As a successful venture capitalist and early investor in tech juggernauts like PayPal and Lyft, Bruce Collins Gibney has established a formidable eye for discerning legitimate value propositions amidst a roiling sea of would-be also-rans. Upon publication of his crucial 2011 essay “What Happened To The Future?”, Gibney sent waves throughout the tech and business communities, with the work’s galvanizing tone marking him as alternately a hand-wringing Cassandra and a forward-looking oracle.
Never one to shrink from a fight, Gibney has picked one with the biggest bully on the block in his remarkable new social and political survey, A Generation Of Sociopaths: How The Baby Boomers Betrayed America. Anecdotal in nature but impressively weighted with hard numbers and specifics, the volume serves as both an indictment of and rebuttal to a Woodstock Generation that has gleefully celebrated themselves for decades while gradually running the country into the ground. (Gibney stipulates that he is specifically addressing upper- and middle-class non-minority Americans born between 1940 and 1964.)
Beginning with their permissive, TV-addled upbringing and progressing through decades of political and civic corruption, Gibney paints a persuasive and frequently hilarious portrait of the Me Generation as venal sociopaths, forever rigging the tax code and entitlement system to suit their most immediate needs. However outlandish the premise — Gibney freely concedes that not all Boomers fit the profile — the overall critique feels eerily on target. The consolidation of Boomer agency over government and industry has correlated directly with the decline of American prosperity. Amongst other pressing anxieties, Gibney perceives an economy imperiled by sinking entitlements, an increasingly un-scientific view of our ecology, and a destructive romance with debt as the hallmarks of The Boomer Era.
You point out the facility Boomers have demonstrated in “dressing up indulgence as a moral crusade.” This seems crucial to me, as beginning with the fantastical re-imaginings of middle-class Boomers’ relationship to Vietnam, succeeding generations have been made to experience endless tall tales about Boomer virtue and probity while witnessing their ceaseless excess. I’m interested in what role you feel the media has played in both underscoring the delusion of Boomer righteousness and also preventing succeeding generations from arraying themselves against the headwind of Boomer-centric political and popular culture?
Most people like to think of themselves as “good” but harbor at least some doubts about the degree to which they deserve that adjective. Boomer culture doesn’t seem nearly as afflicted by those reservations, however.
I point out in the book how Vietnam didn’t unfold in quite the way Boomers imagined and how many of the most important victories in civil rights simply could not have been driven by the Boomers. For example, Truman integrated the army before most Boomers were born; the Court integrated schools in 1954, before any Boomer could vote, much less become a Justice; the Clean Air Act, Civil Rights Act, and Voting Rights Act were all passed by 1965, before almost any Boomer could vote (I start the Boomer in 1940, not 1946, the voting age was 21, so the earliest vote possible would have been for the ’62 midterms and only by a tiny number of Boomers); and state universities were formerly quite inexpensive before any Boomer was a UC chancellor or governor. Now, Boomers did build on some of these victories, though at a slower pace than their predecessors, and in some cases there’s been regression. The Boomer right has very little interest in the environment or public higher education, while the Boomer left hasn’t pushed nearly hard enough on those issues, preferring to save its political capital on the partly self-serving issue of senior entitlements. (Interestingly, the three Republican House sponsors of a recent proposal to do more than nothing about the environment were all young; there’s a generational divide even within the right.)
Vietnam is obviously toxic, and there was an ideological divide, so let’s focus issues where there’s less ideological (though plenty of practical) disagreement: voting and debt. There’s nothing more fundamental to American democracy than the principle of “one person, one vote.” America obviously got off to a poor start on this, but the trend for the first two centuries was toward greater democracy, culminating in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For VRA to work, Congress had to update the law’s machinery to reflect changing circumstances. Right through the 1980s (with a final revision in 1992, before Boomers had full institutional power), Congress did just that and even worked around an adverse decision by the Court. And then, as Boomers took full power, Congress stopped paying attention.
By the 1990s, it was fairly clear that the VRA required update lest it be struck down, and by the 2000s, matters had become really urgent. Nothing happened, though in that period both Democrats and Republicans swapped control (more importantly, Boomers of both parties were in power, peaking at 79 percent of the House in 2008, and is still 69 percent of the House and, of course, in the White House again). And then the Court partly gutted VRA in Shelby County v. Holder, in part because Congress hadn’t done its job of updating the law (and also because Roberts, a Boomer, had long wanted to kill VRA, and congressional inaction opened the door for him). That was in 2013. There’s been no proportionate reaction to Shelby from the Boomer left, while the Boomer right has been experimenting with voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and so on, which affect not only minorities, but the poor and the itinerant young. (It’s hard to produce proof of sustained residency or an in-state ID card if you’re in college or bouncing around states early in your career.) And that, I think, is just not good.
The second issue is debt, and this has been another bipartisan disaster. Gross debt-to-GDP ran 32.9 percent of GDP in early 1976; at the beginning of 2016, it was 105.4 percent. And it keeps growing, with CBO projected deficits as a percent of GDP at -2.9 percent for 2017, soaring into -5.0 percent in 2027. There are only two ways to deal with this. The first is grow fairly quickly, faster than 2.9–5.0 percent, which doesn’t strike me as remotely plausible, in part because the Boomer political class hasn’t invested in infrastructure, R&D, public education, etc. The second is to stop adding so quickly to the debt or, better yet, emplace some way to eventually (emphasis on eventually) repay part of it (but only part). It’s fairly clear who will be doing most of the paying — it won’t be mainstream Boomers, because almost all of them will be retired, so it will have to be people who are presently young. So the Boomers inherited one of the lightest debt burdens in modern history, along with plenty of strong assets ranging from the University of California to the Interstate Highway System, and pass along an enormous tab offset by assets that have degraded substantially. And as more money is funneled into benefits programs and to service the debt, less will be available to cope with the issues that are important to the young, like schools, climate change, technology, etc. Now, Republicans are supposed to be fiscally responsible, but that has not been the case for 35 years. Democrats are supposed to care about the future and the vulnerable (in this case the young), and they too have held power during periods of debt accumulation. It’s been a bipartisan failure, and that failure came during the peak of Boomer power. If the response is “we had no choice,” this sort of pretends that the challenges of the 1980s–present were sort of equivalent to WW II, the Cold War, digesting an enormous cohort of new workers (Boomers), a presidential assassination, etc., and that’s just not correct. If anything, the hugely expensive Cold War ended just as Boomers were taking over Washington. (Clinton did preside over a brief period of surplus, but that can’t be fully disentangled from some accounting issues and the fake dot-com bubble, and anyway, these were transient.) I don’t discount terrorism or the problems in the Middle East, but of course, it was Boomer Bush II who embroiled us in that Vietnam redux.
We can, and I do in the book, survey other issues, though most other issues are at least somewhat partisan. But voting and debt should be issues on which there is rough agreement between the parties, and we’ve seen real losses in both under Boomers of all affiliations. That’s not to say there weren’t serious people on the right worried about debt or serious people on the left worried about voting — there were. It’s just that their votes were swamped by the mainstream Boomers.
It’s exceedingly hard to talk about these issues. Most media, like most politicians, are not inclined to irritate their largest audience; they’d rather flatter them, and this is especially the case for TV. I present plenty of data in the book, but there’s a sort of reflexive hatred these sorts of arguments spawn among many Boomers of both parties — whether I’m making the argument or other people are making the argument (and I’m hardly alone in my view). I was somewhat surprised by how angry the feedback was to pieces about the book that ran on NPR and in the Boston Globe, even though those are fairly liberal audiences, and my core argument is for trying to save senior benefits for everyone, including by taxing people like myself at higher rates. What a lot of people chose to hear was that a venture capitalist was coming after their benefits checks. There was little discussion — just as there was little discussion in the 2016 campaign — about the serious problems lurking in Social Security (which the Social Security Administration candidly admits exist) or of other issues important to everyone, especially the young, like debt and the environment. I think this sheds some light on the real priorities: Keep senior benefits going, no matter the consequences after 2034. That is, no matter the consequences to the young.
With Trump’s election, which my wife termed on election night “the Boomers’ final gift to us,” we seemed to have possibly (hopefully) reached rock bottom for a political culture left utterly barren by Boomer improvidence. As succeeding generations contemplate America’s future, do you see a possibility of re-organizing politically along generational rather than party lines? It seems to me that a significant, if understandable, failing of Generation X is that we have allowed ourselves to be fully distracted by the relative small-ball hallmarks of “intractable partisanship,” while both parties have essentially conspired to steal the future.
Unfortunately, I think things get worse before they get better. The Boomers still control the House, the White House, four-fifths of the governors’ mansions, most of the administrative state, and a lot of the judiciary, and even in a decade, they’ll still have enough power to block major budgetary revisions (which is to say, a lot of meaningful reform) unless there’s near total unity by younger generations on a few critical items, like senior benefits, debt, and climate. Until that happens, younger generations are sort of locked out of the control room on the Exxon Valdez, watching the reef get closer. Even if they break into the control room in 2020 or 2024, it might be too late on some issues — countries, like oil tankers, have a lot of momentum. But maybe we can graze the reef instead of running aground.
Still, 2018 is probably the first realistic chance for younger people to really influence outcomes, although the map is challenging. I think young people should vote aggressively in 2018 and very aggressively in 2020. It’s certainly true GenX was disillusioned in 2016 and that the youngest voters didn’t vote very much, but the choices were far from ideal, no real policy was discussed, and at least as to GenX, it’s a small cohort with limited influence. But 2018, 2020 presents younger people with some choices, starting with voting, through donations and activism, and up to running for office. Only the voting part is easy.
Because problems are so dire and because the timeline is so favorable to the Boomers and unfavorable to everyone else — by the 2030s, fixing debt, climate, dams, education, etc. will be dauntingly expensive and some damage will be irreversible — it probably is time to play some limited generational politics. (Certainly the Boomers did. What else was that whole “Don’t trust anyone over 30” mantra about in the 1960s but generational politics?) I think we need to be careful because as problems get more extreme, so do responses. Clearly, health care requires reform, to build on the work of the ACA. The most powerful non-Boomer in Congress is Paul Ryan, and his plan is mystifying, except in its hostility to older people. Ryan can’t do anything about Medicare, but for people over 50 still not on the Medicare rolls, Ryan had tools at his disposal. And he used them. It’s tempting to see Ryan’s health care proposal as a response to the Boomers’ self-serving policies. No one expected Ryan to care overmuch about the poor, but his focus on a significant part of the Republican’s 2016 base — aging, lower-middle-class people — is notable. I think these sorts of reactions from younger politicians will become more frequent, even if they don’t get very far for now.
People, especially younger people, are rightly upset about what’s happened over the past three decades, the decades of peak Boomer power. Whether we think Boomers were negligent, sociopathic, whatever, I think the clear answer is to reshuffle the political deck on both parties. If the response is “the Democrats weren’t at fault and tried their best,” I think a fair response is to say, “Well, let another generation of Democrats try.” If a CEO said, “China is too hard to compete with,” you’d want the board to find another, more talented, CEO. And if the response is, “Republicans were thwarted on fiscal policy by Democrats,” the facts don’t support that, and the same CEO argument applies.
There seems to have been an accelerated timeline for nostalgia associated with the Boomers. I was born in 1973, only six years after the so-called “Summer Of Love,” and remember almost from birth being told and shown again and again how white middle-class Boomers had accomplished great feats on a global scale. This seems distinct to me from previous generations, who did not seem to feel the need to constantly celebrate themselves essentially in real time. What role do you think nostalgia has played in consecrating Boomer dominance over the culture?
Many Boomers have a toxic degree of nostalgia. Almost no one in our generation, GenX, is running around making claims for the world-historical awesomeness of Xers — or if they are, it’s not getting much play in the Boomer-dominated media. The Millennials are just coming up and yes, they celebrate their resistance to Trump, e.g., and rightly so, but they don’t have a really long history to mythologize. There are only two generations with enough years behind them to engage in this sort of nostalgia: the dwindling set of the Boomers’ parents and the Boomers themselves.
Certainly, older people celebrated the triumphs of World War II, the Space Race, and so on, and they sometimes overlooked some pretty ugly episodes, like the internment of Japanese civilians, unlawful medical experiments on minorities, and institutional racism. On net, it’s hard to argue that the Greatest Generation was anything other than a Very Good Generation Overall, because whatever their mistakes and however many of them resisted social progress, on the whole they left the country in pretty good shape and they made real strides on social issues as a whole. We don’t hear too much about this now, and even 50 years ago, the self-marketing wasn’t as extreme as the “golden era” status ascribed by some Boomers to the 1960s.
What’s been downplayed is the size of the lead Boomers enjoyed when they came of age and just how much of it has been squandered. I don’t argue — as oddly, some Boomers do — that America isn’t “great” now. I argue that it should be much better than it actually is: much richer, somewhat more economically equal, and much better on social issues. If leftist Boomers really were into peace, justice, racial harmony, and so on, just why has a giant and useless penal state arisen on their watch and why is it so hostile to African-Americans? (Keep in mind it was Clinton who signed ATEDPA and other noxious criminal legislation — it’s not just a Republican thing.) Why has economic inequality gotten so much more extreme in the U.S. relative to its peer nations? On environment, why did the federal gas tax never rise after 1993, with consequences for auto emissions, and why did fuel standard improvements go on hiatus between 1986–2011, and probably from 2017–2021?
If Boomers want to look at the past, let’s look at the past. Certainly they did some good things, and some of them really were completely coherent and dedicated champions of causes young people can support. Overall, though, Republican, Democrat, and now whatever Trump is, Boomer politicians haven’t done a very good job. And of course, politicians need people to keep voting for them, so that means a heavily Boomer electorate didn’t do a very good job, nor did the policy or business elites.
Speaking as an individual who essentially identifies by background and disposition as an FDR Democrat, the persistent unwillingness of the Boomer generation to meaningfully address the looming insolvency of the entitlement system is utterly deranged and a total dereliction of duty. What is the best possible explanation we have for the decision to shrink from this vital responsibility? Magical thinking? Cowardice? Something else?
The Social Security administration is very clear, and has been for years: The system is not sustainable, as-is, after 2034. (The CBO is even more pessimistic.) It’s not an unknown issue, if only because Social Security was out of whack in 1983, when Boomers were rising to power, and it was patched up well enough to keep it going another 50 years, which is about as long a time frame as you can ask for in politics. That five-decade margin of safety is now a one-and-a-half decade margin of safety, and for years, we’ve known that something needed to be done. Yet, meaningful reform goes mostly undiscussed. Other programs face similar dynamics.
If you want Social Security to remain more or less intact past 2034 — that’s to say, if you’re much under 50 — you’d support some combination of higher taxes, especially on higher earners (retired or not), later retirement ages, and somewhat less generous benefits. The system cannot carry on as-is, and that’s not my opinion, that’s the opinion of the system itself. And I’ve argued for some combination of all of these in the book and elsewhere, and the responses from people self-identifying as Boomers have been generally negative, because if you discuss any reforms at all, you’re going to discuss reducing benefits as part of the total package of taxes and retirement ages. So, at least for some Boomers, the idea of any reform, however urgent, seems to be a non-starter, and they have more than enough political muscle to realize that outcome. Why, after all, was the sacral nature of Social Security the only thing Trump and Clinton agreed on?
We can debate whether it was negligent, reckless, or intentional, whether it was sociopathic or just short-sighted, but in the end it’s a large, known, and serious problem most of whose costs will be borne by others and where the power to reform is held by people who will benefit from no reform. Looking at it that way, it’s hard to argue for anything less than gross negligence and dangerous short-sightedness, and obviously I present a darker explanation in the book. There hasn’t been much evidence that Boomers are willing to make any sacrifices at all.
It’s important to address one other thing: misinformation about senior benefits. They do a lot of good, and I’m for them. But they are not binding contracts, and they are not fully a “return of capital.” There is no legal “entitlement” to senior entitlements under the law, and that’s critical, because it means these programs can be fixed — unlike some private pensions, which Boomers are litigating into the ground (see: Central States). Nor are they purely a return of $1 out (adjusting for inflation) for each $1 put in. In the case of Social Security, it’s more like $1.53 out for $1 in, and that extra return is subsidized by the rich, the unlucky (who pay in and then die before collecting) and, above all, the young. No one’s checking account is being raided if we decide the right solution is to abolish the income cap on Social Security taxes and raise the full retirement age to 70–72 (which falls most heavily on the young) and reduce benefits to, say, $1.35–1.40 per $1 in (which affects everyone). All that’s happening is the spreading of responsibility, even though the young have almost no political culpability in this and could coherently, if un-empathetically, decide to scrap the whole thing.
And, actually, I think the situation is sufficiently severe that even if Boomers do not care about their children, they ought to consider their own self-interest. If the projections are too optimistic, cuts will affect a lot of Boomers, too, and the cuts are automatic under the law as soon as the Trust Funds exhaust in 2034. If young people really get fed up — and there’s every indication that Paul Ryan is, however skewed is numbers may be, very fed up — they might upend the whole system.
Again, I’ve argued against my short-term economic self-interest and against the narrow, immediate interests of many in my generation in favor of senior benefits working acceptably for everyone in the long run. And while some Boomers have agreed with me in certain fora, the general tone has been exceedingly hostile. Boomers are free to dislike me personally, but to refuse to discuss a rational plan that saves a program they like and that spares most Boomers from severe cuts is just unhealthy.