The United States has a federal debt of $31 trillion. Yet, President Trump, President Biden, and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are some of the leading contenders for the next presidency coming from the baby boomer age. These individuals want to spend trillions of dollars that the U.S. does not have to dramatically transform America and finance global wars like the one in Ukraine. The oddest thing is that despite having drastically different platforms, each of these front-runners is pledging to address the vast structural issues that their generation, the enormous baby boom, primarily built over a three-decade reign of dominance in American politics.
The people who came of age in the post-WWII boom years, known as the baby boomers, spent a significant portion of their time in power by cutting their taxes, ensuring that massive entitlement programs were protected (at least for themselves). And did little to protect the environment, invest in American infrastructure, or address the growing student loan crisis.
The baby boomers “grew up when employment was virtually always at or near total capacity. As productivity increased, so did wages, and it did so swiftly. The baby boomers came to mature at the same time as America embraced an economic model that was largely ineffective, did not result in raising earnings and incomes for people at a perfect clip, and increased inequality.
Bill Clinton, the country’s first baby boomer president, raised taxes at the start of the 1990s and created government surpluses. But he also went through an unpleasant impeachment due to his bad behavior and attempted to cover it up.
George W. Bush did little to address issues with government funding, participated in a brief campaign to privatize Social Security, and expanded Medicare, which primarily served older Americans, to include an expensive prescription drug program. Concerns about the environment, entitlements, and infrastructure expenditure were mainly ignored during his presidency due to the extensive and expensive post-9/11 war on terror.
Barack Obama, a late-era boomer by birthdate, tried to reach a grand bargain with tea party-led Republicans and John Boehner, the speaker of the House at the time, to address long-term entitlement sustainability and spending issues as well as significant tax increases. But everything disintegrated when Republicans opposed tax increases, and progressives opposed changes to entitlement programs. It rapidly faded when there was a small window of bipartisan agreement when it appeared that real change might occur.
Donald Trump had pledged to protect the rights of retired or on the verge of retiring while restoring the greatness of U.S. manufacturing. Trump essentially increased military spending while approving a $2 trillion tax reduction with drastically reduced rates for businesses and the wealthy. The annual deficit increased to almost $1 trillion under Trump’s leadership, and the total national debt has surpassed $22 trillion.
The focus of Biden’s presidency has been to rebut the Obama strategy, which sought to build coalitions to address significant structural issues like climate change,entitlements, and debt through agreements like the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade agreement intended in part to counter China’s rise as a significant economic and military force.
The Republican party in the U.S. has essentially returned to the ethos of former vice president Dick Cheney (that deficits don’t matter) after they spent the Obama presidency threatening shutdowns and debt defaults over out-of-control spending. At the same time, this approach is a positive shift in policy for progressives and economists who think deficits and debt don’t matter. On that note, a significant portion of younger people supports both Warren and Sanders.
Through all this, U.S. presidents and Congresses of both parties, primarily governed by baby boomers, did little to address what engineers suggest are nearly $5 trillion in infrastructure updates needed in the U.S. as rising powers like China pour massive resources into such projects.
Many baby boomers defend the generation’s accomplishments by highlighting strides in gender equality, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the civil rights movement (even though most landmark civil and voting rights laws were passed when the median boomer was around 12 years old). Others contend that it is unreasonable to consider generational differences when analyzing political failures solely. Many baby boomers have long advocated for more progressive, less self-serving policies, but they haven’t secured enough authority. And they assert that as Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Z generations ultimately assume political power, there is still a legacy the baby boomers can leave to them.
In conclusion, the critics claim that while baby boomers in power have done a respectable job of protecting Social Security and Medicare for those nearing retirement, they haven’t done nearly as much to ensure that they will be fully supported for those who retire later. Generation X will try to mediate disputes between much larger generations to reach an amicable agreement that benefits everyone. Americans will have to decide whether they choose a baby boomer or a millennial as their next president. Furthermore, there will be a wide range of perceptions and expectations regarding Gen X’s influence on politics and how decisions are finally made.
George Ardavanis 10/01/2023