In my mind, I know which of his arguments I must grant. The boomers haven’t been a total disaster, of course. They did indeed blaze huge social and economic trails for women, minorities, and people with disabilities. Those groups have gained rights that, as long as the rest of us remain vigilant, will never be reversed: Young women can grow up to be lawyers or scientists. African-Americans can grow up to be president. Boomers gave us Apple and Microsoft. They made the Star Wars movies. They grew the economy for a bit. Once, for a couple of years in the late 1990s, they balanced the federal budget.
But the numbers on the laptop remind me how fleeting much of that progress was—and how boomers chose short-term gratification when they had opportunities to secure a better future for generations to follow. Classic example: Instead of devoting the budget surpluses of the late ’90s to social programs that desperately needed them, they voted themselves tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, and an expanded Medicare benefit shortly after—a move a Congressional Budget Office study from that era suggests raised the expected tax rate on future generations from 29 percent to 53 percent. They borrowed heavily to cope with the economic sluggishness of the 2000s and, in so doing, inflated a housing bubble that, when it popped, triggered the Great Recession.
Median-income growth has stagnated for women and minorities over the past decade. The typical African-American today has less wealth than his or her parents did, according to Pew. Labor-force participation for women this year hit its lowest level since 1991.
And Congress? Well, Capitol Hill is where I realize I’ll win this trial. Baby boomers chose the leaders currently paralyzing Washington, and those leaders are, by and large, boomers. My father’s cohort has formed a generational majority in every Congress since the dawn of the George W. Bush administration. Electorally, boomers vote in dramatically larger numbers than anyone else. The Census Bureau reports there were 81 million Americans ages 45 to 64 in 2010, of whom slightly more than half voted. They made up about 43 percent of the electorate—almost as much as those 25 to 44 and those 65 and older combined.
As afternoon descends over the fir trees, I call my father over and show him this statistic. Look, I say. That government you say is crippling America? You and your friends own it.
“Shit,” he says.
The first time I bested my dad in an argument, I was in fourth grade. I wanted to play football, and he said it was too dangerous. With my mother’s help, I trekked to the public library and pulled up some research showing that youth football was perfectly safe (oops!) and even built character. I may also have threatened to run away. My dad relented. My football career was short and forgettable, but I’d beaten him with data.
My second win came when I was in eighth grade and wanted to drive eight hours with a bunch of college students and coaches to see my favorite basketball team in a playoff game. My dad said, “No, you are not driving to Idaho with a bunch of college kids.” To which I replied, tears in my eyes, “Well, what if you came with me?” It was blatant emotional manipulation. We ended up watching the Linfield Wildcats lose, in person, together.
I connect these two strategies in my closing argument against the boomers. I win my conviction against my father on his fishing boat on a choppy Friday, lines bobbing wildly in the swells, the trolling motor struggling to hold speed against a bracing wind. The boy and the grandma are back on shore. It is only us, a photographer, and a Labrador retriever. I am at the wheel, my dad is working the rods.
I start with data. The deal the baby boomers got from the Greatest Generation wasn’t so raw, economically: Gross domestic product growth from 1970 to 2000 was among the strongest in American history, and far better than the average growth so far in the working years of Generations X and Y.
The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act have improved the environment, but the federal government has done almost nothing to curb the growth in carbon emissions here or around the world. Earth’s atmosphere is currently 391 parts per million carbon dioxide, up from about 325 ppm 40 years ago. The concentration is on pace to hit 450 ppm by 2035, which would translate into an increase in global average temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius, the tipping point at which scientists say we would no longer be able to block or reverse a future of the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. More high-temperature records were set across the U.S. last year than in any previous one. Arctic ice melted to an all-time recorded low.
America’s federal debt-to-GDP ratio has more than doubled from 28 percent to 62 percent since 1970, and the borrowing has benefited boomers far more than folks my age. A majority of boomers want no part of paying that debt off through higher taxes or reduced benefits: A recent Pew poll found “little appetite [among that age group] for debt-reduction proposals that will take a bite out of their pocketbooks.”