Blaming the Boomers

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

My latest FindLaw column (available here) revisits the controversy over the Rand Paul interview on "The Rachel Maddow Show" last month. Although I initially described my reactions in a Dorf on Law post (here) shortly after the interview, my analysis on FindLaw focuses on two issues: (1) The incorrect subsequent framing of the controversy as a pointless rehash of a long-resolved policy debate from 1964, and (2) The disturbing underlying similarity (despite large apparent differences) between Paul's view of business regulation and President Obama's view. I will expand only on the first point here.

In my column, I refer to an opinion/analysis article (available here) in The New York Times by the political reporter Matt Bai. I cannot recall any of Bai's other articles at the moment, but I had developed a generally positive opinion of his work over time. His article about the Paul/Maddow controversy, however, was something else. Describing it as "fatuous" was not something I did lightly.

The article took two then-brewing controversies -- the Paul/Maddow interview, and the Times' revelation of Connecticut Senate candidate (and current Attorney General) Richard Blumenthal's false claims that he had served in the Vietnam War -- and clumsily tied them together by noting that they are both about things that happened in the 1960's. Why is that a big deal? Because, Bai argues, the Baby Boomers' political sensibilities were supposedly permanently warped by the issues of the 1960's, which makes the Paul and Blumenthal controversies just so much group therapy for the former Flower Children. Paul and Blumenthal were thus "sucked into the vortex that pulls us inexorably back to the 1960s."

It gets better/worse: "Mr. Paul, meanwhile, found himself hurtling into the past when, responding to questions from Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, he expressed philosophical reservations about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, specifically the provision that forced private businesses to integrate." Get it? Not only was he thrown into the past to have a debate that is long since over, but he merely expressed "philosophical reservations" about the public accommodations provisions in the Civil Rights Act. Why are Baby Boomers so unwilling to have debates about practical issues of current import?

As I argue in my column -- and as I would have thought was obvious to anyone who pays even modest attention to public affairs -- Paul's position is much more than philosophical, and it very much affects the present. His position, after all, is that governments have no right -- none -- to set the rules by which businesses may interact with the public. In fact, government has no right, under this view, to regulate businesses at all. A small fraction of the public endorses that view, but reaction to Paul's defense of BP (including the observation that "sometimes accidents happen," without any acknowledgment that accidents must be dealt with and responsibility assessed, in order to reduce the likelihood of future accidents) is only part of the evidence suggesting that most people want government to do most or all of the things that it currently does. True, they have been convinced that they should be upset about abstractions like "spending" and "deficits," but they repeatedly demonstrate that they like having their governments do exactly what Paul says they should stop doing. Even if I am wrong about the public's views, the debates over those questions -- including civil rights issues, but extending to broader business issues as well -- are in the here and now.

I will engage in a bit of jujitsu here and suggest that Bai's column represents a tendency among some post-Boomers to view the world through a lens that is distorted by their obsession with, and resentment of, the Baby Boomers. Because I study Social Security policy, and because I am engaged in ongoing projects studying justice between generations, I probably see this more than most people do; but there is definitely a "blame the Boomers" meme out there that is fed by columns like Bai's.

In part, this is merely the latest in a timeless series of younger generations blaming their parents and grandparents for everything. People a bit older than I am were told not to trust anyone over 30, and there are references to this kind of generational conflict stretching as far back as classic Greek writings.

This inevitable pattern of conflict between parents and children is intensified, however, by the sheer size of the Baby Boom. Post-Boomers have been convinced (quite incorrectly) that the Boomers will be too numerous (and too greedy) to support in their retirement, which can lead to rather extreme resentment toward people over 45. The Post-Boomers' fear is further fueled by the possibly distorting effect on politics of a growing cohort of elderly (high-turnout) voters.

If the Boomers were really so self-seeking, however, it would be difficult to explain why both U.S. political parties have bought into the highly contestable view that Social Security is "broken" or "in crisis" and needs to be fixed as soon as possible, rather than simply lavishing more benefits on the Baby Boomers. Even if one thinks that the Boomers should be doing more for their children and grandchildren than they already are, it is certainly true that the political trends are moving against expanding benefits for oldsters (and that those benefits are not currently as high as they could be).

The Post-Boomers' legitimate complaints about environmental and energy policy, by contrast, have nothing to do with the relative size of the generational cohorts, other than there being a larger number of people who are failing to use public transportation than there would be if the birth rate had not surged from 1946-64. The Baby Boom's failures in these crucial areas of policy are tied to poor decisions and missed opportunities, not in supposedly failing to shield Post-Boomers from the effects of their grandparents' fecundity.

Even so, our current version of the Generation Gap has definitely taken root in political discussion. It is often quite benign, but when it is used as a means of trivializing an extremely important political debate -- a debate, moreover, that will surely affect the civil and economic rights that Post-Boomers and their children will ultimately inherit from my generation -- it is perverse and dangerous.