Mr. Keller has decided that I’m just like him. After all, we’re both “Boomers,” dontcha know. In “The Entitled Generation” he gurgles that boomers have been under attack, but there are some ways to earn back a little respect. Really? By producing generalizations about generalizations? And comparing apples and oranges? He’s getting flayed in the comments, at least… Prof. Krugman has a question in “Crash of the Bumblebee:” What would policy makers have to do to save the euro — and will they do it? If it involves courage my guess would be no. Here’s “Boomer” Keller:
If you were born before 1946 or after 1964, you are free to go. Kindly close the door on your way out. I need a private moment with my fellow baby boomers.
So. I imagine you’re all feeling a little unappreciated these days. We seem to have entered one of our periodic seasons of boomer-bashing. In rapid Op-Ed succession, we children of the postwar demographic bulge have been blamed for turning religion into an indulgent free-for-all, for giving elites a bad name and for making greed respectable, or at least acceptable. That’s just this month, and just on this page. And it’s not only conservatives beating us with the Woodstock whip. Kurt Andersen, a confessed liberal and one of our more prolific cultural omnivores, started the latest thumping July 4 with an argument that amoral self-gratification is just the flip side of social liberation: “Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.”
The notion that our generation has been spoiled rotten is not a terribly new thought. A dozen years ago Paul Begala (of Bill Clinton and CNN fame) published in Esquire the classic of boomer-loathing, “The Worst Generation.” “The Baby Boomers are the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history,” he declared. It’s a sturdy genre. Perhaps while Googling yourself you have come across the blog Boomer Deathwatch (“Because one day, they’ll all be dead”), a checklist of famous boomers who hit their actuarial sell-by dates. Even Barack Obama, who styles himself post-boomer though he was born in 1961, complained in “The Audacity of Hope” that today’s hyperpolarized political discourse began with the “psychodrama of the baby boom generation.”
Yes, yes, this criticism is glib. We didn’t start the war in Vietnam, but members of our generation fought both in it and against it, demonstrating some of the spirit of sacrifice we are not famous for. Our ranks include the outsourcers of Bain and the wizards of the Wall Street casino, but also the entrepreneurial genius of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. The Bill Clinton of Monicagate was the first boomer president, but so was the Bill Clinton of relative peace and prosperity. Our record-buying dollars gave the world disco — so sorry about that — but also Motown and Springsteen. I’d say the argument will continue forever if that didn’t sound like such an all-about-us, boomer thing to say.
But even though the caricature is way too easy, it has stuck, and we all know that it contains more than a nugget of truth. We are an entitled bunch.
This brings me to a soon-to-be released study by the incorrigible pragmatists at Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank. The study takes a familiar refrain and presents it with a graphic wallop. Though it was intended as a wake-up call, not an indictment of a generation, it can be read as both.
The authors examined two categories of federal spending over the past 50 years, representing two of government’s fundamental missions. One was “investments,” which includes maintaining our national infrastructure, keeping our military equipped, helping assure that our work force is educated to a high standard, and underwriting the kind of basic scientific research that is too risky or long-term to attract private money. The report calls this the legacy of President Kennedy’s New Frontier, though the largest infrastructure project in our history, the interstate highway system, was Eisenhower’s baby, a reminder of the days when Republicans still believed in that stuff. The other category was “entitlements,” a catchall word for the safety-net programs that provide a measure of economic stability for the aging and poor: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.
You will not be surprised to hear that the red line tracking entitlements goes up while the blue line reflecting investments goes down. What is alarming is the trajectory.
In 1962, we were laying down the foundations of prosperity. About 32 cents of every federal dollar, excluding interest payments, was spent on investments, only 14 percent on entitlements. In the mid-70s the lines crossed. Today we spend less than 15 cents on investment and 46 cents on entitlements. And it gets worse. By 2030, when the last of us boomers have surged onto the Social Security rolls, entitlements will consume 61 cents of every federal dollar, starving our already neglected investment and leaving us, in the words of the study, with “a less-skilled work force, lower rates of job creation, and an infrastructure unfit for a 21st-century economy.”
Some of the entitlement bloat comes from the addition of new programs — notably the prescription drug benefit espoused by our second boomer president, George W. Bush, and the Affordable Care Act, though at least that law sets in motion offsetting measures aimed at containing the soaring cost of health care. Some of the growth is built into formulas that increase benefits faster than inflation or G.D.P. And a lot of it is us: boomers, aging into Social Security and Medicare. “We’ve reached the point where our working-age population over the next 30 years grows by one-fifth, and our elderly population grows 100 percent,” said Jim Kessler, the senior vice president for policy at Third Way.
Indignant readers are already revving up to tell me that Social Security and Medicare are sacred promises, that cutting them would be stone-hearted Republicanism. A.A.R.P., the lobby for people we used to call senior citizens until we realized that meant us, got hammered by the left earlier this year when its C.E.O. dared to convene a meeting of Washington insiders to even discuss the subject. No wonder A.A.R.P. shies away from supporting any entitlement reform.
But the traditional liberal alternatives — raise taxes on the well-to-do, cut military spending — are not nearly enough by themselves. The arithmetic simply doesn’t work, unless we face the fact that entitlements are a bargain we can’t afford to keep, not in full.
So the question is not whether entitlements have to be brought under control, but how. The Republican plan espoused by Mitt Romney and his fiscal lodestar Paul Ryan would cut the cost of entitlements largely by moving toward privatization: personal investment accounts for Social Security, vouchers for Medicare. And it’s not at all clear the Republicans would assign any of the savings to investing in our future.
At least the Republicans have a plan. The Democrats generally recoil from the subject of entitlements. Centrists like those at Third Way and the bipartisan authors of the Simpson-Bowles report endorse a menu of incremental cuts and reforms that would bring down costs without hitting the needy or snatching away the security blanket from those nearing retirement. They include gradually raising the retirement age to compensate for the fact that we now live, on average, 14 years longer than when F.D.R. signed Social Security into law. They include obliging those of us who can really afford it to pay a larger share. They also include technical fixes like aligning the automatic cost-of-living formula with reality. To curtail the raging inflation of health costs, the government could better use its market clout to hasten electronic record-keeping, replace the fee-for-service model, reform medical malpractice laws and promote living wills. (A quarter of health care spending comes in the last year of life.) But you won’t hear much of that on the campaign trail.
FELLOW boomers, we have done more than our share to make this mess. It’s not our fault that there are a lot of us, but we have resisted any move to fix the system. We should make a sensible reform of entitlements our generation’s cause. We should stiffen the spines of our politicians, and push lobby groups like A.A.R.P. to climb out of the bunker and lead. (And, by the way, we should resist the boomer temptation to take every cent of the reform from the pockets of our kids.) We should keep the heat on Congress and the president to double down on the cost-saving provisions in Obamacare.
We may not be the greatest generation, but we are the largest — and we vote. We throw our weight around. What if we threw some of it in the right direction?
For what it’s worth, asshole, it’s the Affordable Care Act. Here’s a large pile of salted dicks, Bill. Enjoy. Now here’s Prof. Krugman:
Last week Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, declared that his institution “is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro” — and markets celebrated. In particular, interest rates on Spanish bonds fell sharply, and stock markets soared everywhere.
But will the euro really be saved? That remains very much in doubt.
First of all, Europe’s single currency is a deeply flawed construction. And Mr. Draghi, to his credit, actually acknowledged that. “The euro is like a bumblebee,” he declared. “This is a mystery of nature because it shouldn’t fly but instead it does. So the euro was a bumblebee that flew very well for several years.” But now it has stopped flying. What can be done? The answer, he suggested, is “to graduate to a real bee.”
Never mind the dubious biology, we get the point. In the long run, the euro will be workable only if the European Union becomes much more like a unified country.
Consider, for example, the comparison between Spain and Florida. Both had huge housing bubbles followed by dramatic crashes. But Spain is in crisis in a way Florida isn’t. Why? Because when the slump hit, Florida could count on Washington to keep paying for Social Security and Medicare, to guarantee the solvency of its banks, to provide emergency aid to its unemployed, and more. Spain had no such safety net, and in the long run, that has to be fixed.
But the creation of a United States of Europe won’t happen soon, if ever, while the crisis of the euro is now. So what can be done to save the currency?
Well, why was the bumblebee able to fly for a while? Why did the euro seem to work for its first eight or so years? Because the structure’s flaws were papered over by a boom in southern Europe. The creation of the euro convinced investors that it was safe to lend to countries like Greece and Spain that had previously been considered risky, so money poured into these countries — mainly, by the way, to finance private rather than public borrowing, with Greece the exception.
And for a while everyone was happy. In southern Europe, huge housing bubbles led to a surge in construction employment, even as manufacturing became increasingly uncompetitive. Meanwhile, the German economy, which had been languishing, perked up thanks to rapidly rising exports to those bubble economies in the south. The euro, it seemed, was working.
Then the bubbles burst. The construction jobs vanished, and unemployment in the south soared; it’s now well above 20 percent in both Spain and Greece. At the same time, revenues plunged; for the most part, big budget deficits are a result, not a cause, of the crisis. Nonetheless, investors took flight, driving up borrowing costs. In an attempt to soothe the financial markets, the afflicted countries imposed harsh austerity measures that deepened their slumps. And the euro as a whole is looking dangerously shaky.
What could turn this dangerous situation around? The answer is fairly clear: policy makers would have to (a) do something to bring southern Europe’s borrowing costs down and (b) give Europe’s debtors the same kind of opportunity to export their way out of trouble that Germany received during the good years — that is, create a boom in Germany that mirrors the boom in southern Europe between 1999 and 2007. (And yes, that would mean a temporary rise in German inflation.) The trouble is that Europe’s policy makers seem reluctant to do (a) and completely unwilling to do (b).
In his remarks, Mr. Draghi — who I suspect understands all of this — basically floated the idea of having the central bank buy lots of southern European bonds to bring those borrowing costs down. But over the next two days German officials appeared to throw cold water on that idea. In principle, Mr. Draghi could just overrule German objections, but would he really be willing to do that?
And bond purchases are the easy part. The euro can’t be saved unless Germany is also willing to accept substantially higher inflation over the next few years — and so far I have seen no sign that German officials are even willing to discuss this issue, let alone accept what’s necessary. Instead, they’re still insisting, despite failure after failure — remember when Ireland was supposedly on the road to rapid recovery? — that everything will be fine if debtors just stick to their austerity programs.
So could the euro be saved? Yes, probably. Should it be saved? Yes, even though its creation now looks like a huge mistake. For failure of the euro wouldn’t just cause economic disruption; it would be a giant blow to the wider European project, which has brought peace and democracy to a continent with a tragic history.
But will it actually be saved? Despite Mr. Draghi’s show of determination, that is, as I said, very much in doubt.