Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Talking ‘bout the g-g-g-g-grasshopper generation: Mourning in America or liberal malaise?

In Domestic Politics on February 21, 2010 at 1:49 pm

It may be appropriate that this year’s super bowl show featured The Who for it half time show. There may be no other pop cultural symbol of the exciting idealism of the generation of the 1960s than this band with the boundless energy represented by songs like “My Generation” and the footage of Pete Townsend’s smashing his guitar in expressive rebellion. It may be one of those ironies of history that the boomer youth riot has opened a space in which Americans can age with dignity and live out their later lives with a kind of vigor that was previously unimaginable. It is another less sanguine irony that the children who were born to the age of affluence may be best remembered for their being the only generation to fully enjoy the fruits of that affluence.

What do I mean? The easiest way to get a sense of this perspective is the read the New York Times with some consistency. Just today, you can find a op-ed from a fairly young man who worked hard and played by the rules and who now has no net worth. You can find pessimistic editorials and sardonic columns. Perhaps the most penetrating piece of pessimism one kind find is Thomas Friedman’s column called The Fat Lady has Sung. Friedman here does what he does best, he uses a simple idea, places in into a larger narrative and beats us over the head with it. The raw material for this column came from a Time magazine article that I had missed that builds on the old Aesop fable of the ant and the grasshopper.

All three of these items are worth reading (I somehow suspect that many of us have forgotten Aesop). The point of the epithet, the grasshopper generation is meant to point the finger of shame at the baby boomers who are unflatteringly contrasted with their parents, the so-called “greatest generation” who lived through the depression and fought WWII. Here the allegorical reference encourages us to condemn the profligate boomers who lived through the post-war boom to party as never before (Prince is officially a boomer by the way), to live their dreams and to retire like latter-day aristocrats.

There is much to make complex in this simple story. First, we have known since that the demographer Norman Ryder introduced the concept of a demographic cohort that generation is a ill defined idea. The simple reason is that for this is that people have children at different ages. The idea is also problematic in that the greatness of the parent generation was rather indulgent as well and the leaders of that generation seemed to react to the revolt of their children by undermining the basis of their own success. It was the cohorts of the greatest generation that retired at age 65 and under, while living into their 80s. If the members of the greatest generation lived through great tumult, it was their parents who planned the systems and led the movements through which the tumult was managed. The last great progressive achievements came in the mid-1960s when members of the greatest generation were forty at most. Many of these were in government at this point, but they were not yet at the modal leadership ages of 53-63. For example, Lyndon Johnson was 56 in 1964. For the earlier changes like Social Security and financial regulation we have to go back to the 1930s and birth cohorts in the gilded age.

Wherever blame should lie ( I am loath to place it on the boomers in that these are my parents whose parenting was pretty satisfying in my book), the politics we now face has a grasshopper rather than an ant feel to it. The current mess we are in is one in which the old Free and Cantril adage that Americans are “ideological conservatives and operational liberals” has become instituted in the two parties. As Lincoln Chafee put in brilliantly today, Republicans lead in the wrong direction and Democrats are not able to lead in any direction at all.  Since Reagan, Republicans have cut revenues and Democrats have acted to protect the gains of the earlier progressive movements (led by both parties) in a way that exploded public debt.  Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton are perhaps the best examples of boomer leadership and the chaos of the Free and Cantril paradox. The Gingrich revolution was a kind of game of chicken in which Republicans would confront Democrats with the fear of terrible outcomes for the country like government closings and spiraling debt and the Democrats would parry and dodge as best they could. One positive outcome of this was the balanced budgets of the late 1990s, but the general course opened up by this Republican offensive left us with an opportunity for Republicans to lead with the wind of surpluses at their back to crank up the burden of debt on our grandchildren. Bush 43 was also a boomer we should remember. Republicans see no irony in their claims to fiscal conservatism because they rationalize their stances with claims of the kind that the war in Iraq represented a response to an existential threat. For an interesting pie chart on this, see Steny Hoyer’s facebook page, in which the source of the current debt is broken down.

Incidentally, I have decided that the American narrative on terror has a few key signifying elements that do not overlap with right wing extremism. I think that only Muslims or leftists can be terrorists by definition in the unreflected hegemonic narrative that structures our expectations and so when a terrorist comes from another quarter, we can’t see him for what he is.  I note that none of the Sunday talk shows even mentioned the Texas terrorism that coincided with the opening of CPAC, with the exception of Arianna Huffington.  This is a problem because many of the potential home grown terrorists are likely to co-opt the tea party rhetoric and agenda.

All of this brings me to the current problem of the grasshopper generation. Are the boomers about to realize that “it is best to prepare for the days of necessity”, as their ant parents did? This is what I call the mourning in America line in which we should now look with profound pessimism at the place of America in the world as it sets off on a course to become a second rank power with respect to China. An alternative explanation would be that what we find in the New York Times and elsewhere in the progressive press is a renewed sense of liberal malaise, in which the progressive establishment can no longer find the energy to govern. In this view Jimmy Carter will be followed by Ronald Reagan just as happened before. I am quite sure that this is the expectation of most the burgeoning CPAC membership this week. They believe in America, which is great, but I fear that they believe in the wrong things about it. America has been great when it was pragmatic and lucky. Now it appears that it is neither. What the Tea Partiers hope is that god has granted us unique gifts for our devotion that will show out in our superior creativity and grit that will always be superior to those who live in the backward parts of the world. But is not the claim of the creed that all people are born equal and that a Chinese or Indonesian is just as competent as anyone else if given opportunity? Opportunity has now come as the result of freely correcting global markets and corporate capitalization of the declining political risk profiles in developing countries after the cold war came to an end.

As I watch the ongoing train wreck of partisan politics play out, and think about the dynamics of the international political economy, I resort to my favorite Jefferson line (sort of taken verbatim from his writings): “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.” You see which side of the bet I would take at the moment. In the Kubler-Ross model, I am at depression and on my way to acceptance.

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