Monday, May 1, 2017

The Eternal Now Generation

Bruce Cannon Gibney, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America

If anyone doubts the lingering socioeconomic influence of the Baby Boom Generation, the most numerous age-based American demographic before or since, tell a Bob Dylan fan he’s getting old. I dare you. Dropping a reference to Big Bob’s age on a then-popular website about a decade ago attracted a firestorm of criticism, and remains the only time I’ve ever been banned from a user-generated content site. For noting that his fans looked old in tie-dye.

American attorney and venture capitalist Bruce Cannon Gibney gained attention for aggressive writing, and a willingness to court controversy, long before he became a full-time writer in 2015. His first published book deliberately attracts dispute by linking America’s less-than-stellar economic performance since the middle 1970s, with the Baby Boom’s accession to political and capitalistic dominance, a position they’ve maintained despite two subsequent generations already achieving adulthood amid a weakened economy. Gibney assigns blame with gusto.

Unlike their parents, the Greatest Generation, who hit adulthood amid the shortages of the Great Depression and World War II, or their European and Asian generational cohorts who grew up with post-war rationing and devastated states, American Boomers grew up with relative comfort. With parents educated on the GI Bill, constant access to TV and other anodyne entertainment, and the expectation of permanent economic growth, Boomers considered comfort their entitlement, pursuing it at all costs.

Reading Gibney’s subtext, I encounter my first factual problem: his archetypal Boomer is apparently white. He even acknowledges this (in a footnote). That isn’t entirely unfair: he notes, “there were roughly as many white Boomers in 1990 as all ethnic minorities, of all generations, combined.” So treating middle-class white interests and Boomer demands as interchangeable, has some foundation. Nevertheless, it does symbolize Gibney’s tendency to forcibly homogenize diverse groups, even those bound only by age.

Bruce Cannon Gibney
Still, one cannot review this book without reversing more often than a ping-pong ball. Yes, Gibney paints with a broad brush, but a well-earned one: he demonstrates depth of research missing from polemicists and rabble rousers. He laces this book heavily both with footnotes (he obliquely concedes David Foster Wallace’s influence) and endnotes. His text is unusually long for its genre, over 350 pages plus front and back matter, presumably to justify Gibney’s controversial thesis.

Discussions of Boomer politics usually begin with anti-Vietnam protests. See, the implication runs, Boomers started out progressive before, somehow, they embraced the Reagan Revolution in the middle 1970s, when they became America’s largest voting bloc. The reversal remains inexplicable. Except, Gibney collates then-current polling data to indicate Boomers disproportionately favored the war; they just wanted somebody else to fight it. Cue multiple draft deferees, like Trump and Bill Clinton, or stateside chair-sitters, like George W.

Boomer tax policies have generally favored themselves, at others’ expenses. They voted for deep income tax cuts as they entered the workforce; capital gains tax cuts only after accumulating large stock portfolios; and inheritance tax cuts as their parents faced mortality. Using officially published statistics (which, y’know, lies, damned lies, and…), Gibney computes Social Security will be exhausted about when the youngest Boomers turn eighty—that is, when most of them will statistically be dead.

One could argue, as Gibney briefly does, that many leaders who crystallized Boomers’ opinions, like Ronald Reagan or Jerry Falwell, emerged from the Greatest Generation. Gibney quickly dispatches that argument by noting that leaders accomplish little without numerous, influential followers. Reagan and Falwell gained predominance as Boomers entered the voting pool; and political priorities have evolved, keeping pace with one specific age cohort’s shifting expectations. While Boomers remain numerous, Boomer issues will dominate our system.

Every item Gibney approaches, and there are many, he bolsters with generous evidence demonstrating that Boomer concerns steer the discussion. Taxes and deficits, education, criminal justice, and more: their constant evolution keeps redounding to Boomer benefit. Gibney doesn’t much address culture and art, except where it bolsters his argument. A financier himself, Gibney cares more about financial than cultural injustice. And he leavens his jeremiad with grim humor reminiscent of Matt Taibbi or P.J. O’Rourke.

Many readers will find this book ageist and blinkered. Others more sympathetic to its general thesis, like me, may nevertheless find fault with Gibney’s arguments, and places that need shored up. (Point-by-point refutation would take too long here.) But mass agreement probably isn’t Gibney’s goal. He wants instead to change the discussion by refocusing it through a generational lens, and he succeeds. Even if his thesis needs revision, he’s almost certainly already changed the debate.

No comments:

Post a Comment