E. Gordon Gee, the president of The Ohio State University, says that public colleges and universities need to devise a new business model to pay for the costs of education, beyond sticking students with higher tuition and greater debt.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — In a wood-paneled office lined with books, sports memorabilia and framed posters (including John Belushi in “Animal House”), E. Gordon Gee, the president of, keeps a framed quotation that reads, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
Mr. Gee, who is often identified with a big salary and spendthrift ways, says he has taken the quotation to heart, and he is now trying to persuade Ohio State’s vast bureaucracy, and the broader world of academia, to do the same.
At a time of diminished state funding for higher education and uncertain federal dollars, Mr. Gee says that public colleges and universities need to devise a new business model to pay for the costs of education, beyond sticking students with higher tuition and greater debt.
“The notion that universities can do business the very same way has to stop,” said Mr. Gee, who is also the chairman of a commission studying college attainment, including the impact of student debt.
College presidents across the country are confronting the same realization, trying to manage their institutions with fewer state dollars without sacrificing quality or all-important academic rankings. Tuition increases had been a relatively easy fix but now — with the balance of student debt topping $1 trillion and an increasing number of borrowers struggling to pay — some administrators acknowledge that they cannot keep putting the financial onus on students and their families.
Increasingly, they are looking for other ways to pay for education, stepping up private fund-raising, privatizing services, cutting staff, eliminating departments — even saving millions of dollars by standardizing things like expense forms.
And Wall Street is watching.
Moody’s Investors Service, in a report earlier this year, said it had a favorable outlook for the nation’s most elite private colleges and large state institutions, those with the “strongest market positions” that had multiple ways to generate revenue. Ohio State, for instance, received a stable outlook from Moody’s last fall, though the report cautioned about the school’s debt and reliance on its medical center for revenue.
Click on this photo to see an interactive chart on how student debt has grown at public and private schools since 2004.
But Moody’s issued a negative outlook for a majority of colleges and universities heavily dependent on tuition and state revenue.
“Tuition levels are at a tipping point,” Moody’s wrote, adding later, “We anticipate an ongoing bifurcation of student demand favoring the highest quality and most affordable higher education options.”
Colleges can be top-heavy with administrators and woefully inefficient, some critics say, and some have only recently taken a harder look at ways to streamline their operations.
“Schools are very good at adding new things, new programs,” said Sherideen S. Stoll, vice president for finance and administration at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “We are not so good at looking at things we have been doing for 20 or 30 years and saying, ‘Should we be offering those academic programs?’ ”
At Bowling Green, 62 percent of graduates have debt that averages $31,515, the highest among Ohio public universities that publish the data. In addition to raising tuition, which has been limited by state-mandated caps, the university has laid off employees, encouraged early retirements, required unpaid furloughs and limited pay increases, Ms. Stoll said. The belt-tightening hasn’t yet reached the point that academic quality has suffered, she said, but Bowling Green may not be able to offer as much in the future.
“We’ve done everything and anything to try to operate much more efficiently,” she said.
The problems aren’t confined to public colleges. Administrators at some nonprofit private institutions said they too had come to realize they could not keep raising tuition and fees. Families have become more price-sensitive since the economic collapse and are seeking deeper discounts on the sticker price.
“We know the model is not sustainable,” said Lawrence T. Lesick, vice president for enrollment management at Ohio Northern University. “Schools are going to have to show the value proposition. Those that don’t aren’t going to be around.”
Read entire story from NYT HERE.
Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, weekly columnist for the Sunday Times of London, brought his hugely popular blog, The Dish, to the Daily Beast in 2011. He’s the author of several books, including “Virtually Normal,” “Love Undetectable,” and “The Conservative Soul.” This is an excerpt from his article on the Church and his idea that the Church is in crisis. His point: Forget the Church and follow Jesus. His views will excite you or make you mad, but it is a thought-provoking read that many of us need to consider and digest.
Read the full article HERE.
When we think of Thomas Jefferson as the great architect ofthe separation of church and state, this, perhaps, was what he meant by “church”: the purest, simplest, apolitical Christianity, purged of the agendas of those who had sought to use Jesus to advance their own power decades and centuries after Jesus’ death. If Jefferson’s greatest political legacy was the Declaration of Independence, this pure, precious moral teaching was his religious legacy. “I am a real Christian,” Jefferson insisted against the fundamentalists and clerics of his time. “That is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.
What were those doctrines? Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations. Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made.
Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them.
Whether or not you believe, as I do, in Jesus’ divinity and resurrection—and in the importance of celebrating both on Easter Sunday—Jefferson’s point is crucially important. Because it was Jesus’ point. What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand? What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself? If we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be—rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was—he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely.
Christianity itself is in crisis. It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial—or that most Catholics, even regular churchgoers, have tuned out the hierarchy in embarrassment or disgust. Given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert.
The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been? That’s why polls show a huge majority of Americans still believing in a Higher Power. But the need for new questioning—of Christian institutions as well as ideas and priorities—is as real as the crisis is deep. And more intensely relevant to our times.
Jefferson’s vision of a simpler, purer, apolitical Christianity couldn’t be further from the 21st-century American reality. We inhabit a polity now saturated with religion. On one side, the Republican base is made up of evangelical Protestants who believe that religion must consume and influence every aspect of public life. On the other side, the last Democratic primary had candidates profess their faith in public forums, and more recently President Obama appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast, invoking Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care. The crisis of Christianity is perhaps best captured in the new meaning of the word “secular.” It once meant belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics; it now means, for many, simply atheism. The ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes
I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world. But I do know it won’t happen by even more furious denunciations of others, by focusing on politics rather than prayer, by concerning ourselves with the sex lives and heretical thoughts of others rather than with the constant struggle to liberate ourselves from what keeps us from God. What Jefferson saw in Jesus of Nazareth was utterly compatible with reason and with the future; what Saint Francis trusted in was the simple, terrifying love of God for Creation itself. That never ends.
This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever.
It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere—from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change. But the essence of this change has been with us, and defining our own civilization, for two millennia. And one day soon, when politics and doctrine and pride recede, it will rise again.
About 30% of American adults have four-year college degrees, and there is little evidence that is a natural ceiling. Thirty years ago, the U.S. led the world in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with the equivalent of at least a two-year degree; only Canada and Israel were close. As of 2009, the U.S. lagged behind 14 other developed countries, the OECD says.
President Barack Obama has vowed to change that. “By 2020,” he has said, “America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world,” defining that broadly to include two-year degrees. He has proposed that all states require students to graduate from high school or stay in school until age 18 (as 21 states do already) and pushed successfully for increases in federal student aid.
While not every college grad does better in the job market, statistics consistently show that, on average, the more educated the worker, the better he or she fares in today’s job market. For example, 54% of high-school graduates over age 25 were working in March, the Labor Department says, while the rest were either looking for work or out of the labor force altogether. Among those with some college, 64% were working while 73% of those with a bachelor’s degree or more were working.
The problem has evolved over the past few decades. Until the mid-1970s, the share of American men and women in their late 20s with four-year college degrees rose steadily, fueled by federal student aid for veterans after World War II and Korea and a further expansion of student aid in the 1960s.
Then something changed, particularly among men. The fraction of 25- to 29-year-old men who had earned four-year degrees began a two-decade-long slide around 1975. After that, fewer young men sought refuge from the Vietnam War draft by going to college. Moreover, a decline in the size of the bonus that college graduates commanded, compared with high-school graduates, provided less reason to go to college.
More men began going to college in the early 1990s. Changes in the economy and technology as well as a shortage of educated workers pushed the wages of college grads well above those of high-school graduates. The fraction of men in their late 20s with four-year degrees has been climbing since 1994, hitting 27.8% in 2010. Despite the uptick, however, that is barely above the 27.5% reported for 1976, according to the Census Bureau.
For women, the trend is strikingly different. While male college-going fell off in the 1970s—in part because men were more likely than women to think they could get well-paid construction or factory jobs without degrees—women kept going. In 2010, 36% of women in their late 20s had earned at least a bachelor’s degree, up from 20% in 1976.
Men drag down the average, though. The net result is that a supply of educated workers is rising much more slowly than the apparent demand. Scholars blame leaks and clogs along the entire educational pipeline.
While college enrollment has risen lately—as often happens when people flee a lousy job market—completion rates are disappointing. “We’ve become very good at getting people to start college,” says Harvard’s Mr. Katz. “We are not very good at getting people through college.” About 70% of high-school graduates enroll in a two- or four-year college soon after finishing high school, but many never get a degree or any other credential. At four-year colleges, 43% of those who enrolled as freshmen in 2002 hadn’t received a degree six years later, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Mack Smith, 22, whose father has a bachelor’s degree in political science, did one semester at Southern Utah University, dropped out, joined the Marine Corps briefly, and then spent a semester at Salt Lake Community College. Today he is working at Whole Foods training new hires in the meat department. He talks about going back to college, though. “I want to be able to take my kids hunting and be able to afford a house and a car,” he says. “I’ll need more education to get a job like that.” His dad, Michael Smith, wishes his son had stuck with college. “Sometimes,” he says, “it takes kids a while to figure out what they want and then figure out how to get it.”
Lately, the rising cost of higher education has emerged as an increasingly visible obstacle to going to—and staying in—college, and the spotlight on the mountain of student debt has discouraged others.
Tuition is up, particularly at public colleges that draw the most students. Over the past 10 years, for instance, average published tuition and fees (not counting room and board) at four-year public colleges rose by 72% to $8,240 from $4,790, adjusted for inflation, according to the College Board. Sticker prices are misleading because student aid has become more bountiful. After grants as well as tax deductions and credits, the average net price rose by a much smaller sum—$1,160—to $2,490 over the decade, but that is still an 87% increase.
Governments and colleges have offered more financial aid, but the complexity of the American system—a dizzying array of grants and loans, tax deductions and scholarships—confuses and sometimes scares off some potential college-goers, says University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarski.
Today, student debt outstanding now exceeds Americans’ total credit-card debt. In 2009-10, about 55% of public four-year college students graduated with debt; on average, they owed $22,000, the College Board says.
Alex Gavic, 21, is one of those who don’t want to take on college debt. As a teenager, he had fleeting thoughts of studying marine biology in college. Instead, he dropped out of high school—eventually receiving a high-school diploma in a second-chance program at a community college. Today, he makes $12 an hour at a Park City, Utah, landscaping firm during the summer so he can snowboard daily during the winter.
“The greater society told me I had to go to college if I want to make it in life, but it’s not true,” said Mr. Gavic, who competes semiprofessionally in snowboarding. “I don’t care about making a lot of money because I’m happy. I’m just living the life.”
Mr. Gavic said he hopes to have his own landscaping business one day. But in the meantime, he doesn’t envy his peers who went to college, many of whom have loans to repay and still haven’t found jobs.
“You spend all this time in school, then you are in debt, then you have to find a job to spend 20 years paying it back,” he said. “That never made sense to me.”
Throughout American history, almost every generation has had substantially more education than that of its parents.
That is no longer true.
When baby boomers born in 1955 reached age 30, they had about two years more schooling than their parents, according to Harvard University economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, who have calculated the average years of schooling for native-born Americans back to 1876. In contrast, when Americans born in 1980 turned 30 in 2010, they averaged about eight months more schooling than their parents.
This development already has broad ramifications across the U.S. job market: Those with only a high-school diploma had an 8% unemployment rate in March, roughly double that of college graduates, who had a 4.2% unemployment rate. Workers with bachelor’s degrees earn 45% more in wages on average than those of demographically similar high-school graduates. And in today’s highly automated factories, many manufacturers demand the equivalent of a community-college degree, even for entry level workers.
More serious consequences may be felt in the future. Without better educated Americans, economists say, the U.S. won’t be able to maintain high-wage jobs and rising living standards in a competitive global economy. Increasingly, the goods and services in which the U.S. has an edge rely more on the minds of American workers—than on their muscle. “The wealth of nations is no longer in resources. It’s no longer in physical capital. It’s in human capital,” says Ms. Goldin.
The reasons American education levels are no longer increasing as they once did are numerous: Despite years of effort, high-school dropout rates remain stubbornly high. College tuition is rising and the prospect of shouldering heavy debt discourages some high-school graduates from enrolling in college or sticking with it.
There is also growing skepticism among some Americans about whether a college degree actually translates into a well-paying job. Particularly during the recent recession, there have been gluts of college graduates in some industries and shortages in others.
Extending the extra-low interest rate on student loans has become a hot issue in the presidential campaign, but the impact of such a proposal would be small, some academics and economists say. For instance, the typical worker with a bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering earned $120,000 a year and those with a degree in math and computer science earned $98,000, according to 2010 census data analyzed by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In contrast, the median worker with a degree in counseling psychology earned just $29,000 and those with degrees in early childhood education earned $36,000.
“Not all bachelor’s degrees are the same,” Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce said in an extensive analysis issued last year. “While going to college is undoubtedly a wise decision, what you take while you’re there matters a lot, too.”
Mary Brown, 25, of Woodland Hills, Calif., saw friends who finished college with massive debts and were unable to find jobs in their fields, if at all. She took a different approach, earning an associate degree and a certificate in massage therapy from Anthem Career College in Nashville, Tenn. “I wanted a college that taught me how to do the work, but didn’t make me pay to take a lot of other classes in subjects that are irrelevant to my career,” she says.
In contrast, her mother, Irena Tolliver, has a bachelor’s in elementary education and a master’s in reading education. When Ms. Tolliver was growing up, her parents, Belarussian immigrants, told her to “take advantage of the great educational resources that were available,” Ms. Tolliver recalls. “That’s what America was all about to them.” But Ms. Brown feels differently. After graduating, she landed a $20-an-hour job at a Rockford, Ill., spa, then moved to California but was unable to find a massage-therapy job. So she recently moved back to Illinois. All but about $5,000 of the $21,000 she borrowed for her 18-month program has been paid back. “I was working in a career I loved, making a pretty good living, while a lot of my friends were in college and not loving it so much,” she says. “Now they are facing tons of debt and I don’t have to worry about that.”
Ms. Brown isn’t unique. Among Americans who turned 25 in the 1970s, only 5% had less education than the parent of the same sex, according to an analysis by Michael Hout and Alexander Janus, sociologists at the University of California, Berkeley. Among those who turned 25 in the 2000s, 18% of men and 13% of women had fewer years of school than their parents.
There is a limit to how much schooling a person can get and to how many Americans have both the ability and interest in a four-year college degree. But the U.S. is nowhere near that point. Twenty countries have higher high-school graduation rates than the U.S.—including Slovenia, Finland, Japan, the U.K. and South Korea, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In the U.S., about one in five ninth-graders drop out before getting a diploma.
From the Wall Street Jourmal
The rest of the Esquire article; full story HERE.
Only 58 percent of Boomers have more than $25,000 put aside for retirement, so the rest will either starve or the government will have to pay for them. But the government’s future ability to pay is decreasing rapidly precisely because the Boomers splurged so heavily during the Bush and Clinton years. Public debt per person in the United States currently stands at $33,777. George W. Bush inherited a public-debt-to-GDP ratio of 32.5 percent and brought it up to 54.1 percent during a period of economic growth. (The money borrowed from the future paid for massive tax cuts, with no serious reductions in domestic spending, two expensive wars, and a prescription-drug benefit added to Medicare.) Under Obama, the debt-to-GDP ratio has risen to 67.7 percent and is projected to rise to 74.2 percent this year.
This is no conspiracy; no nefarious backroom deal by political and corporate overlords. The impasse of the moment is, tragically, the result of the best aspects of the Boomers’ spirit. The native optimism that emerged out of the explosively creative postwar world led them to believe that growth would go on forever; that peace and prosperity were the natural state of things. Their good intentions seem like willful naivete today, but the intentions were genuine. Clinton actually believed that globalization would export the First World rather than bring the Third World home; it did both. The prescription-drug benefit was the “compassion” in compassionate conservatism. All those tax cuts were intended to liberate opportunities, not destroy them.
Cynicism rises to fill the emptied space of exaggerated and failed hope. It’s all simple math. If you follow the money rather than the blather, it’s clear that the American system is a bipartisan fusion of economic models broken down along generational lines: unaffordable Greek-style socialism for the old, virulently purified capitalism for the young. Both political parties have agreed to this arrangement: The Boomers and older will be taken care of. Everybody younger will be on their own. The German philosopher Hermann Lotze wrote in the 1870s: “One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.” It is exactly that envy toward the future that is new in our own time.
And we will not talk about any of it. We will keep mum. We will hold our tongues lest we seem ageist, lest we seem bitter, lest we seem out of touch, lest we seem pessimistic, lest we seem divisive.
Let’s say you just graduated from high school.
College, right? You have to go to college. That’s not just what your career counselor told you. That’s in the numbers. If you go to college, you’re significantly less likely to lose your job. The pay of college graduates has risen over the past twenty-five years and everybody else’s pay has declined. Which curve do you want to be on?
And yet, at the exact moment when an education has never been more necessary, education is increasingly out of reach. From 1980 on, the price of attending a four-year college has risen by 128 percent. While the price has spiked, the quality has tanked. Students at college in 2003 did two-thirds the homework that students in 1961 did. In a survey published in 2011, 45 percent of students showed no improvement in “critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing” after two years of college. You did not read that incorrectly: That’s no improvement. None. And how could the results be any different? Three decades ago, 43 percent of professors were adjuncts. Now, with colleges bloated by older, tenured professors who take up huge slices of academic budgets while teaching crumbs of courses, the vast majority of classes are taught by adjuncts. On college campuses, the supposed hotbeds of liberalism, the young are instructed primarily in the mechanics of crony capitalism.
Once you’re out of college, you’ll have to intern. Again, no choice. The practice of not paying young people for their labor has become so ingrained in the everyday practice of American business that we’ve forgotten how bizarre and recent the development is. In the early 1980s, 3 percent of college grads had had an internship. By 2006, 84 percent had done at least one. Multiple internships are common. According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than 75 percent of employers prefer students who have interned or had a similar working experience.
Employers have feasted on despair — and these aren’t internships for struggling small presses or rarefied design companies. Subsidiaries of General Electric, a company worth $200 billion, employ them regularly as an “important recruiting tool.” Disney uses eight thousand of them in dismal working conditions. Jennifer Lopez Enterprises uses them. So does The Daily Show. So does the pope. And because internship programs are sheltered from the violation of labor laws by the complicity of universities that give students “credit” for them — as long as the students pay thousands of dollars for those credits — American companies can operate these programs for the most part hidden from scrutiny. The best study of intern life in America found that companies save annually around $2 billion from pseudo-employment.
But maybe you’re an overachiever — instead of interning, you want to get a master’s or a professional degree. With entry to the professions comes another opportunity to be taken advantage of, and it’s not just the inherently ridiculous price of a creative-writing M.F.A. or journalism school, where on some level, everybody understands the students are being played for suckers. The cost of medical school has spiked over the past three decades. In 1981, average medical-school debt was less than $20,000. Today it is $158,000. Law-school tuition rose 317 percent between 1989 and 2009 while American laws schools wildly increased the number of lawyers they graduate. Naturally, a glut of lawyers decreases their value. So kids pay more for a worse education that leads to lesser prospects in order for the schools to prosper temporarily. Even for doctors and lawyers, an accrual of property or any rise in net worth happens much later in life than it did twenty years ago. The standard debt-repayment plan for physicians is ten years, but twenty-five is a commonly accepted option. For the new professional class today, life begins at forty. That’s not just an expression.
And if you didn’t take your high school advisor’s advice to go to college? Well, you should have listened. What goes for the white-collar young person applies even more ferociously to the blue-collar world, or what’s left of it. The nature of the generational setback for unionized labor can be summed up in a single devastating phrase: New workers will earn a “globally competitive wage.” Manufacturing jobs, having been exported to the Third World, are now returning to America at Third World rates. Newer workers at unions across the country earn ten to fifteen dollars an hour less than established workers, and the unspoken but widely reported understanding with the AFL-CIO is that the wage of these workers will not increase. In other words, Boomer workers make almost double what their young counterparts do, and will continue to do so regardless of how long a young worker stays in the same job. As one older worker in one of these bifurcated factories told The New York Times, by the time the young reach their maximum earning, their elders “won’t be here any longer to remind them of what they are missing.”
Government, academia, the professions, corporations, unions, and both political parties — all continue to mine the vulnerability of youth in service of the needs of their aging power base. Separately, each of these cases would amount to a minor scandal, but taken together they point to a broader and more significant alteration to the way of the world. From every corner of the institutional spectrum, the whole of American society has been rearranged so that the limits of vision coincide exactly with the death of the Boomers.
Nobody wants this. The Boomers did not set out to screw over their kids. The wind just seemed to blow them that way. But no matter what their motivations, a painful truth grows truer with every passing year: Through its refusal to act, the generation in power is willing to do what other generations before them would not — sell their children’s birthright for a mess of their own pottage.
Great article from Esquire; read all of it HERE. I’ll post Part Two shortly.
Twenty-five years ago young Americans had a chance.
In 1984, American breadwinners who were sixty-five and over made ten times as much as those under thirty-five. The year Obama took office, older Americans made almost forty-seven times as much as the younger generation.
This bleeding up of the national wealth is no accounting glitch, no anomalous negative bounce from the recent unemployment and mortgage crises, but rather the predictable outcome of thirty years of economic and social policy that has been rigged to serve the comfort and largesse of the old at the expense of the young.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, human potential has been consistently growing, generating greater material wealth, more education, wider opportunities — a vast and glorious liberation of human potential. In all that time, everyone, even followers of the most corrupt or most evil of ideologies, believed they were working for a better tomorrow. Not now. The angel of progress has suddenly vanished from the scene. Or rather, the angel of progress has been sent away.
Nobody ever talks about generational conflict. Who wants to bring up that the old are eating the young at the dinner table? How are you going to mention that to your boss? If you’re a politician, how are you going to tell your donors? Even the Occupy Wall Street crowd, while rejecting the modes and rhetoric and institutional support of Boomer progressives, shied away from articulating the fundamental distinction that fills their spaces with crowds: young against old.
The gerontocracy begins at the top. The 111th Congress was the oldest since the end of the Second World War, and the average age of its members has been rising steadily since 1981. The graying of Congress has obvious political ramifications, although generalizations can be deceiving. The Republican representatives tend to be younger than the Democrats, but that doesn’t mean they represent the interests of the young. The youngest senators are Tea Party members, Mike Lee from Utah and Marco Rubio from Florida (both forty). Here’s Rubio: “Americans chose a free-enterprise system designed to provide a quality of opportunity, not compel a quality of results. And that is why this is the only place in the world where you can open up a business in the spare bedroom of your home.” He is speaking to people who own homes that have empty spare bedrooms. He will not or cannot understand that the spare bedrooms of America are filling up with returning adult children, like the estimated 85 percent of college graduates who returned to their childhood beds in 2010, toting along $25,250 of debt.
David Frum, former George W. Bush speechwriter, had the guts to acknowledge that the Tea Party’s combination of expensive entitlement programs and tax cuts is something entirely different from a traditional political program: “This isn’t conservatism: It’s a going-out-of-business sale for the Baby Boom generation.” The economic motive is growing ever more naked, and has nothing to do with any principle that could be articulated by Goldwater or Reagan, or indeed with any principle at all. The political imperative is to preserve the economic cloak of unreality that the Boomers have wrapped themselves in.
Democrats may not be actively hostile to the interests of young voters, but they are too scared and weak to speak up for them. So when the Boomers and swing voters scream for fiscal discipline and the hard decisions have to be made, youth is collateral damage. Medicare and Social Security were mostly untouched in Obama’s 2012 budget. But to show he was really serious about belt tightening, relatively cheap programs that help young people like the Adolescent Family Life Program and the Career Pathways Innovation Fund were killed.
His intentions may be good — he may want to increase support for AmeriCorps — but the program shrunk last year. Three quarters of the applicants were turned away. He resisted Republican efforts to slash Pell grants by $845 per student, but then made other changes to the program that will save the government — or cost students, depending on your perspective — a projected $100 billion over ten years.
The youth vote still supports Obama, but in a chastened, conditional way. In hindsight, Obama’s 2008 campaign looks like an indulgent fantasy in which the major conflicts in life simply don’t exist. There may be no white America and no black America, no blue-state America and no red-state America, but one thing is clear: There is a young America and there is an old America, and they don’t form a community of interest. One takes from the other. The federal government spends $480 billion on Medicare and $68 billion on education. Prescription drugs: $62 billion. Head Start: $8 billion. Across the board, the money flows not to helping the young grow up, but helping the old die comfortably. According to a 2009 Brookings Institution study, “The United States spends 2.4 times as much on the elderly as on children, measured on a per capita basis, with the ratio rising to 7 to 1 if looking just at the federal budget.”
The biggest boondoggle of all is Social Security. The management of entitlement programs, already weighted heavily in favor of the older population, has a very specific terminal point that coincides neatly with the Boomers’ deaths. The 2011 report by the Social Security trustees estimates that, under its current administration, the fund will run out in 2036, so there’s just enough to get the oldest Boomers to age ninety.