As a baby boomer, I recall the 70s as the era of recognition. It was a time when most of us recognized our country as imperfect, and vowed to make it better when we took the reins. Well, the oldest boomers are now retiring and the bulk of government and business entities have been run by boomers for roughly two decades. Let's take a look at how we've done.
The biggest impression upon boomers of the late 60s and early 70s was made by war. Specifically, the Vietnam War. More than 58,000 Americans were killed during that military conflict. Have boomers stayed out of foreign wars as a result? No. We have two of them going on right now.
The 70s also brought forth gas lines. This in a nation used to massive quantities of just about everything, from food to fuel, and we were forced to adjust to the idea of scarcity for the first time. Scarce land, scarce resources, scarce oil to propel our growing affinity for larger and larger vehicles. The energy crisis was even described by President Jimmy Carter as the "moral equivalent of war." And how did we boomers solve the energy shortage? We didn't. We import more oil now than in the 70s.
The painful economic conditions during the Nixon years led to wage and price controls to snuff out runaway inflation. It didn't work; prices went up anyway. And the national debt, $475 billion in 1974, was perceived by boomers as the result of the previous generation's missteps and financial clumsiness.
So how have the boomers handled the country's finances? The national debt is now $14 trillion. Apparently "new math" taught Boomers to blithely ignore that $3.7 trillion, which is what the federal government is projected to spend this fiscal year, is significantly higher than what it will take in: $2.2 trillion. That equals a deficit of $1.5 trillion.
One of the blessings that baby boomers were able to partake of in masses -- although not always equally because of racial and economic division -- was a quality public education. But the disparities still exist, and boomers have failed to outpace other developed countries in areas like math and science. Should America be "average" in those crucial categories? To thrive, it can't be. And despite lip service given to its importance, public education has become one of the first places local governments have looked to cut funds in order to balance the budget.
So what have boomers done well? The microprocessor was invented in 1971. Four years later a couple of Harvard dropouts formed a company to write software for the microprocessor, naming the company Micro-Soft. Bill Gates and Paul Allen helped lead a wave of change in technological advancement that turned vision into reality. And boomers helped establish the Internet, which has revolutionized existing industries and is still creating new business endeavors that employ millions. Biotechnology has engineered life-saving drugs and medical advances have led to treatments that have extended lives beyond what was only dreamt of before. Indeed, if it's transformation that we baby boomers wanted, it's transformation we got in business and technology. Technological advances have truly changed the world.
There's a deduction, however, for that pesky financial near-collapse. Baby boomers jumped on the easy money bus and didn't get off until it crashed into reality, putting millions on unemployment, and forcing millions of others to endure underemployment and live in homes that are worth less than what they owe on them -- assuming they haven't lost them due to foreclosure. The entire financial system lacked the incentive -- or discipline -- to stop the craziness because virtually everyone was making money in the bubble that went un-popped for too long.
And now with a sputtering economy, Americans are looking hopefully for the "next big thing" to drive us forward. But it's not easy when the boomer government -- average age in the House, 57; in the Senate, 62 -- hasn't decided what tax rates will be, whether Medicare will be saved, how Social Security can be funded, and so on, and so on...
Instead of talking like adults, baby boomer politicians are whining like the "me generation" they are part of. The two parties continue to focus on getting reelected rather than solving challenging and enduring problems for the public good. The likelihood of elected officials properly dealing with our pressing problems appears to be in the single digits. But the likelihood of incumbent members of the House of Representatives to be reelected is, based on history, 94%.
But until the government addresses these problems, the proven power of technological development will not be unleashed in full force. Why would healthy companies commit to buying new equipment with fervor (adding to durable goods orders), expanding facilities (improving commercial real estate), or adding new employees (decreasing unemployment) when they don't even know what their tax rates are going to be or what healthcare is going to cost them? And how can individuals commit to long-term loans (to buy homes and cars) when they fear for their jobs and financial security (affecting employment, investing, and their retirement plans)? The government must act because its inaction is paralyzing our economy, financially and psychologically. And if politicians need an incentive to act, they should picture their future with American resources put back in motion.
If baby boomers have any intention of changing their legacy so that the generations that follow don't ridicule them as big talkers and underachievers, they need to address these serious issues now. It's time to put dogma and political doctrine aside. It's time for a spoiled generation to do something hard. History will show this as a defining moment.
Cut future spending, now. Increase economic activity -- and federal tax receipts -- by deciding what tax rates are going to be, getting rid of loopholes and raising taxes on those who can afford them, now. Find alternatives to oil, now. Get troops out of foreign lands, now. Apply higher standards in public education, now. Make initial decisions on Medicare and Social Security, now. It's high time for the idealism of the coming-of-age boomers to be supplanted by responsible -- and responsive -- behavior.
I'm a baby boomer too. When it's all over, I'd like to think my generation had finally grown up.