The Baby Boom generation in the United States has enjoyed the fruits of a prosperity unrivaled in the history of the world. Children born in the period 1945-1964 benefited from a combination of economic growth and global dominance. Victorious in two world wars that endowed it with the power to set the terms of trade, the US controlled fully 25% of global GDP by the 1950s when it was home to only about 6% of the world’s population. The nation’s real per capita GDP doubled between 1945 and 1978, and it doubled again by 2018. Median family income today is over $60,000, compared with around $3,500 in 1950, comfortably outpacing inflation ($1 then = $10 now). Although there is much to say about how this wealth is distributed among Americans, there is no doubt that, on the whole, Boomers have had it good.
Yours truly has shared in this general uplift and is now entering retirement: my pensions and investments are buoyed up by Social Security and Medicare. As Kurt Vonnegut’s Uncle Alex used to say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” But there is a proverbial fly in the ointment, not that I’m looking forward to ointment, in any case. The US national debt has been increasing right alongside our power and prosperity and is projected to continue upward at a steep angle until well after I’ve stopped collecting checks. The word that stands out in the caption below is “unsustainable.” According to this idea, my pleasant prospects are helping to undermine the future for the next generation. Which puts me in a bad mood.
This situation has attracted a lot of attention, and not just recently. It might surprise some younger readers (wishful thought) that an organization known as the Concord Coalition, started by (!) Congressmen, was seriously investigating the issue of the national debt as early as 1992. A major contributor to growing debt is deficit spending in the annual government budget (yes, there is such a thing, eventually). While people seemed to approve of adding to the debt in order to defeat Hitler (see above), or even to find Osama bin Laden, doubt has arisen about so-called “social programs.” The call for “spending reductions” became a hallmark of conservative political ideology in the early 2000s (Tea Party, Paul Ryan, anyone?), but they mostly joined liberals in wanting to keep Medicare and Social Security.
In fairness to all, except perhaps those who pretend that the present trend can continue, there is much more to be considered–what does the budget look like?, do people deserve anything?, what about ‘personal responsibility’?, what exactly does “unsustainable” mean? Pundits on left and right, including some economists who can actually explain their views, have weighed in, of course. And this is my complaint: for all the talk about the debt, why hasn’t something been done about it? At the same time, the question is disingenuous: I know why, and with this comes the confession– I’m the reason. As voters of a certain age who actually pay attention to politics, we Boomers pose a strategic nightmare for politicians. In fact, just about the only politician who will touch the ‘third rail’ of social spending for retired folks is one who isn’t even in the game anymore.
And that puts me in a really bad mood.