Remember the time (around 2009–12) when America faced “the most predictable economic crisis in this nation’s history”? At least, that’s how then–House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan described it in his various “Roadmaps” and “Paths to Prosperity.”
He wasn’t alone. A seemingly endless array of politicians, pundits, and bipartisan commissions warned that by refusing to reform popular (yet fiscally unsustainable) entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, our nation’s leaders were (Ryan’s words again) jeopardizing “the distinctly American legacy of leaving the next generation better off.”
So, how’s that going? Unless I’m missing something, that looming crisis is no less predictable than it was four years ago, or even four decades ago. Social Security and Medicare — autopilot spending programs that redistribute wealth from younger workers to older farts — are going to blow up the federal budget sooner rather than later as millions of Baby Boomers reach retirement age and slouch ever so leisurely toward the grave.
Are we making progress? As someone who reported on those prior fiscal spats for National Review, I’m not optimistic. The alleged “urgency” of the crisis is inevitably outweighed by a political party’s desire to win the midterms — those other elections that young people don’t know about, but that America’s retirees have already marked down on their calendars between NCIS marathons.
In 2010, for example, Republicans took back the House thanks in part to their incessant attacks on Democrats for “brutalizing” seniors by “slashing” Medicare. Even Paul Ryan, the alleged Social Darwinist once portrayed as literally “throwing granny off a cliff,” agrees that reforming benefits for individuals at or near retirement age is off-limits. Considering that the GOP can barely agree on how to repeal Obamacare after seven years of shouting about it on the campaign trail, the prospects for meaningful reform seem slim, at best.
In any event, we just had a presidential election in which the major candidates — both retirement-age Boomers of dubious moral character — passionately dismissed the need for entitlement reform. Perhaps the biggest difference between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on this issue, which was rarely discussed at all, is that Trump (to his credit, I suppose) included the word “tremendous” when discussing all the “waste, fraud, and abuse” he was going to eliminate.
The worse news — at least for my generation, the Millennials — is that we’re already living in an economy in which that “distinctly American legacy of leaving the next generation better off” is eroding. A team of economists led by Raj Chetty at Stanford University recently calculated that among Americans born in 1980, the “American Dream Index,” or the likelihood that they will make more money than their parents, is just 50 percent, down from 79 percent for Americans born in 1950. A typical Millennial has less than half the net worth her Boomer parents did at the same age, thanks in large part to the explosion of student debt.
As a result, we can’t afford to buy a home, have children, invest in stocks, or even contribute to 401(k)s, if we’re lucky enough to have one. And yet we continue to have our earnings taxed to fund retirement benefits that almost certainly won’t exist or be nearly as generous when we retire — if we can ever afford to, after paying the even higher taxes necessary to finance the bionic hardware to let Mom and Dad go waterskiing on their 100th birthdays.
“Shut up, snowflake,” you might be thinking. Fair enough. I get it, Boomers, you worked hard and paid taxes. You participated. You’re entitled to those benefits (although you’d probably prefer to say you “earned” them), and kids these days should stop whining about how they can’t find a job after spending $150,000 for a bachelor’s degree in intersectional literature or Islamophobia studies. There are no “participation trophies” in the game of life. (Right. So why did you keep handing them out to us as children?)
Millennials are constantly ridiculed as a bunch of lazy, self-absorbed crybabies who don’t know the meaning of sacrifice and hard work. Some of the criticism is deserved. In the last month alone, a Millennial has: 1) hosted “nap-ins” at Southern Illinois University to “internally generate student dreams of diversity,” 2) launched a fundraising website to finance her “travels and spiritual journey around the world,” and 3) publicly announced his transformation into a “sexless alien.” Their parents (i.e., the Boomers who raised them) must be so proud.
But if it’s going to come down to generational warfare — and it probably will, considering that the alternative involves politicians deciding to do something unpopular for the greater good — I will happily side with the snowflakes. We won’t win, because we’ll be too busy Instagramming our brunch and reorganizing the “social justice” hierarchy of grievances to incorporate previously undiscovered racial identities and sexual orientations. But we won’t own the fiscal wreck that’s coming.
Boomers, meanwhile, have enjoyed a generational majority in Congress since 2000. They actually vote in elections. But what do they have to show for it? A massive tax cut (for themselves, mostly), two endless wars, a new unsustainable entitlement program (Medicare Part D) followed by a failed attempt at Social Security reform, and a financial crisis, and that’s all before Barack Obama got a hold of the nation’s credit card.
Maybe I’m wrong. I certainly hope so, for my own sake. I pay my taxes, too, dammit. The least I’m owed is the opportunity to carry on that distinctly American legacy of spending lavishly, pretending everything is fine, and then sticking my kids with the tab.
– Mr. Stiles is a freelance journalist based in New York City.