people now think could be a dramatically record-breaking trillion dollars
next year - added to the pile. And let's also leave aside
the fact that each of those dollars are borrowed, and are thus accruing
additional liability every day in the form of interest. If we
just take the current debt, and divide it by the number of payroll workers
in America (about 150 million), that means each worker's share of
the existing debt is $71,113. Now, just for the sake of argument,
let's say a worker has a job pulling down fifteen bucks per hour in
pay. At that rate, they would have to work 4,741 hours to do nothing
but pay off the amount that has been borrowed in their names, without
their assent, and just to cover only what has been loaned so far to
date - not counting new additions to the pile each day, and not counting
accruing interest. At forty hours a week, that's 2.37 years
of someone's life. In fact, that's 2.37 years of 150 million
people's lives. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine
going to someone and saying "I'm going to force you to work over
two years of your life in some job you probably don't like, so that
I don't have to"? Because that's exactly what this represents:
Baby Boomers refusing to live within their means and desperately turning
to their own children to facilitate the parents' irresponsibility.
Parents stealing more than two years of their children's lives, to
add two years of play time to their own. Unreal.

But, of course, economics
are only the beginning of the story, and not even the worst of it.
Imagine a meteor was headed to Earth, and there was a way to avoid the
destruction of the planet, with little pain or sacrifice involved in
doing so. Imagine if instead you did nothing and let the planet
be destroyed That's what the global warming crisis and our reaction
to it looks like. The only good news here for our generation -
and especially for our generation of Americans - is that our maximal
stupidity will probably guarantee that there are no historians left
around in the future to call us out as the single generation throughout
the entire history and pre-history of the species that caused infinitely
more damage to ourselves and our host planet than all the others combined.
The one that ended the game. What an honor, eh? And haven't
we just been wonderful to our kids in this regard? Because we
couldn't be bothered to switch to electric cars instead of gasoline,
or insulate our houses, we are taking the Earth we were fortunate enough
to inherit as our home and giving them Mercury instead.

That's something to
be proud of, ain't it? Then there's also foreign policy to
consider. America before Bush was no great shakes when it came
to our relations with the rest of the world, although we somehow managed
to engender a fair amount of good feelings, despite ourselves.
We certainly did some good things out there in the world, but we also
supported every two-bit dictator who would play ball with our corporate
interests, and opposed every real democratic government that would not.
Marcos, the Shah, Pinochet, Diem, apartheid South Africa, Saddam -
the list is endless. But never, despite all that, has this country
been as reviled in the world as it is now, nor ever more deservedly
so. In addition to undermining the Anti-Ballistic Missile, Kyoto,
International Criminal Court and Geneva Convention treaties, the United
States now stands four-square for the principles of unjustified military
aggression, invasion of sovereign states, and torture. True, most
of us never wanted any of that. But then most of us never did
a damn thing about it, either.

As a result, this is
just one more way in which we've handed our children a raw deal.
In this case, we've made them hated in much of the world, just for
being Americans. Not only did we spend their time and money, we've
spent their good will for them too. And - according to our own
intelligence agencies - we've created a farm system abroad which
has been busy generating droves of anti-American terrorists. It
is very possible, therefore, that our children will die tomorrow in
terrorist attacks that were directly precipitated by our laziness today
in curbing the gross excesses of a disastrous administration.
You'd almost think we lived in a Stalinesque dictatorship of the most
repressive sort, given our disinterest in using the tools readily available
to us to replace or even stymie a government gone insane. Who
would think, looking at the mass violent crime called Iraq committed
in our name, and using our tax dollars - a crime that we stood by
and watched happen - that we actually had the power to do something
about this? Who would think that we live in country where a president
can be impeached for as little as lying about getting a blow job?
And yet we did nothing. Shame on us. My god, shame on us.

We could go on and on
here. How broken is our educational system? How obscenely
twisted is that corporate business enterprise masquerading as our healthcare
system, a beast only incidentally concerned with keeping our country
well? How messed up is American foreign policy in the Middle East,
not even counting Iraq or Iran? How bankrupt are our societal
values when everyone knows who Britney and Brad are, but probably not
even one in ten could name the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme
Court? How jive is our commitment to equality of opportunity (let
alone actual equality), when we fund our schools through property taxes,
with absolutely predictable results? How dishonest can one society
be, when it deploys more mercenaries than soldiers, woefully abuses
the National Guard and the Reserves, hides the bodies coming home in
caskets, avoids a draft, cuts taxes and deficit spends, all to prevent
citizens from having to think about a war that would instantly be massively
unpopular in the absence of such ruses? How breathtakingly paranoid
are we, and how devoid of the most basic skills of diplomacy, that we
spend more money on 'defense' than every other country in the world
- about 195 of them - combined? How fundamentally deluded
at the wholesale level are we that it would be effectively impossible
for an atheist to be elected president? How shamefully lazy are
we that - even in 2008 - a third of us still didn't bother to
vote, and the rest of us tolerate an electoral system frequently designed
to suppress turnout?

And so on, and so on.
Like I said, we could go on and on here.

To me, it's shocking
that one generation could be so blatantly irresponsible as to leave
such a broken system to its children. It's one thing to exploit
other people, and - as much as I loathe racism or sexism or colonialism
- it's a little easier for me as a social scientist to wrap my head
around the idea of abusing others whom we first take care to differentiate,
objectify and demonize on the basis of some arbitrary primordialist
factor. But our own kids? Wow. And, actually, it's far
worse than that. Using the term 'irresponsible' here to describe
what has happened is far, far too generous. This is not a case
of negligence. This was a knowing theft, and our own children
were the victims. While they slept, late at night, we crept into
their rooms, stole the piggy bank, smashed it to pieces, then used the
proceeds to buy some leisure time for sipping beer and watching "American
Idol", or some bullets to destroy the lives of an innocent Iraqi family
somewhere. Yep. No doubt about it. It's the feel-good
story of the century, my friends.

What is most astonishing
about the whole thing is that I detect almost nothing in the way of
anger from the victims. When I try to talk to my students about
how my generation is ripping off their generation, somehow I'm always
the angriest guy in the classroom, by far. Probably I should just
keep my mouth shut, eh? I mean, I've paid into Social Security
since I was sixteen years old, and I'd like it to be there when I'm
an old geezer, unable any longer to fool some hapless university into
paying me to scandalize yet another generation with my Maoist, anticlerical,
sexually deviant, radical environmentalist revolutionary dogma.
I'm okay with their generosity, but, to be totally truthful, I wouldn't
exactly blame the next generations for saying "Screw you, pal.
You guys had your party already, and we're not paying for it twice.
Fund your own freakin' retirement." God knows we have that
coming.

Whether we get it or
not is another question. Societies - especially those as diverse
as the United States - can develop political cleavages along all sorts
of different lines. In Canada, it's linguistic. In Northern
Ireland, it's religious. In Mexico, it's ethnic. In
Italy, it's geographic. There is no reason that, in America,
it couldn't be generational, just as it once was not so long ago.

No reason, that is, except
that nobody seems to be mobilizing along those lines. I do see
something of a youth consciousness reawakening, especially with the
figure of Barack Obama on the horizon, seemingly having the same effect
on young people that John Kennedy once did. But, to the extent
that it exists - which isn't much - it seems very benign in its
content. Perhaps the young folk of today are all post-ideological,
like Obama, sick of the divisiveness and the consternation and the battles
that animated their parents and grandparents for so long (if only they
knew what was purchased for them with the blood, sweat and tears of
those battles). Whatever the reason, though, it's as hard for
me to envision them shouting out "Never trust anyone over thirty"
as it is for me to envision them just shouting out at all. That
doesn't seem to be a part of their makeup.

But the ingredients are
there, I'd say, for a generational schism in American politics, if
somebody wants to come along to pick up that particular ball and run
with it. Not only is there plenty of legitimate cause for anger,
there is also a yawning ideological divide opening up. Much as
young folks may not necessarily want to construe themselves in ideological
terms, they seem nevertheless to be considerably to the left of their
elders. A look at the demographic data following the election
shows rather emphatically that age was one of the best predictors of
the vote. The younger you were, the more likely you were to vote
Obama. Moreover, Democratic Party registrations among the youngest
voters in America absolutely overwhelm those for Republicans.
They may not be thinking in left-right terms, per se, but it is clear
that they are rejecting the Republican Party. And not just because
they don't like the sound of the name, either, or because McCain came
off like the dinosaur he is. Especially on social issues - the
red meat and absolute sine qua non of the GOP base - this generation
is saying no thanks to prejudice, hatred, religious control and sexual
regulation across the board. But if one were to eliminate those
items from today's Republican Party, there'd be almost nothing left
remaining in the convention hall, apart from a few gun lobbyists and
the occasional, stray, left-over neocon cheerleading for another war
somewhere ("Freakin' Burkina Faso, I tell you, they're a huge
threat to our national security!").

Don't get me wrong
- I'm not predicting generational warfare in America. And,
trust me when I say that I hope it doesn't happen. Apart from
the fact that this country needs another schism like it needs another
Bush for president, I personally have everything to lose and nothing
to gain if younger Americans start telling older Americans that it's
long past time the Me Generation started thinking in terms of being
the We Generation, and learned to share a bit.

If that happens, I hope
they are at least more gracious and sympathetic to us than we ever were
to them. But I'll certainly understand it if they're not.

Because, I'll tell
you what. If I was a twenty-something right now, I'd be pissed.

David Michael Green is
a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.
He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (dmg@regressiveantidote.net), but regrets that time constraints do not always
allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website, www.regressiveantidote.net.