Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Gimme Generation

It seems that the federal government is getting into the "business" of bailing people out of their troubles. First there were Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, then AIG, then the banking industry $700 billion (which may not be "enough"!). Then the state of California asked for $7 billion to pay for its profligacy. And now it seems the commonwealth of Massachusetts wants its turn at the federal trough.

I guess those initial outlays were like blood in the water. Now everyone wants a bailout.

How bad is the economy? Is it really necessary for the government to step in to "save the day"?

These are complicated questions. There's a lot of psychology involved in economics, and people's expectations are sometimes unreasonable. I suspect that the more answerable question is how we got into this mess in the first place.

The big problem is that the generation in charge, the Boomers, was raised with the expectation that everything would be provided for them.1 In other words, they were raised to be irresponsible. And indeed, of the two Boomer Presidents this country has had (Clinton and Bush II), both have been disasters.2 True to their heritage, the people now in charge of our country (not just the President or the government) have bequeathed to their children an enormous government debt and a profoundly troubled economy.

As the Onion once put it,

"The selfishness that has been a hallmark of the Boomers will continue right up to the very end, as they force millions of younger Americans to devote an inordinate amount of time and resources to their care, bankrupting the Social Security system in the process," Clausewitz said. "In their old age, the Boomers will actually manage to take as much from the next generation as they did the previous one, which fought WWII so that their Boomer children could have Philco TVs and Davy Crockett air rifles."

This means it is up to younger generations to shoulder the additional burden that their selfish forebears have sloughed. The temptation is to envy the material prosperity the Boomers have enjoyed at the expense of others. The Psalmist had a similar experience and began to envy the worldly success of the unjust people of his day:

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
my steps had well nigh slipped.

For I was envious of the arrogant,
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For they have no pangs;
their bodies are sound and sleek.

They are not in trouble as other men are;
they are not stricken like other men.

Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.3

Their eyes swell out with fatness,
their hearts overflow with follies.

They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.

They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their tongue struts through the earth.

Therefore the people turn and praise them;
and find no fault in them.

And they say, "How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?"

Behold, these are the wicked;
always at ease, they increase in riches. (Ps 73:2-12)

The temptation is to view the worldly success of others and one's lack of success with a sense of frustration, as if this failure were some sort of penalty for keeping virtue:

All in vain have I kept my heart clean
and washed my hands in innocence.

For all the day long I have been stricken,
and chastened every morning. (Ps 73:13-14)

But the Psalmist soon recognized his error and sees that the unjust have no lasting happiness in their possessions:

If I had said, "I will speak thus,"
I would have been untrue to the generation of thy children.

But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task,

until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I perceived their end.

Truly thou dost set them in slippery places;
thou dost make them fall to ruin.

How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!

They are like a dream when one awakes,
on awaking you despise their phantoms.

The solution is not to emulate those whose success you envy, but to adhere to the Lord and His justice: that is where real happiness lies.

When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,

I was stupid and ignorant,
I was like a beast toward thee.

Nevertheless I am continually with thee;
thou dost hold my right hand.

Thou dost guide me with thy counsel,
and afterward thou wilt receive me to glory.

Whom have I in heaven but thee?
And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.

For lo, those who are far from thee shall perish;
thou dost put an end to those who are false to thee.

But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge,
that I may tell of all thy works. (Ps 73:15-28)

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
from him comes my salvation. (Ps 62)

Just because the Boomers are unjust doesn't mean that the rest of us have to be. We should be thankful for this opportunity to display virtue (whose lack got us into this mess). It won't be easy, but no real challenge ever is, and without challenges, how can one grow closer to God?

Some excellent commentary on the financial crisis here.


1. Notably raised by the so-called Greatest Generation. Maybe not so great after all!

2. Partially mitigated disasters. What saved Clinton from being an unmitigated disaster was the other party controlling Congress. What that saved Bush from unmitigated disasterhood was the moral debt he owed to social conservatives.

3. "Violence" - when one will not discipline one's self, one has to take it out on others, for example, the unborn, and people in other countries.

"Long-Awaited Baby Boomer Die-Off To Begin Soon, Experts Say," The Onion 35.02 (January 20, 1999).

Always entertaining: Baby Boomer Death Counter


Anonymous said...

I can't say anything against "The Greatest Generation" because I do think they lived through extremely difficult days with dignity, but the legacy of their trauma was silence.

My husband's two grandfathers were in WW2. One was on horseback in the last cavalry and the other was taken prisoner, walked the Bataan Death March, and built a radio out of scraps which was used to free his POW camp. They are heroes to the boys in the family and I won't deny them their due in suffering hardship for the rest of us, but they were very silent men who left painful emotional imprints on their children and spouses.

Anyway, the baby boomers did not seem to inherit any greatness from their parents. I completely agree that challenge, and how we respond to them, grow us into more dependence upon God and therefore, into better people.

Thank you for the psalm too, it can be easy to lose sight of the truth about success.

Anonymous said...

"Anyway, the baby boomers did not seem to inherit any greatness from their parents."

This is painting a whole generation with a broad brush. If they had all been as irresponsible as you say there would have been no continuity in the medical profession, the military, or the sciences. Many younger people who work in these areas have had boomer mentors whom they have admired. Ask them.

Lawrence Gage said...

You will struggle in vain to find the word "all" applied to any group here. Generalization is not mathematical proof.

Of course, there are redeeming members of the boomer generation. Generally they are the ones most ready to admit their generation is problematic (e.g., Professor Janet Smith).

But your assertion of continuity in those particular professions is not unquestionable. Medical doctors no longer follow the oath of Hippocrates, and the military flaunts sexual deviancy. The sciences chug on (led by practical profit), but fundamental physics has been in a holding pattern for the past few decades (cf. Smolin's The Trouble with Physics).

Mentors would have to be manifest wantons for their proteges to find nothing to admire. Like children, they assume their elders are their betters. Many a drug lord's son admires his father.