Berkeley protestSaturn devouring his son

The revolution will not be televised devouring its own children


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26 November, 2011

A perennial topic of public discussion ever since my childhood has been the sellout our not of the formerly revolutionary former youth of the Baby Boom. The false premise here is that they were the sellers rather than the buyers. While there are great acts of civil courage and genius (political, scientific, and artistic) revealed individually in that generation, as in every generation, when seen as a collective these people's actions are indistinguishable from the script one would have expected if they had been forged into a steel-sinewed generational army equipped to plunder the past and the future. First, they sucked resources out of their parents while devising a cult of youth that absolved them of any need to respond with ordinary human gratitude. Then they determined to ensure that their own children would never do the same to them, by stitching up the tax system and the pensions to ensure that public resources would be bled dry by the time their successors tried to make a claim on them.

A generation that was paid to go to university (in the UK) or who studied at minimal cost (in the US), has decided, after several decades of supposedly steady economic growth,  that we are now too poor to pay for the next generation to study. In the UK now, students are required to borrow from the government to pay their student fees, and are required to repay the loan slowly, at a substantial interest rate which is inflation adjusted, so that unlike everyone else in the world they cannot even hope to escape their debts if the UK government prints money to inflate away its own debt. (Interestingly, the university pension system has just drastically reduced the inflation protection of pensions, effectively making a university pension a one-way gamble on low inflation. If inflation rates like in the 1970s recur in the 2040s, we'll be researching the nutritional value of cat food.) There is nothing like a good load of debt -- particularly inescapable, uninflatable debt -- to keep the callow peons in their place.

I remember pretty early on in my American history lessons in school I was taught that among the great innovations of the American revolution was the abolition of debtors' prisons. (I think this was in 7th grade or earlier. Long before I really knew what debts were.) Bankruptcy is at the core of liberty, along with freedom of the press and jury trials.

Similarly, they've been refusing to deal with climate catastrophe, reasoning that the real disaster will come after their time has passed, whereas the cost would be a sliver of their economic gain. They've underfunded public pensions, and then grandfathered themselves in for the full pensions (because, after all, they were promised them, by themselves). They cut taxes on the wealthiest as they moved into their prime earning years, and reduced (or effectively eliminated, in the US) the estate tax as their parents' generation passed on. They have fostered policies that escalated the values of existing houses, transferring vast sums of wealth from the younger generations into the hands of older property owners who had the good sense and foresight to be born first.

To be sure, they are certainly not the first in history to define their demographic as a closed community of interests delimited by the years of their birth, and the events that had defined their lives. One thinks of Wordsworth's "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!" I remember seeing a German theatre production of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons where the idealistic old doctor was referred to as an "alt 48er" -- an old 1848 revolutionary -- in obvious imitation of the designation "alt 68er". And then there are the young revolutionaries of the 1930s, whose self-aggrandising pronouncements are also reminiscent (particularly when reflected in the jaundiced eye of Leslie Fiedler) of those of their successors 30 years later. (You need to substitute "marijuana" for "communism" as the universal youthful indiscretion that they needed to hide from their employers and children and voters when they decided to join the establishment.)

But they were certainly exceptional in their inclination to monetise their rebellion, and lock down the means of production so their children could never do to them what they did to their parents. They were the first to fully appreciate the power of the grandfather clause, to create laws that are superficially neutral, but which privilage one group (themselves) because of the common interest defined by their current stage of life.

They climbed the ladder of Western prosperity, and pulled it up after them. "Hope to die before I get old" indeed...











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