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Baby Boomers Stole The American Dream, But Young People Can Take It Back

From forgiving student debt to electing fewer people over 65, the author of a new book offers some policy prescriptions for how younger generations can take back some power and wealth.

Baby Boomers Stole The American Dream, But Young People Can Take It Back
[Source Photo: bowdenimages/iStock]

If one good thing has come out of the horror of the Parkland massacre, it’s the sight of young Americans standing up to a political system that doesn’t benefit them. When thousands of students walk out of classrooms in the middle of the day, it’s a sign of a new generation rising perhaps: a changing of the old order for a new one.

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Generations X and Y (and younger) could use more of this kind of activism because it’s not just gun culture that needs fixing. Across many areas–from social security funding to climate change to health spending–the current political settlement isn’t geared toward youth. It’s geared toward baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964) and their parents, who’ve saddled the rest of us with an increasingly bleak future.

As Bruce Cannon Gibney writes in A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America, the boomers have satisfied their needs by squandering our inheritance. They’ve passed unfunded tax cuts that we’ll be paying off for years. They’ve protected Social Security checks while leaving us with trillions in student debts. They’ve waged NIMBY campaigns against new housing while protecting the value of their condos. They’ve elected pussy-grabbers and child molesters while lecturing us about personal responsibility.

Gibney says it’s time to look to a new generation of leadership focused on the future. The Clintons, Bushes, and Trumps–all boomers–aren’t going to look out for the younger generations in the way someone younger would. “For the past several decades, the nation has been run by people who present, personally and politically, the full sociopathic pathology: deceit, selfishness, imprudence, remorselessness, hostility . . . ” he writes. “Unless younger generations remove the boomers from power soon, the next quarter century will be even worse than the last one–a parade of missed opportunities and bad choices.”

I asked Gibney how we, the young, and relatively young, can take back the agenda. If the boomers have transferred the nation’s wealth to themselves, investing only in priorities that pay out in their lifetimes, how can we reorient the system? Here are a few ideas based on his book.

Forgive All Student DEbt

Student debt, now valued at more than $1.4 trillion, is a big drag on generations X and Y, curbing their ability to start businesses, buy houses, and seek out better lives. “Government borrows much more cheaply than students and may as well use its advantage by assuming many student debts directly,” Gibney writes. Federal loans carried interest rates of between 4.3% and 6.8% in 2015-2016, while 10-year Treasury debt traded at just 1.8% in mid-2016.

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One recent study from the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College estimated that student debt relief would cost about the same as last year’s tax cut (about $1.5 trillion), but would have vastly more positive economic impacts. Of course, paying off student tuition fees is a bit like paying the debts of bankers after the financial crisis: It rewards financiers who prey on students. But better the government address this issue now “before crushing debt derails younger lives prematurely and the costs arrive, compounded, via the back doors of welfare and other programs,” Gibney says.

Raise Taxes On Older People

Though Gibney decries the state of public finances, he says we need to spend more to secure the future. There’s a big difference, he says, between investing in education, infrastructure, and climate resilience, and simply giving money away to corporations and political donors. Investing at least brings hope of some return. He wants $8.65 trillion more in total public expenditure, with about $3.6 trillion of that going to fix the nation’s deteriorating roads, bridges, and train systems.

To pay for this, Gibney would raise taxes, particularly on boomers, because “they did not pay their fair share of taxes, as the national debt and general decay attest,” and because, unlike younger generations, they tend to have more wealth that can be taxed. He would also end state property tax caps that see boomers enjoy substantial rises in real estate prices without paying more to the government, and increase inheritance taxes, which serve to curb dynastic wealth. “Doing so would be downright republican (lowercase), given that low inheritance taxes are oddities in a nation founded, however glancingly, in opposition to inherited privilege,” he says.

A Better Cost-Benefit Analysis Of Health Costs

U.S. healthcare spending will make up a fifth of the entire economy by 2020. We spend far more than other countries on medicine without getting better overall results. No serious reform benefiting generations X and Y can avoid cutting spending in this area. Gibney favors cost-benefit analysis–or, to use a more charged term, rationing. Arguably, the amount we spend on healthcare already rations other priorities anyway. “Social programs are supposed to do the greatest social good, not cater to false sentiments about kindly geriatrics,” he writes. “Costly interventions to drag a life out a few unproductive months, at the price of a lost generation of children do not balance in the Benthamite books.” (Bentham, an English philosopher, argued that society should do the most good for the most people, even if the cost to a small number of citizens is high.)

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Give Young People A Chance In Office

If generations X and Y want different policies, they need different political leaders. Gibney suggests a test when deciding who to vote for. Does a politician advocate ideas for the next four years, or investments that pay out over the next 40 years? The latter is more likely to help.

Then, the question is: Who is going to pay for that spending? At the moment, boomers pass laws–like the Republican tax cut last year–that are all about today and nothing about tomorrow. “The sociopaths’ goal is to wring every last dollar from the system, and any investment that could not be fully realized within boomer lifetimes [is] to be avoided,” Gibney writes.

Other ideas–not advocated by Gibney specifically–might include setting age limits on who can run for higher office. Why do you need to be 35 to run for president, but somehow being in your 70s or 80s is just fine? (Trump is 71 and and Joe Biden is 75). At the same time, generations X or Y could do with their own AARP. After the NRA, the retired people’s association may be the most powerful lobbying group in Washington, D.C., immediately putting other generational groups at a disadvantage.

Gibney’s agenda may seem like an unfair attack of one generation on another. But then the current political settlement is already a form of generational redistribution. Seniors may tell you that they’re merely reclaiming what they paid into the system. But Social Security and Medicare don’t nearly pay for themselves. The way we’re dealing (or not dealing) with entitlement programs, climate change, and the national debt means building huge liabilities for future generations to pay. Our current policies in these areas effectively dictate our future political choices.

Gibney expects Trumpian politics to dominate the 2018 midterms (even if Trump’s party doesn’t actually win). But, after that, he hopes a new type of politics, driven more by the interests of gen X and Y than boomers, emerges. In 2020, issues like Medicare, Social Security, climate, and the debt may be more on the agenda than now.

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“The strongest argument for getting rid of the boomers, aside from 30 years of policy failure, is that older people don’t change a lot. They don’t adjust their views of the world,” Gibney says. “How many more times are the Bushes, Clintons, Trumps, and Bidens going to run? How many times do we have to keep electing the same people and expect a different result?”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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