But then I occasionally get a comment on my blog -- maybe you get them too? -- excoriating me for being a smug, self-satisfied baby boomer. A recent one charged: "You baby boomers are literally the most evil generation ever to exist. You destroyed your own children's future, destroyed the economy, and then you sit back and smugly laugh about it." And then it went on to suggest that we baby boomers die off as fast as we can.
The source of these kinds of comments is always anonymous, and usually angry, so it's easy to dismiss them as the rantings of some disaffected outcast. Still, I sometimes wonder, if I were in my 20s or 30s, what would I think of baby boomers?
Would I believe that baby boomers are smug, self-satisfied people who just don't know how fortunate they are, enjoying a growing economy and good jobs for most of their lives, as well as lots of benefits like Social Security (which only started paying benefits in 1940) and Medicare (which only began in 1966), all at the expense of future generations?
Meanwhile, according to the polls, some 60% of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction, while less than 40% say it's on the right track. And a solid plurality has lost faith in prominent public institutions, and believes that both major political parties are an impediment to real progress. Or perhaps another way to put the question: Are baby boomers just lucky enough to be living in peak America?
I happened to catch an interview with Jeffrey Gundlach, ceo of the investment firm Doubleline. I'm sure some of what he says is self-serving, but he is also a smart, well-educated financial expert, so I wouldn't dismiss his views quite as quickly as those of an anonymous blog commenter. Gundlach asks us to look at how much we spend on old people as opposed to how much we spend on young people. According to him, the ratio is seven to one -- how much of the U. S. government budget goes to paying for things for people over 65 compared to paying for things for those under age 18. Is it fair, he asks, for old people to gobble up government resources and leave their children and grandchildren with table scraps?
"And if you're investing in dying people," he adds, "and not investing in the future, you don't have a very great future." He claims that baby boomers have all the money and the millennials don't . . . "I mean, they can't afford a house, they have student loan debt. They're starting to believe that they kind of got screwed by the system."
So have we screwed our children, leaving them with huge student loans and massive government deficits, unable to buy a house or afford to have children? Have we screwed our children by leaving them with a dirtier, warmer world as we continue to drive our SUVs at gas-guzzling speeds and crank up our air conditioners to keep ourselves from ever breaking a sweat?
Gundlach also thinks there is no way we can fulfill our promises to future retired people. The unfunded amount of state retirement funds runs into trillions of dollars (according to Reuters, Illinois alone has an unfunded pension liability of $133.5 billion), and he says the toll to pay for that would cause economic chaos. So some of these people will not get paid. Not us baby boomers. We'll get paid. But our children and grandchildren. The funds will either go broke, or else they will have to scale back payments by limiting the amount of payouts or else taxing payouts to get the money back.
He also seems to think the same thing about Social Security, which is already paying out more than it collects in taxes, and will deplete its trust fund in about 15 years. If nothing is done, Social Security will be forced to cut benefits by about 25% to match the money it brings in. So Gundlach predicts something will have to change -- that the retirement age will have to be lifted, and that some people will be cut out, presumably more affluent people who perhaps don't "need" the money but who paid in their entire working lives with the promise that they would collect benefits, but who in the end will never collect anything as their share will go to poorer people.
We're all familiar with the ways to "save" Social Security. The problem is that we can't agree on what should be done, and the politicians won't touch the issue for fear of losing their jobs.
I don't mean to get into the politics of this. But I wonder: Are we stealing from our children's future by sucking up all the government benefits and leaving them with nothing but a mountain of debt? Or can we can get out of this by taxing the wealthy and issuing more and more debt? And in the final analysis -- as a final Baby Boomer report card, if you will -- are we truly bequeathing to our children a better and more affluent world, one that is more equal, more peaceful, more comfortable, and more fair?