Another mainstream media assault on people born between 1946 and 1964 appeared today in the form of an Op-ed piece by New York Times columnist Bill Keller (see “The Entitled Generation,” July 30, 2012). The author was later given a forum by Neal Conan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation program – during which he was not challenged by Conan.
Taking his cues from the Wall Street front group the Third Way* (a supposedly moderate wing of the Democratic Party), Keller joined an ongoing deficit hawk rant, by which an imaginary “baby boom generation” is blamed for every catastrophe from economic collapse to juvenile diabetes. The Op-ed piece is nothing less than a smear of tens of millions of Americans – a large proportion of whom are suffering serious economic losses and are looking forward to considerable hardship in their old age. Indeed, he is supporting a long-running, concerted effort by various wealthy conservatives to reify everyone born between 1946 and 1964 into a “thing” that can be demonized and thereby serve as justification for continuing cuts in Social Security (which have been taking place since 1983).
What did Keller have to say? He launched his smear by borrowing several quotes from pundits and politicians. For instance, he uses the following pearl of wisdom from former Clinton staffer Paul Begala’s Esquire article entitled “The Worst Generation:” “The Baby Boomers are the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history.” Knowing what I know about the Clinton “West Wing” crowd, this is most certainly a mere projection of one personality onto an entire mass of people. At any rate, the quotes presented run in this vein throughout the column.
Keller’s point in all of this is what? Well, in addition to so many other man-made catastrophes, the “baby boom generation” is, in his mind, the cause of the fine fiscal mess in which we, as a nation, now find ourselves. It is not, as Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stieglitz has indicated, multi-trillion dollar wars, a tax code obscenely tilted toward the rich, Wall Street/banking industry corruption, collapse of a housing bubble and so on and so forth. Oh no folks – it is that demon the “baby boom generation. Consequently, as Americans not of the uber-rich class retire, they must sacrifice an already tenuous safety net to further slashing – namely in the form of Social Security and Medicare cuts.
Although he claims to be a “fellow boomer,” Keller is actually part of a very privileged journalistic set that has a propensity to talk to the rich and famous while displaying little knowledge of the plight of millions upon millions of Americans who fit his creation known as the “entitled.” He needs to do a couple of things: (1) leave his lofty intellectual perch in New York and travel across America and get to know his “fellow boomers,” and (2) base his generalizations about such matters as longevity, the deficits, and other important issues pertaining to public policy on adequate research. He should also include his fellow journalists Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, Jackie Calmes and other New Times writers in these endeavors.
What he and his colleagues will learn is this:
Beginning about 1983, masses of working Americans, many of whom are now entering retirement, were forced to forego defined benefits retirement programs and forced into 401(k)s or defined contributions programs– many were offered nothing. By 2009, the median 401(k) was worth about $50,000 (Pew Research Center report). Furthermore, in 1983, Congress implemented the Greenspan Commission recommendations by slashing eligibility by 2 years and by increasing the payroll tax. Those two years, today, would be worth, on average, approximately $33,600.
In other words, the “entitled” group to which Keller refers began to give back and take cuts a long time ago – at about the same time that the very wealthy began to receive an increasing amount of government largess in the form of overt tax cuts and opportunities for massive tax avoidance. Do the NYT journalists understand who economists are speaking and writing about in regard to inequality of wealth and income? Presumably that middle class which has lost considerable ground in the past few decades through a massive transfer of their wealth to the top 1% is comprised mostly of individuals born between 1946 and 1964.
Furthermore, for Keller to say that tax reform and reform of military spending would not adequately address the budget deficit is not factually incorrect. For instance, it is estimated that efforts by the super-rich to park their money in overseas accounts alone is costing approximately $150 billion per year. This is not to mention the volumes of tax code with enough loop holes to qualify them as a shelf full of sieves. What about asking the affluent and rich to contribute fairly to what is now a regressive Social Security income tax?
With cynical manipulation of the consumer price index by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (through such nonsense as the “hedonic adjustment” and other such fallacious techniques), the current and future retirees depending on Social Security have given and given and given. Make no mistake about it; these methods for suppressing measures of inflation are fallacious and hurtful – particularly as they pertain to the elderly. Would Peter G. Peterson and his cronies such as Jonathan Cowan – founder and President of the Third Way – be willing to admit that keeping inflation low is what the “bond market” desires? Do they really want to get into that discussion?
In his column, Keller relies on a 15 year increase in life expectancy as justification for reducing the quality of life for the elderly, which is ludicrous. His point is that they can apparently work longer. He apparently doesn’t understand that most of that increase is due to a reduction in infant mortality. The senescence of human cells has not changed in the past 50 years. An old person is still an old person. And “old” often means vulnerable – particularly in an ageist, youth-worshipping society.
It is dismaying to observe Keller’s adoption of the right wing strategy of smearing advocates currently fighting draconian cuts as proposed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles as some kind of “60s-radical-hangover types.” One tactic used by “the right” to undermine passionate efforts to end the worsening quality of life for the elderly is to make advocates out to be a bunch of wild-eyed, radical, “leftists.” They create a narrative in which the term is pejorative and sounds somewhat un-American. Conversely, Keller and his fellow writers at the New York Times never use the term “rightists” when referring to the proponents of the Simpson-Bowles plan.
In summary, it is important for readers of this blog post to realize that creation of mythological things called “generation this, that, and the other thing” is just another form of stereotyping. There is no such thing as “the greatest generation,” “the worst generation,” “generation X,” or any other imaginary type of grouping of people born between a couple of dates. If you are a fan of NPR or the New York Times, and you fail to push back on these smears, you do so at your own peril. At your own peril, that is, unless you are very rich.
*If you have trouble believing that the Third Way is dominated by Wall Street types, check out its board of trustees at http://thirdway.org/trustees. It is interesting that amongst that business-oriented body of mostly investment bankers is William Daley, who, prior to serving as President Obama’s chief of staff, served as a vice-chairman for J.P. Morgan Chase. Jonathan Cowan, the President and supposed founder of the Third Way is an old protégé of anti-Social Security billionaire Peter G. Peterson. In the 1990s, as a co-founder (with Peter G. Peterson’s money) of an organization known as Lead or Leave, Cowan served as a front man in Peterson’s ongoing attempts to foment inter-generation conflict by blaming people born between 1946 and 1964 for any and all adverse economic condition of people born after 1964.