The aging of the baby boom generation has not improved its reputation. Having brought immense positive change to this country, the postwar population wave is frequently castigated as a self-seeking and even selfish cohort by members of the generations that have followed, who worry that those nearing retirement will cost too much to maintain amid dimming economic prospects.
That isn’t how the boomers see themselves, of course, but that selfish stereotype is at the center of America’s budget politics these days — especially the Republican Party’s sweeping proposals to reorder priorities and reduce deficits, authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The most obvious signal in Ryan’s plan is that he exempts almost all of the boomers from his scheme to abolish Medicare and replace the highly popular and successful system with vouchers that would continuously diminish in value. As the budget chairman and his colleagues confront the fury that this idea has provoked among older voters, their chief selling point is that the changes won’t affect anyone who is now age 55 or older.
So they promise that if you’re in the lucky boomer contingent, there is no need to worry — and no need to concern yourself with those who someday soon will have to purchase adequate health insurance with wholly inadequate funding.
In other words, the Republicans are relying on the allegedly mercenary character of the older voters who supported them so heavily last year, based on their vow to “protect” Medicare from mythical Democratic cutbacks. The GOP evidently hopes to persuade those voters, enraged by the bait-and-switch represented by the Ryan plan, that their narrowest interest is all that matters and will be protected.
What that means, to put it bluntly, is abandoning the American tradition of a social compact passed from one generation to the next — and the American ideal of a country that each generation preserves and improves for its children and grandchildren.
Indeed, in the guise of saving future generations from excessive federal debt, the same themes of national decay, egotistical greed and irresponsibility pervade the Ryan plan. To pay for enormous tax cuts for the wealthiest few while reducing future deficits, his budget decimates spending that would be essential to the most basic maintenance of infrastructure, education, research and even national security.
We know that the nation’s great network of federal and state highways, bridges, tunnels, ports, airports, railways, stations and subways — the marvelous legacy of previous generations — is rapidly decaying after decades of neglect. The Republicans propose to cut future spending on transportation by half over the coming decade, and still more in the decades that follow, because there will simply be no money to finance repairs, let alone improvements. Not nearly enough to keep roads and bridges in decent condition, and nothing to create the high-speed rail systems boasted by our competitors in Europe and Asia.
The same short-term, self-serving and plainly stupid priorities will wreak equivalent damage on education, training and scientific research. According to the Center for American Progress, the Ryan plan would “disinvest” in education and training by 53 percent, diverting resources away from primary and adult education, career and technical training, community colleges, post-secondary education and student aid, at a time when our world educational status is already in perilous decline.
So if the Republican budget plan (or anything resembling it) is enacted, the boomers, having entered adulthood with the most progressive and idealistic intentions, would fulfill the worst predictions about them. They will leave behind a nation whose shaky social and physical foundations may well collapse into ruin.
Are they such a generation of termites, as the Republicans cynically assume? Or will they take responsibility for the future and leave a country to their children still worthy of its name?