Don’t Blame Boomers, Blame Their Parents

Since I’m being cranky today, I might as well stay cranky. Over at Vox, fellow boomer David Goldstein says that our generation ruined college for everyone else:

Boomers like me have pulled up the ladder behind us after being educated largely at taxpayer expense. No wonder young people have piled up more than $1.5 trillion in student debt.

Boomers need some defense here, and I’m going to do it in a time-honored way: by blaming everything on our parents. Here’s a look at tuition at the University of California over the past half century:

UC tuition was free until the late ’60s, when Gov. Ronald Reagan pressed the California legislature to impose a tuition charge. This took the form of an “educational fee,” and this is where it all started. At the time, boomers were about 18 years old on average and had nothing to do with it. Reagan was a member of the Greatest Generation, and so were most members of the legislature.

The next increase came in the early ’80s. Boomers were about 30 and still had little to do with it. The governor at the time was Jerry Brown, a member of the Silent Generation. Ditto for most of the legislature.

The next increase came in the early ’90s. The governor was Pete Wilson, another member of the Silent Generation. The legislature was younger than that, and it’s not until this point that there are finally a fair number of boomers who have to take some blame.

Long story short, the whole concept of charging tuition started with the Greatest Generation and then continued forever once they had set the example. So if you’re going to blame anyone for “pulling up the ladder,” it’s the two generations before the baby boomers, who really did get lots of government bennies and then staged a tax revolt and methodically took them away. On a national level, the modern era of limited government was a product of the Reagan era, and was created by Reagan himself (Greatest Gen) and members of Congress at the time (mostly Greatest and Silent gens). They’re the ones who cut taxes on the rich. They’re the ones who pared back Social Security. They’re the ones responsible for mass incarceration. They’re the ones who blew up antitrust law. They’re the ones who made corporate deregulation into a religion. They’re the ones who turned abortion into an endless political brawl. They’re the ones, exemplified by Alan Greenspan (b. 1926) who created the housing bubble. They’re the ones, starting with Newt Gingrich (b. 1943) and continuing all the way through Mitch McConnell (b. 1942), who transformed American politics into a bloodsport. Boomers simply didn’t have much to do with this. For most of this time, they were too young to have any serious influence.

Now, if you want to blame boomers for welfare reform, sure. Bill Clinton was (barely) a boomer. If you want to blame boomers for the Iraq War, I guess so. George Bush was (barely) a boomer—though the real force behind it was Dick Cheney (b. 1941). If you want to blame us for screwing up Obamacare, that seems sort of churlish, but whatever. Barack Obama was (barely) a boomer—though the real roadblock to a public option was Joe Lieberman (b. 1942) and his centrist pals.

But the fact is that boomers have mostly been left out of power. Not a single person born between 1947-1960 has ever been president. Clinton, Bush, and Trump were all born in 1946¹ and are only barely boomers at all.² Obama was born in 1961 and is more Gen X in outlook than boomer. The entire 1950s heart of the baby boom generation has been shut out.

In any case, it wasn’t us who took everything away from the rest of you. Blame our parents instead.

POSTSCRIPT: For the record, I don’t think that dividing people up into generations makes a lot of sense, and I don’t really blame the Greatest Gen or the Silent Gen for anything. Like all of us, they did their best and ended up with the usual mixed record of good (the Civil Rights Act) and bad (getting us into Vietnam). Ditto for boomers and Xers and millennials.

I just get tired of the whole “boomers pulled up the ladder” thing. If you’re going to play the generational blame game, at least get your generations right.

¹In fact, all three were born in the summer of 1946. What the hell was in the water in the fall of 1945?

²Although they all evaded the draft, which counts for something, I suppose.

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