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. “Previous generations did not have a Clean Air Act or a Clean Water Act,” he says. 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? “I don’t know which generation’s fault that is,” my father says.
He says he’s rather surprised that he’s still in line to draw Medicare and Social Security benefits. “I felt I was paying all this money in, and it was going to be gone … and it turns out I’m going to get some.” He complains that “no one” is willing to pay the necessary taxes for government services or to adjust those services to current tax levels. He manages to dismiss one of the greatest acts of fiscal recklessness ever by a boomer—President George W. Bush’s decision to run two wars off the books without raising taxes or cutting outlays to fund them—as “outrageous” and “not my choice.”
Then he dives for my legs: There’s no guarantee that young Max Tankersley won’t grow up to enjoy economic opportunities as sweeping as those his grandparents did. Economic conditions change in unpredictable ways, my dad says. Oh, and the idea that opportunity eroded for my generation? Only if you’re a white American man. In his lifetime, he points out, women and minorities have seen their economic prospects brighten considerably, especially in higher-earning fields like the law. (A quartet of economists from Stanford and the University of Chicago reported this spring, “In 1960, 94 percent of doctors were white men, as were 96 percent of lawyers and 86 percent of managers. By 2008, these numbers had fallen to 63, 61, and 57 percent, respectively.”) Expanded trade has helped to lift people in Africa, Brazil, China, and the rest of the developing world out of poverty. (The World Bank reported this year that 22 percent of the developing world’s population lives on $1.25 or less per day, down from 52 percent in 1981.) My father says he will not apologize for that.
I keep bringing him back to the critique: His generation bought homes in a far cheaper market than mine; they didn’t move us off oil; they’ve reaped the stock gains and the carbon externalities and the budget deficits—and left us with the bill. He keeps brushing me off, flipping the camera. “There’s this whole theory in democracy that you get the government you deserve,” he says, readying more verbal jujitsu. “And it’s our fault for not saying, ‘That’s enough,’ just like it’s your fault. I mean, you’ve been voting now for how long?”
By evening’s end, the defense has turned to open taunting. So what, he asks, if it’s his generation’s fault? “What are you going to do with that? Are you going to learn something and not do it? Or are you going to just point fingers, like this article seems to be doing?”
I realize: He’s beating me.
The day after my trouncing, we retreat farther into the mountains, to a chilly lake where the Deschutes River springs to life, for a night of camping with family friends. We swim and roast marshmallows and play in the dirt and watch deer walk past the tent. Max helps my parents paddle the canoe.
In the morning, we comb the campsite, picking up food wrappers and specs of trash, some of them months old. You always leave your site cleaner than you found it, I tell Max, because other people will come after you, and others after them. It’s your duty as a camper.
Where did you learn that? he asks.
Your grandpa, I say.
This is the moment the prosecution regains its footing, by remembering just how hypocritical the defense has been. Boomers have always talked about making the world a better place. They were the century’s most idealistic young people. They’ve also known for decades about the fiscal, economic, and environmental paths America was headed down. How can they possibly square that wisdom with their inaction?
We break camp. Back at the cabin, I call up statistics, build economic charts online, and transplant a new backbone into my case. (I’d chide my dad here for installing Wi-Fi at his cabin, but I think it was Mom’s idea.)