Dad, the Times We Had: Baby Boomers in Paradise

Baby Boomers to Inherit Trillions
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Here, two generations debate who's really to blame for the wreckage. He and my mother put me through college and urged me to follow my dreams. He never complained when I entered a field even less respected than his.

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Our budget and economy are struggling through a huge transition, he says. Alanis Morissette, 44, posted a photo on Instagram showing off her baby bump, while recording music in her home in headphones and a black turtleneck. Duchess Meghan and Amy Schumer are off the list, having just welcomed sons within hours of each other on May 5 and 6, respectively. Despite this, few changes were made to the building codes to prevent future losses. The boomers were the first of all human generations to be reared under the real threat of Armageddon. They made the Star Wars movies. This enforced geographical separation of diverse populations goes back to the city's earliest days.

He lives across the country and still calls just to check in and say he loves me. His name is Tom. He is 63, tall and lean, a contracts lawyer in a small Oregon town. A few wisps of hair still reach across his scalp. The moustache I have never seen him without has faded from deep brown to silver. The puns he tormented my younger brother and me with throughout our childhood have evolved, improbably, into the funniest jokes my 6-year-old son has ever heard. I love my dad fiercely, even though he's beaten me in every argument we've ever had except two, and even though he is, statistically and generationally speaking, a parasite.

This is the charge I've leveled against him on a summer day in our Pacific Northwest vision of paradise. I have asked my favorite attorney to represent a very troublesome client, the entire baby-boom generation, in what should be a slam-dunk trial--for me. On behalf of future generations, I am accusing him and all the other parasites his age of breaking the sacred bargain that every American generation will pass a better country on to its children than the one it inherited.

We are sitting on a beach in late afternoon on a sun-drizzled lake in the Cascade Mountains, two college-educated, upper-middle-class white men settling in for a week of generational warfare.

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My son, Max, splashes in the waves with his grandmother; sunbathers lounge in inner tubes around us; snow-capped peaks loom above the tree line. The breeze smells of Coppertone and wet dog. My father thinks back on the country that awaited him when he finished law school.

I'm mildly impressed that he's even bothering to mount a defense. The facts as I see them are clear and damning: Baby boomers took the economic equivalent of a king salmon from their parents and, before they passed it on, gobbled up everything but the bones. Ultimately, members of my father's generation--generally defined as those born between and are reaping more than they sowed.

They graduated smack into one of the strongest economic expansions in American history. They needed less education to snag a decent-salaried job than their children do, and a college education cost them a small fraction of what it did for their children or will for their grandkids. One income was sufficient to get a family ahead economically.

Marginal federal income-tax rates have fallen steadily, with rare exception, since boomers entered the labor force; government retirement benefits have proliferated.

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At nearly every point in their lives, these Americans chose to slough the costs of those tax cuts and spending hikes onto future generations. The Dow Jones industrial average rose twelvefold from the time the first boomers began working until last year, when they began to cash out their retirement. The growth trend over the 12 years since I entered the workforce suggests that the Dow will double exactly once before I retire.

They will leave the workforce far wealthier than their parents did, with even more government promises awaiting them. Boomers will be the first generation of retirees to fully enjoy the Medicare prescription-drug benefit; because Social Security payouts rise faster than price inflation, they will draw more-generous retirement benefits than their parents did, in real terms--at their children's expense. Those retirees and near-retirees bequeath a shambles to their offspring.

Young people are unemployed at historically high levels. Global competition is stronger than ever, but American institutions have not adapted to prepare new workers for its challenges. Boomers have run up incomes for the very wealthiest Americans, shrunk the middle class, and, via careless borrowing and reckless financial engineering, driven the economy into the worst recession in 80 years. The Pew Research Center reports that middle-class families today are 5 percent less wealthy than their parents were at the same point in their lives, after adjusting for inflation, even though families today are far more likely to include two wage earners.

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Another Pew report shows that those ages 55 to 64 are 10 percent wealthier today, even after the Great Recession, than Americans of that age bracket were in Those younger than 35 are 68 percent less wealthy than the same bracket was in The baby boomers built an economy where young people increasingly need a college education to move into the middle class, or even to simply hold on to the middle-class lifestyle they were born into.

But the boomers who run state legislatures and private universities have collectively pushed the costs of that now-requisite education into the stratosphere.

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Private-college tabs have more than doubled in that time. The boomers keep their low taxes, and their alma maters gain prestige, but the next generation of workers starts with a debt boulder strapped to its back. All for no apparent gain. Today, Pew says, men who grew up in the middle class are just as likely to earn less than their fathers did adjusting for inflation as they are to earn more. Members of my father's generation reaped the benefits of dirt-cheap fossil fuels through most of their working lives, when gasoline price increases ran well below inflation, freeing up cash for them to save or spend on things their children now cannot afford.

Because gas was so cheap, they burned too much of it my father has never owned a car that averaged better than 20 miles per gallon , filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide to levels that scientists warn will likely warm the globe by several degrees. Climate change will cost trillions of dollars to avert or adapt to.

It's almost impossible to overstate this level of buck-passing. Perhaps most egregiously, the baby boomers, led by boomer-coddling leaders in Washington, are bequeathing a runaway national debt and a gaping federal budget shortfall that their children and grandchildren will have to pay--through higher taxes or reduced benefits, or both--if they don't want the country to go broke. Balancing America's future receipts and obligations would require all taxes to rise by 35 percent "immediately and permanently," and all federal entitlement benefits to decrease by another 35 percent, the International Monetary Fund estimated last year.

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Shielding boomers from that pain--as most so-called deficit hawks in Washington propose--would dramatically increase the bill for everyone else. In their definition, "game over" means that the government's obligations to seniors thanks again, boomers will exceed percent of everyone else's earnings.

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In other words, all the young workers in America together won't earn enough to pay down the government's obligations to their parents. It is hard for me to see how the gray-mustachioed attorney is going to get his client out of this one. Beginning in junior high, my father knew he wanted to be a lawyer. He grew up an Air Force brat whose father designed cameras for spy planes, and he landed in Los Angeles for high school.

He met my mother at a YMCA dance, kept his nose in his books while his University of California Santa Barbara classmates bombed a bank to protest the Vietnam War, and graduated near the top of his law-school class at the University of California Los Angeles. Big firms in California and Colorado recruited him, but he opted for a clerkship at the Oregon Supreme Court and then a two-man firm in a former timber town of 10, residents called McMinnville.

There, my dad knew, he could balance work with time for coaching Little League and leading the church vestry. When I was a teenager working summers at McMinnville's semiweekly newspaper, I'd often start one morning a week at a downtown coffee shop, listening to a pair of old-timers give my dad all kinds of crap. They ribbed him about politics, fishing technique, and proper deference to the altar guild.

They always made him buy their lattes. And when the hour was up, they'd shoo him back to the law office with an admonition to keep working so he could pay for their Social Security benefits.

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You could call this anecdote Exhibit A in my father's defense of the boomers, which he offered over coffee on the first day of our weeklong dispute. It boils down to a claim that he didn't exactly inherit a great deal, either. Tom Tankersley's argument breaks into two categories. First, he deflects blame for all of the bad stuff of the past several decades to previous generations and myopic politicians.

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Second, he builds a case that the boomers did far more good than harm. The Greatest Generation, his parents' cohort, paid a lot less into Social Security and Medicare than it took out of it, he says. This is true. It did nothing to reduce pollution, conserve natural resources, or halt the nation's growing and dangerous addiction to fossil fuels. His enacted both. Also true. After dinner at my parents' cabin near Crescent Lake, my father, sporting a blue shirt with a tropical print, spends two hours setting up targets and knocking them down with the precision of his favorite target rifle.

Lawmakers at some point stopped working together to solve problems, he says. Big companies gorged on profits and stopped caring for their workers' livelihoods. Regular people around the country spent money they didn't have, signed mortgages they couldn't afford, and lost their patience for delayed gratification. Who's to blame for the cultural decay of personal responsibility?