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Theodore Roszak, Who Defined Boomer Culture, Dies as American Vision Fades

Posted: 07/14/11 01:22 PM ET

The American vision grew dimmer this past week. In Berkeley, California, Theodore "Ted" Roszak, the author of 20 books and a play, including that rare combination of bestsellers in both fiction and nonfiction -- succumbed to a long and enervating illness at age 77.

And Monday's press conference with President Obama was less than reassuring that Ted Roszak's vision of an older and wiser future will not become pixilated like a scratched DVD and fall apart in the minutiae of Democratic giveaways. The current president is in the process of establishing himself as Deal Cutter in Chief -- evidently attempting a grand budget bargain that would only neuter Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid a little.

At the same time, he's presiding over a fast-leaking employment boat. An apprehensive nation wonders whether Barack Obama will emerge a master of brinksmanship--painting Republicans into an extremist corner--or whether he will endorse, as Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman put it last Friday (July 8), "false conservative views."

An Original Thinker

Ted Roszak understood the fallacies of bipartisan deal-making as well as any social historian. He chronicled the arc of my baby boom generation from his books The Making of a Counter Culture (1969, revised University of California Press edition, 1995) to The Making of an Elder Culture (New Society, 2009).

He was also that rare writer who published bestsellers in both nonfiction and fiction. (His better known novels were The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein (Bantam, 1996) and Flicker (Summit, 1991) which my Internet search tells me has become something of a cult classic for its splicing of Hollywood history and an ancient religious conspiracy.

Ted Roszak had a fertile, challenging and fun intellect. He was an original thinker, and I was deeply proud to call him a friend and mentor since we met in the late 1990s.

Ted was enormously hopeful that the collective wisdom of the boomer generations would emerge and, while losing battles along the way, would eventually win the war for social justice and humanism. We'd go to lunch now and then, although not much in more recent years, when his recurring infections sapped his energy, or as he guarded his time to be with his granddaughter, Lucy. The sophisticated public intellectual frequently laughed and would say, "I never thought I would become a doting grandfather, but I love every minute of it."

Not only was Ted a genuine visionary--a word I'll consider a bit later --but he was an unrepentant optimist, not a cockeyed one, but one with a clear-eye on the capacity for progress, which history told him was well within our reach. Over those lunches, I'd, well, be more skeptical. I'd say, "Don't you think, Ted, that you might have overstated your idea that boomers would bring more wisdom to society in old age?" He'd have none of it. Social change has its turmoil, he'd variously insist, but reason and political power of the huge generations would prevail, especially among aging women.

Predicting an "elder insurgency," Ted told me in an interview that he fully expected the United States to see a national rebellion of the old that would begin with "women in their 50s who are getting stuck with eldercare for no money," as well as with little help and few ways to cover the often-crushing costs of such care. Too few Americans still understand that Medicare does not help much with long-term care, the kind most crucial for an aging nation.

More broadly, Ted showed that our extended lives will yield a smaller society. (He scoffed at the idea of a population bomb, a notion he could show belied by both the new longevity and shrinking fertility rates worldwide.) The elder culture would demand more opportunities for work--purposeful, contributive endeavors for all, long into years once consigned to a rocking chair. He noted past societies that had grown older, always becoming more affluent and with greater gender equality.

Longevity and America's Wealth

"Visionary" is a word that finds its way into laudatory tributes all too often. I've had it shine on me, basking for a moment, I then got realistic and took note of the true light of actual seers like Ted Roszak. Ted was prescient because his foresight was firmly grounded both in his knowledge and grasp of social history and in his instinctive humanism. He was convinced that any achievement of technology or societal organization is only meaningful to the extent that it, for better or worse, affects human beings and our condition directly.

In Elder Culture, Ted revisits a lost memory of the 1960s, events going on behind the tumult and headlines. A dominant theme of that time among the smart and powerful, both on the left and right, was that all Americans could most benefit from its vast post-war wealth. He describes how, in 1962, a Ford Foundation think-tank assembled some of the nation's finest thinkers at a conference in Washington, D.C., to outline a Triple Revolution. It would reconcile the issues of war, racial justice and automation (what we now loosely refer to as technology).

Major thought leaders of that time theorized about how to apply the country's great affluence to free every citizen from the restrictive bonds between jobs and income. They felt the nation held the resources to end poverty and free the U.S. population to pursue happiness in ways that would surely realize greater purpose and productivity across the land.

The idea was so palpable that in 1964, even Milton Friedman, on his way to becoming a Nobelist and the father of modern free-market economics, agreed that America should spread the wealth. That year, Friedman, who was the chief economic adviser to GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, proposed the negative income tax. True to the Republican mold, there would be no spending on social programs, as others wanted, but the IRS would provide income to those whose earnings fell below a certain level.

"Abuse, Scamming and Banditry"

So what happened? The ensuing years brought, among other developments, the drain of war, Watergate and the Reagan Revolution. Meanwhile, the wealth of our nation grew--and shifted upward. As others have noted recently, whereas as the richest one percent of Americans collected eight percent of all U.S. income in 1970, the super-rich consumed triple that proportion, or 23.5 percent of national earnings in 2010.

Of the current mess we're in, Ted commented in a print and video interview that I did two years ago:

You know," he told me, "this whole economic crisis is a kind of perverse measure of how rich we are. It's been filled with abuse and scamming and banditry. What we're going through is not like the sort of economic crisis people in Somalia might go through. They are authentically poor." In Elder Culture he appeals to boomers to revive the discussion about America's astronomical wealth, "when we thought we could provide a decent standard of living and health for everybody.

Ted attacked the hegemony of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a "meaningless statistic" wielded as the principle lever of America's misallocation of its resources. Oddly, for instance, he wrote that health care appears in the GDP as a liability, not an asset. "If a mechanic repairs a mangled car," he remarked, "that is a positive item on the balance sheet; if a physician repairs a broken body, that is a negative item."

"What our economics lack," he wrote in Elder Culture, is an index for life and health."

To counter the GDP and the gross obsession with budgets, Ted recommended the creation of the National Life Expectancy quotient. The NLE, he wrote, would be "a simple number that elder power may one day enshrine in our political life." Where the measure was shown to improve, he explained, the nation could say "true wealth is being created." Conversely, he went on, "where the NLE is failing, there is no other indicator that would let such a society qualify as economically successful."

Can anyone now watching the stock market push toward 13,000 -- while Democratic leaders negotiate with the GOP over how much "pain" vulnerable America must "share" to balance government budgets -- seriously doubt that narrow GDP group-think and related "bottom lines" are failing us and our future? Anyone, that is, except those benefiting directly or politically, such as by turning a blind eye to the transgressions.

President Obama's press conference Monday (July 11), offered a dismaying distortion of "compromise" to get things done. Ted wouldn't have been surprised, just irate. His seeming evenhandedness would actually compromise the integrity of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But that's for another discussion.

The Soul of Systems

In Elder Culture, Ted wrote:

When we debate social institutions and programs, almost inevitably we get caught up in administrative technicalities and budgetary minutiae. How will the program be run? How much will it cost? Who will pay? Distracted by these details, it is easy to overlook the fact that every system has a moral core - a soul that animates its daily life. Even when we devise institutions by way of confused debate, somewhere inside that debate there are ethical commitments that derive, not from research or statistical analysis, but from living experience.

Ted Roszak reminded anyone who would listen that bottom lines are soulless unless they give us life lines. His vision for us was beyond the moon, while his values were solidly planted in our unfettered human potential to make everyone count, of any color, age or social background.

 

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