by Barkley Rosser
“Gas All Boomers” Or At Least Tax And Cut Their Benefits More Says WaPo
No, nobody in today’s Washington Post Outlook section devoted to the boomers said that first line, although it has become a commonplace on such sites as Economics Job Market Rumors where anonymous and frustrated millennials very frequently and fervently spout that opening line to the point that it lost whatever ironic humor it had some time ago. But then irony is a Gen-X thing, not a millennial or boomer thing.
However, taxing them more and cutting their benefits is certainly called for by new economics reporter (and Gen Xer) James Tankersley, in an astoundingly bad article full of so much nonsense one does not know where to start. He claims that because of their huge numbers, none of this will happen, even though the latest budget deal has in fact cut benefits for them (really for everybody not already receiving them, but with front end boomers the most likely to have been counting on those now cut benefits in the near term, see my post on this here).
While I shall deal with Tankersley’s numerous misrepresentations, let me note more of the anti-boomer venom filling this special issue (Is this WaPo trying to market to millennials?). So, Heather Havrilesky has the following:
“For the remainder of the decade, we can expect a brand-new wave of melodramatic retrospectives, each designed to remind us of a magical time when boomer heads were packed full of idealistic notions and covered in lustrous free-flowing hair. But just as what goes up must come down, what frolics in the mud of Woodstock must eventually sulk in the flourescent chill of the cardiology office. Somehow as boomers age, their commitment to dragging that dusty 60s archival reel out of the basement yet again seems to grow exponentially”
[I shall accept that some of this complaining is not without merit. Her eventual take is that people now should take things as seriously now without looking back to the 60s either for inspiration or comparison, especially invidious comparison, and that starting in the 70s and on the more conservative majority of the boomers took over the show. But mostly she is whining and snarking.]
Not quite as hostile is the much older Landon Y. Jones, one of the early coiners of the term “baby boomers.” who declares:
“The designation has to do with coming of age at the right time. They enjoyed sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, took all the good jobs and are now retiring and becoming a burden on society,” which is the gist of Tankersley’s whine, although Jones is mostly interested in the origin of the term and how it has been used indifferent countries rather than blasting on and on in this vein, which is in fact him reporting on the views of the late Dutch critic of the boomers, Pim Fortuyn.
Before going to Tankersley, I will note one other writer a bit more sympathetic to the boomers, Shirley Abrahms, who dispels five myths about them. Supposedly, in spite of Tankersley et al, they are not as wealthy as widely thought (although some are), they are not clearly much healthier than their parents (and the recent Case-Deaton report on middle aged white males dying sooner since 2000 fits in with this, although she did not mention that), that boomers are reasonably charitable rather than just being “selfish,” that they are not as technologically incompetent as many think, although certainly Xers and millennials are more competent than they are (not to mention the rising post-millennials now beginning to make their first appearances), and finally that their sex lives are not total disasters, although aside from all the viagra and cialis ads, I was under the impression that they were mostly being criticized for having been too much into sex, etc., although perhaps that wicked past had supposedly led to a pathetic present. For all her wisdom, Abrahms undercuts her own credibility by somehow thinking that 18 year olds were voting for LBJ in 1964, which was most definitely not the case (why is it that WaPo has gotten so bad that even its supposed fact checkers goof up?).
So, on to Tankersley, regarding whom I really wonder if either he or his anti-entitlement bosses are aware just how totally off this debut article is. I am not going to quote and will not answer everything, but will try to focus on some of the biggest bloopers. I shall also note that near the end of his article that a lot of the problems he identifies are really a matter of the large numbers of boomers and not any clearly intentional actions. But this does not absolve them from deserving to “pay more” somehow for all the damage they have supposedly caused. A main thrust of my response will be, if indeed they were causing all these problems, were not the earlier Silents and Greatest at least as guilty, if not in some cases worse?
OK, I shall quote one paragraph, which summarizes most of his complaints:
“Boomers soaked up a lot of economic opportunities without bothering to preserve much for the generations to come. They burned a lot of cheap fossil fuels, filled the atmosphere with beat-trapping gases and will probably never pay the costs of averting catastrophic climate change or helping their grandchildren adapt to a warmer world. The took control of Washington at the turn of the millennium, and they used it to rack up a lot of federal debt, even before the Great Recession hit.”
For starters let us note that the stagnation of real wages began in the 1970s, about the time when most boomers entered the labor market. So both the Greatest and the Silents did much better than the boomers on that one, with the period of rapidly rising real wages being 1945-73. Yes, the early Greatest suffered in the Great Depression and fighting in WW II, but those amazingly quiet Silents really raked it in. Look at somebody born in 1930. only barely experiencing the GD as a child and not having to fight in WW II, if experiencing the privations of rationing, again as a young person, but then entering the job market in the late 40s and having the full experience of that postwar boom, well into middle age when the wage growth slowed, and in their 50s when fica taxes rose sharply as part of the Greenspan Commission’s 1983 deal designed to “make sure the baby boomers pay for their own retirement,” which mostly they have despite the misrepresentations of Tankersley. There were no payments for COLA recipients prior to 1971, but any Greatest or Silent retiring not too long after it was put in then paid zippo into Social Security but got many times what they paid in benefits, far more than the boomers will get (who so far have not whined about this latest benefit cut, which Tankersley ignores, needless to say).
Tankersley’s spin is that even though wages have not risen, a point he ignores, boomers got promoted to higher salaries as they aged. While indeed growth has reverted to its 1975-95 average, there is no reason that Xers and millennials will not be able to have such promotions either. After all, the boomers are now indeed beginning to retire in serious numbers, opening up all those upper tier jobs for their juniors to earn more. The idea that SS and Medicare will not be there is of course the biggest phone screed that WaPo hands out, when in fact the projections have the millennials receiving more in benefits than current recipients, even if the system “goes bankrupt,” not that Tankersley is anywhere near even being conscious of this I think. And, of course most of those projected increases in costs are tied to medical care cost increases, which hopefully will be kept more in line in the future.
Then we have all this stuff about burning fossil fuels and ruining the environment. Last time I checked, the golden era of gas hog polluting cars was the 50s and 60s, with environmental laws arriving in the early 70s and with higher oil prices leading to much greater gas efficiency of cars. This backslid in the later 80s and 90s when oil prices fell and we got the SUV boom. But offhand the Greatest and the Silents look at least as guilty, and frankly more so, on this matter of polluting the atmosphere than do the boomers, whose main sin would indeed to be their large numbers, not their excessively polluting ways compared to other generations.
Then we get this weird claim that the millennials “took control of Washington at the turn of the millennium,” thus making “the boomers” responsible somehow for the clearly irresponsible policies of George W. Bush, even though he lost the popular vote in 2000. But Bill Clinton is a boomer, and he was in charge in the 90s, when the national debt actually fell. Do not the boomers get some credit for him? Or do we only get the blame for his sexual improprieties? The more striking increase in non-war debt came with Reagan, he of the Greatest Generation, with a full quarter of boomers not even old enough to vote when he came in. Surely he was more a creature of the Greatests and the Silents, with their failure to obey rational expectations and Ricardian Equivalence by lowering their savings rates when they got his tax cuts (with income tax cuts indeed offsetting those fica increases aimed at the boomers).
He goes on and non about a lot more, but I think I am going to stop here other than to note that he opens by complaining about people talking about raising the retirement age for future retirees not somehow noting that indeed the 1983 agreement put in place such increases for the boomers, increases which are already happening and will continue to do so. Really, this article is a disgrace.
originally published at Econospeak