The Greediest Generation

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

May 1, 2005

As a baby boomer myself, I can be blunt: We boomers won't be remembered as the "Greatest Generation." Rather, we'll be scorned as the "Greediest Generation."

Our influence has been huge. When boomer blood raged with hormones, we staged the sexual revolution and popularized the Pill. Now, with those hormones fading, we've popularized Viagra.

As we've aged, age discrimination has become a basis for lawsuits, and the most litigated right has become the right to die. The hot issue of the moment is Social Security, and the newest entitlement program is a prescription drug benefit for the elderly.

Our slogan has gone from "free love" to "free blood pressure medicine."

But I fear that we'll be remembered mostly for grabbing resources for ourselves, in such a way that the big losers will be America's children.

Traditionally in America, the people most likely to be poor were the elderly. As recently as 1966, for example, 29 percent of Americans over 65 were below the poverty line, compared with only 18 percent of American children.

But that same year, Medicare took effect to provide medical care for the elderly, and Social Security adjustments steadily reduced poverty among them. We were suitably embarrassed that old people were eating cat food or scavenging garbage cans for food, so we reallocated resources to the elderly.

As of 2003, the share of elderly below the poverty line had fallen by two-thirds to 10 percent - representing a huge national success. Retirement in America is no longer feared as a time of destitution, but anticipated as a time of comfort and leisure.

On the other hand, the proportion of children below the poverty line is still 18 percent, the same as it was in 1966. And while almost all the elderly now have health insurance under Medicare, about 29 percent of children had no health insurance at all at some point in the last 12 months.

One measure of how children have tumbled as a priority in America is that in 1960 we ranked 12th in infant mortality among nations in the world, while now 40 nations have infant mortality rates better than ours or equal to it. We've also lost ground in child vaccinations: the United States now ranks 84th in the world for measles immunizations and 89th for polio.

With boomers about to retire, I'm afraid that national priorities will be focused even more powerfully on the elderly rather than the young - because it's the elderly who wield political clout.

"The elderly are retired, and it's easier to get them to go to rallies or write their congresspeople," notes Heather Boushey of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. "Children can't vote, don't give money and have no power, and neither do their parents."

We boomers are also preying on children in a more insidious way: We're running up their debts, both by creating new entitlement programs and by running budget deficits today. Laurence Kotlikoff, an economist and fiscal expert who with Scott Burns wrote the excellent and scary book "The Coming Generational Storm," calls this "fiscal child abuse."

The book says that the Treasury Department commissioned a study by two economists of the United States' long-term liabilities, for inclusion in the 2004 federal budget. The study found that the government faces a present value "fiscal gap" - the excess of expected payments over expected revenues - of $51 trillion. That's 11 times our official national debt and also greater than our total net worth, meaning that in some sense we're bankrupt.

Not surprisingly, the Bush administration took a look at the study, blanched, and declined to publish it.

In coming years, we'll hear appeals for better nursing homes, for more Alzheimer's research and for more wheelchair-accessible office buildings, and those are good causes. But remember that American children are almost twice as likely as the elderly to live in poverty, and that you get much more bang for the buck vaccinating a child than paying for open-heart surgery.

The solution is not to force the elderly to get by on cat food again. But we boomers need to resist the narcissistic impulse to ladle out more resources for ourselves. Our top domestic priorities should be to ensure that all children get health care and to get our fiscal house in order.

Otherwise, we boomers may earn a place in history as the worst generation.