Sunday, July 13, 2008

Mike and Carol versus the Baby Boomers

[This is Old News. Chronistic Date is April 24, 2008.]

Today in a post entitled “The Generational War” Andrew Sullivan quotes from a reader’s lengthy communiqué. We never learn the reader’s name so I’m going to call him “Mike” and his wife “Carol”. Mike writes:

My wife and I are what you would call Obama's core demographic. I'm 27, she's 28; we are both working toward earning our doctorates ... I think we have both developed a well-nurtured sense of doom about the future, driven perhaps by predictions of global warming and the seemingly unending War on Terror that President Bush has promised will be the defining struggle of our generation. I know we're going to be taxed to the hilt at some point to pay for that enormous national debt, and I know that our own finances have probably relied a little too much on the credit card and student loan.

It's difficult and often hyperbolic to define a generation's attitudes toward anything, let alone something as complex as voting behavior. But, I do believe this election is being driven by an Obama voting bloc that, to a certain extent, blames the anxieties that I mentioned above on our parent's generation.

Please tell me that Mike - and Sullivan - are aware these attitudes are so “dog bites man”. I suspect every generation has blamed its anxieties about the future on its parents’ generation. I know Baby Boomers played this blame-game with enthusiasm. Everything that was wrong with the world - the threat of nuclear annihilation, the pollution of the natural environment, the Vietnam war, the long lines to buy gas - was our parents’ fault.

Mike goes on to say:

No, not on our parents directly, since how could you not express affection for such an over-indulgent group of ex-hippies, but on their lack of self-discipline.

Like this young man, we Baby Boomers tried to see our parents’ failings kindly. They were scarred by the Great Depression, overly impressed by their performance in World War II, locked into the ridiculous mindset of MAD. They were terribly, terribly wrong, of course, but their error was understandable.

Mike continues:

They were the generation that got their wish in the 1960s with John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. Who saw the promise of a new politics embodied in both men, and had the electoral power through sheer demographics to propel them to what would have been successful presidencies.

Well that’s rather sweeping. We have no way of knowing whether Robert Kennedy would have won in 1968 nor of knowing what kind of president he would have been. As for John Kennedy, Mike seems to have forgotten how narrow a victory the power of those “sheer demographics” delivered in 1960 - possibly because the oldest of those demographics was only 14. Further, although Kennedy is justly praised for his stand on issues like Civil Rights, the Berlin airlift, and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, he also presided over a number of less “new politics” endeavors such as the Bay of Pigs; the last pre-Furman federal execution; a bloody coup in Iraq; and increased intervention in Vietnam, including another coup.

Mike goes on:

The promise was cut short, but that generation of baby boomers lived on as the definitive political and economic force in American politics. In the late 60s and early 70s they expressed their social power through a burgeoning cultural and political revolution.

As I read it, Mike is saying that even though the baby boomers lost their iconic politicians, they continued their drive for social and political change. Whether Mike considers this a good thing or a bad thing is unclear. The interesting question for Mike and Carol - who Mike writes “are committed to [Obama’s] campaign no matter what” - is whether if Obama is not the Democratic nominee or not elected President, they will remain engaged in the political process. If not, then we’re talking a cult of personality rather than commitment to a vision of the future.

Mike continues:

As the 70s became the 80s [the Baby Boomers] began to grow into their prime earning potential, demanding tax cuts and beginning a spending spree that would fuel almost all of the economic growth of the 1990s.

Maybe. Or maybe the Baby Boomers who were students in the 70s had to start earning a living in the 80s. After all, they had children to support, like little Mike born in 1981 and little Carol born in 1980. Someone had to pay for baby food and diapers and athletic shoes and braces and the education that would eventually lead to graduate school.

They were narcissistic and short-sighted; all too willing to view an ascendant, powerful America as their personal reward for being born at the right time and place.

Goodness knows all us Baby Boomers will probably burn in hell for the SUV but this still seems harsh judgment on a generation that produced the climate in which an African-American and a woman are now vying for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

Perhaps the greatest metaphor for this generation's attitude is the prevailing belief that the American consumer (and government) spent their way to a victory in the Cold War.

I have heard that the United States government outspent the Soviet government in the Cold War and that broke the Soviet economy. I have to admit I haven’t heard the argument that the American consumer figured into the equation. Since it sounds as if Mike disagrees with this “prevailing belief”, I would be interested in hearing his explanation of what caused Gorbachev to concede the field.

Mike winds up with an impassioned statement about the nearly “Mel Gibson movie” like future that will result if a “pragmatic, problem-solving leader like Obama” does not reach the White House. He begins this last push with:

Now that it appears we've reached the limit of unrestrained consumption, [the Baby Boomers] appear more than willing to take their social security checks and medicaid benefits and ride into the sunset, leaving in their wake a bankrupt, increasingly desparate younger generation.

Interestingly enough, if you actually read what Senator Obama says about Social Security on his website, he offers no plan to cut benefits for Baby Boomers. His only concrete proposal for Social Security is to increase the maximum amount of earnings covered by Social Security (currently pegged at $102,000). I think this is an idea worth considering but it does sound suspiciously like one of those tax increases Mike and Carol are so anxious about.

Senator Obama does not discuss Medicaid under “Issues: Seniors and Social Security” on his website, but he does discuss Medicare and he has some good ideas, like making the Medicare Prescription Plan transparent. As far as saving money, though, he plans to save money by cutting waste - always a popular although rather vague solution. He also plans to close the “doughnut hole” in the Medicare Part D prescription drug program. It’s been a while since I looked at this but closing holes in programs usually means higher costs.

So when Mike says:

The greatest dogwhistle of the Obama campaign so far is his ability to lay out this urgency to our generation.

I find myself thinking how fortunate Senator Obama is that supporters like Mike are content with his laying out this urgency and aren’t insisting on some concrete plans to address it.

It will be interesting to see what Mike and Carol are doing 10 years from now. I imagine they’ll be working at jobs, paying off their student loans, complaining about their taxes, and spending more than they can afford on themselves and their children. On the other hand, if Mike succeeds in convincing his parents to give up their Social Security and Medicare, Mike and Carol will be supporting four aging, uninsured, over-indulgent, undisciplined, ex-hippy parents and living in fear of the day Mom or Dad gets sick.

No comments: