Kurt Anderson and The Economist Out Generation Greed
The situation no one wants to talk about is being whispered about here and there. Looking for something else I recently came upon this NY Times essay by Kurt Anderson from a few months back. “Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts — women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time? There was a long pause. People shrugged and sighed. I had an epiphany, which I offered, bumming out everybody in the room. What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.”
So, do I agree? In part.
Here is my take on the situation, repeated from the manifesto I used back in 2004.
“Aside from lobbyists who are just out for a dollar, politics appears to be driven by two different concepts of the word ‘freedom’ that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, one good and the other (for lack of a better word) evil. The good freedom might be called freedom of identity, or of lifestyle. For a brief period after World War II, many Americans believed that if you didn't look like, act like, think like, and live like everyone else, then you shouldn't be accepted. The idea of America as a land of social conformity is mostly gone, but politicians can still get elected by manipulating 35 year old resentments with tribal appeals to groups of people, and the invocation of ‘values’ issues on which they have no intention of changing anything. Sadly, tribal politics determines how many people vote, among those who vote at all. They are suckers.”
“The evil idea of freedom is freedom from responsibility, which has both a 'liberal' and a ‘conservative’ version, depending on which responsibilities one does not want to meet. Liberal Democrats have sought to attract votes by telling the poor and not so poor, the old and not so old, the sick and not so sick, and others that they do not have personal responsibilities to work and earn their own living, or to take care of their family members. To knowledgeable critics, their excuse for irresponsibility has been ‘social realism,’ the assertion that this is the way people live today (because they are free to live that way) and government programs, paid for by someone else, must limit the damage. And they have cultivated a sense of entitlement to assistance, causing recipients of public benefits to feel anger at anyone who dares to make demands on them in exchange.”
“Conservatives and Republicans have sought to attract votes by telling the better off that they do not have social responsibilities to their communities, to the less well off, to the rest of the world, and to the future, particularly with regard to taxes and debt, but also with regard to the environment. To knowledgeable critics, their excuse for irresponsibility has been ‘economic realism,’ the assertion that the affluent are self interested and mobile, and if you make demands on them for the benefit of others, or for the benefit of the future, they will take their assets and go elsewhere, leaving you worse off than before. They also cultivate a sense of entitlement, telling the affluent that their position of privilege is the result of their own moral superiority, not social advantages or luck or (as the business scandals show) worse, and that they do not owe anything to anyone in exchange for it.”
So no, I don’t agree with Kurt Anderson that “it’s all of a piece.” Just because women are now going to college in equal-plus numbers and are equal participants in the workplace, that didn’t mean family life had to be diminished to the detriment of children. In fact, it is only among the better off couples with two working partners that the divorce rate has plunged among post Generation Greed generations. The same may be said of homosexuals. Just because some of them want to participate in responsible, committed family life to the extent their situation allows, doesn’t mean anyone else had to stop.
Similarly, just because Afro-Americans were no longer discriminated against by law didn’t mean our government institutions needed to be loaded with debt and tied up in red tape to benefit slackers. Just because equal opportunity laws allowed various kinds of people work in private sector businesses does not mean that businesses had to be raped by those who controlled them for higher executive pay. And being who you are didn’t mean that Americans had to sell out their own futures by going into debt to keep up with the Jones. Individuality does not necessarily lead to the replacement of religion with advertizing, or the bizarre mixture of the two you find in some parts of the country.
Finally, what is it about eating better food or seeking to preserve the natural environment that makes one selfish? Does one wish to make the argument that once our social institutions were no longer of, by and for a certain kind of White people, everyone stopped thinking of them as “ours” as saw them as something to drain and exploit instead?
But Anderson sees a connection.
“Then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed. A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed. Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.”
“’Do your own thing’ is not so different than ‘every man for himself.’ If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators.”
As someone who wants to make his own decisions about my one and only life, but also wants to die feeling others, net, have been better off because I had lived rather than feeling like a “winner” in a “game” against everyone else, I can’t agree.
Meanwhile, The Economist had a recent look at the consequences of the Generation Greed era U.S. debt binge. It confuses things by using the term Baby Boomers, namely those born from 1946 to 1964, in its analysis. The richest generations in U.S. history – and those who led Anderson’s cultural revolution, were actually the generation before – the so called “Silent Generation” that followed the “Greatest Generation” and came of age in the 1950s, and the first half of the Baby Boomers who came of age before the stagflation hit in the mid-1970s. Those at the back end of the Baby Boom, my generation, were actually the first to be worse off (things like the Vietnam war aside) than those who went before, but the trend continues. The Economist notes that some of this was just a natural result of demographic and economic trends, not something anyone did to anyone else.
“These boomers have lived a charmed life, easily topping previous generations in income earned at every age. The sheer heft of the generation created a demographic dividend: a rise in labour supply, reinforced by a surge in the number of working women. Social change favoured it too. Households became smaller, populated with more earners and fewer children. And boomers enjoyed the distinction of being among the best-educated of American generations at a time when the return on education was soaring.”
“Yet these gains were one-offs. Retirements will reverse the earlier labour-force surge, and younger generations cannot benefit from more women working. There is room to raise educational levels, but it is harder and less lucrative to improve the lot of disadvantaged students than to establish a university degree as the norm for good ones, as was the case after the war. In short, boomer income growth relied on a number of one-off gains.”
That isn’t the whole story, however.
“More worrying is that this generation seems to be able to leverage its size into favourable policy. Governments slashed tax rates in the 1980s to revitalise lagging economies, just as boomers approached their prime earning years. The average federal tax rate for a median American household, including income and payroll taxes, dropped from more than 18% in 1981 to just over 11% in 2011. Yet sensible tax reforms left less revenue for the generous benefits boomers have continued to vote themselves, such as a prescription-drug benefit paired with inadequate premiums. Deficits exploded.”
And of course at the state and local level, and in the private sector, you had all those retroactive pension enhancements, which labor unions “sacrificed” for by agreeing to lower pay and benefits for new hires. And now, there are proposals to raise taxes – later, when Generation Greed is retired – and slash old age benefits, but only for those not “in or near retirement.” A direct attempt to play to the greed of Generation Greed. The Democratic non-plan – ignore the problem until the same policies can be described as “circumstances beyond our control” -- is just a misleading version of the same. And yet you never hear it put that way in the Generation Greed controlled media.
But some people are starting to catch on. The comments on The Economist article brought an outpouring of rage among younger folks at the sins of their elders, from demanding and then destroying old age entitlements to inadequate infrastructure investment and cutting off aid to higher education. This one sums it up. “Basically, they've eaten the seed-corn stored by their parents, locked themselves inside the barn, and told everyone outside in the fallow fields that they're lazy and it's their own faults.”
One response to the damning facts on the ground, repeated endlessly, is that talk of a “generational war” is just a “right wing” attempt to distract from the “class war” by the one percent. But the two are related, in that the screwover of those coming after has gradually worked its way up the socio-economic latter.
In the early 1960s older generations were concerned about how the “other half lived,” which subsequently improved. But the inflation adjusted wages (and later benefits) of the bottom half started falling in the mid-1970s, covered over first by more people in the workforce, then by lost future (retirement) income that did not affect spending at the time but will is really starting to bite now, and then by rising consumer debt. Most of the college educated didn’t care, because they were not really affected until the bi-coastal recession of the early 1990s. It wasn’t the “one percent,” it was the “twenty percent,” because the yuppies were bought off. Why worry about the guy with three houses and four corporate jets – or the guy who lost the factory job and now works for just over minimum wage at the Quickie Mart -- when you have a McMansion and two SUVs of your own.
And now, post 2008, it is the “0.1 percent.” Even most executives will not be able to take as much in exchange for less as those who went before, if for no other reason than there is less around to steal. Those who retired with a pile are being screwed by QE, with overprices stocks providing little in dividends and overpriced bonds providing little in interest. So who should they be upset with about his? Mitt Romney had an answer – the bottom 47 percent. Meanwhile The Economist, it a huge shift driven by a huge shift in circumstances, even suggests inflation as a way to shrink away the public debts Generation Greed has left to those following – and their paper assets at the same time.
“The generational divide makes this plan a hard sell. Younger workers are typically debtors, who benefit from inflation reducing real interest rates. Older cohorts with large savings dislike it for the same reason. A recent paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis suggests that as a country ages, its tolerance for inflation falls. Its authors theorise that a central bank could use inflation to achieve some generational redistribution. Yet pressure on the Fed to cease its expansionary actions has been intense, and led by a Republican Party increasingly driven by boomer preferences.”
That’s right, the 1960s generation is the right wing. The Tea Party. We had our fun. We don’t want the consequences. Not taxes. Not benefit cuts. We’re against “the government.” So are the financial executives outraged at the "Say on Pay" provision of Dodd Frank, and the public employee unions working the system for retroactive pension enhancements.
And what does Kurt Anderson think of subsequent generations?
“The self-absorbed ‘Me’ Decade, having expanded during the ’80s and ’90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the ‘Me’ Half-Century…Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.”
My take is different. I refer to my generation and those immediately after as “Generation Apathy.” “We’re screwed anyway, and we’ll never be in charge, so let’s just look after out own affairs and ignore our institutions.” Just as not everyone in Generation Greed is greedy, Anderson’s take notwithstanding, not everyone in Generation Apathy is apathetic. But it is hard to buck the social tide, particularly when it becomes a social tsunami.
In his short-lived radio show after he was ousted as Governor, I heard Mario Cuomo say “if you don’t participate in the system it’s going to hurt you.” But the system is rigged to throw up barriers to participation, whether by shareholders or would-be political candidates in one-party fiefdoms. By hiding the facts and kicking the can, Generation Greed has kept those younger from storming the barriers. The consequences have only begun to arrive.
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