No, As a Matter of Fact, I'm NOT Sorry
This Boomer Isn't Going to Apologize
By STEPHEN MOORE
Last weekend I attended my niece's high-school graduation from an upscale prep school in Washington, D.C. These are supposed to be events filled with joy, optimism and anticipation of great achievements. But nearly all the kids who stepped to the podium dutifully moaned about how terrified they are of America's future -- yes, even though Barack Obama, whom they all worship and adore, has brought "change they can believe in." A federal judge gave the commencement address and proceeded to denounce the sorry state of the nation that will be handed off to them. The enemy, he said, is the collective narcissism of their parents' generation -- my generation. The judge said that we baby boomers have bequeathed to the "echo boomers," "millennials," or whatever they are to be called, a legacy of "greed, global warming, and growing income inequality."
And everyone of all age groups seemed to nod in agreement. One affluent 40-something woman with lots of jewelry told me she can barely look her teenagers in the eyes, so overcome is she with shame over the miseries we have bestowed upon our children.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that graduation ceremonies have become collective airings of guilt and grief. It's now chic for boomers to apologize for their generation's crimes. It's the only thing conservatives and liberals seem to agree on. Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor of Indiana, told Butler University grads that our generation is "just plain selfish." At Grinnell College in Iowa, author Thomas Friedman compared boomers to "hungry locusts . . . eating through just about everything." Film maker Ken Burns told this year's Boston College grads that those born between 1946 and 1960 have "squandered the legacy handed to them by the generation from World War II."
I could go on, but you get the point. We partied like it was 1999, paid for it with Ponzi schemes and left the mess for our kids and grandkids to clean up. We're sorry -- so sorry.
Well, I'm not. I have two teenagers and an 8-year-old, and I can say firsthand that if boomer parents have anything for which to be sorry it's for rearing a generation of pampered kids who've been chauffeured around to soccer leagues since they were 6. This is a generation that has come to regard rising affluence as a basic human right, because that is all it has ever known -- until now. Today's high-school and college students think of iPods, designer cellphones and $599 lap tops as entitlements. They think their future should be as mapped out as unambiguously as the GPS system in their cars.
CBS News reported recently that echo boomers spend $170 billion a year -- more than most nations' GDPs -- and nearly every penny of that comes from the wallets of the very parents they now resent. My parents' generation lived in fear of getting polio; many boomers lived in fear of getting sent to the Vietnam War; this generation's notion of hardship is TiVo breaking down.
How bad can the legacy of the baby boomers really be? Let's see: We're the generation that spawned Microsoft, Intel, Apple, Google, ATMs and Gatorade. We defeated the evils of communism and delivered the world from the brink of global thermonuclear war. Now youngsters are telling pollsters that they think socialism may be better than capitalism after all. Do they expect us to apologize for winning the Cold War next?
College students gripe about the price of tuition, and it does cost way too much. But who do these 22-year-old scholars think has been footing the bill for their courses in transgender studies and Che Guevara? The echo boomers complain, rightly, that we have left them holding the federal government's $8 trillion national IOU. But try to cut government aid to colleges or raise tuitions and they act as if they have been forced to actually work for a living.
Yes, the members of this generation will inherit a lot of debts, but a much bigger storehouse of wealth will be theirs in the coming years. When I graduated from college in 1982, the net worth of America -- all our nation's assets minus all our liabilities -- was $16 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. Today, even after the meltdown in housing and stocks, the net worth of the country is $45 trillion -- a doubling after inflation. The boomers' children and their children will inherit more wealth and assets than any other in the history of the planet -- that is, unless Mr. Obama taxes it all away. So how about a little gratitude from these trust-fund babies for our multitrillion-dollar going-away gifts?
My generation is accused of being environmental criminals -- of having polluted the water and air and ruined the climate. But no generation in history has done more to clean the environment than mine. Since 1970 pollutants in the air and water have fallen sharply. Since 1960, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh have cut in half the number of days with unsafe levels of smog. The number of Americans who get sick or die from contaminants in our drinking water has plunged for 50 years straight.
Whenever kids ask me why we didn't do more to combat global warming, I explain that when I was young the "scientific consensus" warned of global cooling. Today's teenagers drive around in cars more than any previous generation. My kids have never once handed back the car keys because of some moral problem with their carbon footprint -- and I think they are fairly typical.
The most absurd complaint of all is that the health-care system has been ruined by our generation. Oh, really? Thanks to massive medical progress in the past 30 years, the chances of dying from heart disease and many types of cancer have been cut in half. We found effective treatments for AIDS within a decade. Life expectancy has risen and infant mortality fallen. That doesn't sound so "selfish" to me.
Yes, we are in a deep economic crisis today -- but it's no worse than what we boomers faced in the late 1970s after years of hyperinflation, sky-high tax rates and runaway government spending. We cursed our parents, too. But then we grew up and produced a big leap forward in health, wealth and scientific progress. Let's see what this next generation of over-educated ingrates can do.
Mr. Moore is senior economics writer for The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.
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