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. Tuition has risen at twice the rate of inflation: In today’s dollars, tuition, room, and board at a four-year public college ran nearly $6,800 per year in 1967; it costs about $13,300 today. Private-college tabs have more than doubled in that time. The increase has saddled young workers with more than $1 trillion in student debt—the average college student today borrows six times more from the federal government to finance her education, per year, than the average student in 1970. 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. Shielding boomers from that pain—as most so-called deficit hawks in Washington propose—would dramatically increase the bill for everyone else. Brigham Young University economists Richard Evans and Kerk Phillips and Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff published a paper in January that projected a 1-in-3 chance that the U.S. economy will reach “game over” within 30 years. In their definition, “game over” means that the government’s obligations to seniors (thanks again, boomers) will exceed 100 percent of everyone else’s earnings. 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.
That’s my first mistake.
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 10,000 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.
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. Second, he builds a case that the boomers did far more good than harm.