Sunday, July 17, 2011


This is why they pay Tom Friedman the big bucks: when he writes a column, it's usually based on a Big Idea -- in this case, the notion that what's going on in the financial crises of the United States and Greece is (as the title of his current column puts it) a "clash of generations." Freidman writes the column from Athens, and he tells us he really sees the evidence of a generational conflict:

There are a lot of things about this global debt tragedy that you can see better from here, in miniature, starting with the raw plot, which no one has described better than the Carnegie Endowment scholar David Rothkopf: "When the cold war ended, we thought we were going to have a clash of civilizations. It turns out we're having a clash of generations."

Indeed, if there is one sentiment that unites the crises in Europe and America it is a powerful sense of "baby boomers behaving badly" -- a powerful sense that the generation that came of age in the last 50 years, my generation, will be remembered most for the incredible bounty and freedom it received from its parents and the incredible debt burden and constraints it left on its kids.

It is no wonder that young Greeks reacted so harshly when their deputy prime minister, Theodoros Pangalos, referring to all the European Union loans and subsidies that propelled the Greek credit binge after 1981, said, "We ate it together" -- meaning the people and the politicians. That was true of the baby boomer generation of Greeks, now in their 50s and 60s, and the baby boomer politicians. But those just coming of age today will never get a bite. They will just get a bill. And they know it.

In case you doubt this provocative thesis -- that the young, particularly in Greece, feel betrayed by baby boomers as baby boomers -- Friedman goes on to lay out his evidence. But, um, something's a bit off about that evidence:

You can see that when you walk around Athens's central Syntagma Square, where young people now gather every evening to debate the crisis and register their protests at the future being imposed on them. The facades of banks around the square have been defaced, and flapping in the wind are two large banners. One says "IMF Employee of the Year" and has a picture of Prime Minister George Papandreou, and the other says "Goldman Sachs Employee of the Year" and pictures George Papaconstantinou, the former finance minister. (And these are the good guys, trying to fix the problem.) Nearby is a picture of a baby, saying: "Father, whose side were you on when they were selling our country?" And the more blunt: "Yield to rage," "Class war, not national war," and, finally, "Life -- not just survival" — a message that seemed filled with foreboding about what the next decade is going to be like for young Greeks.

Could it be more obvious? These young people aren't assessing blame based on age cohort -- they're assessing blamed based on class. They're angry at the rich and powerful!

The only bit of evidence that might be an indictment of boomers is the image of the baby railing against a father -- but, um, if the father is a boomer, that's got to be late-life fatherhood, no? Besides, this seems to be a future infant, looking back on this moment in Greek history. So I'd define that as a call to conscience aimed at young people who haven't had kids yet.

Now, I generally give Friedman a bit more credit than most lefty bloggers do -- he wants America to build and repair infrastructure, and to be a leader in green energy; he actually blames Republicans for intransigence, particularly on the need for new taxes. He makes that last point again here -- but he's hell-bent on fitting this into his boomers-vs.-youth framework:

That brings up another similarity between Greece and America: that the necessary may be impossible, that baby boomer politicians in the age of Twitter may not be up to addressing problems this big. The hole is too deep and power too fragmented. The only way out is by collective action -- where ruling and opposition parties unite, share the pain and take the necessary steps. But that is not happening here or in Washington. There are Eric Cantors everywhere -- reckless baby boomer politicians for whom no crisis is too serious to set aside political ambition and ideology.

Here's the problem with that analysis. The baby boom was from 1946 to 1964. Cantor is barely a boomer -- he was born in 1963. And he seems to have decided to ride the tea party bus so that he's not caught under it. Many of the real teabag absolutists are much younger. Elsewhere in today's New York Times there's a story about freshman members of Congress who don't think raising the debt ceiling is critical. Five hardcore teabagger freshmen are named. Tom Reed of New York? Born 1971. Jeff Landry of Louisiana? Born 1970. Mike Lee of Utah? Born 1971. Todd Rokita of Indiana? Born 1970. Only Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania is a boomer, and, again, only barely (born 1961).

Tom, this isn't a clash of generations -- it's a clash of ideologies. To varying degrees, America and the nations of Western Europe attempted to provide social safety nets for ordinary citizens and the opportunity for economic elites to practice reckless turbocapitalism; when the economic ship began to take on water, ordinary citizens, and only ordinary citizens, were tossed over the side, regardless of age. Economic elites were spared -- again regardless of age. That's what the protesters in Greece understand.


It's also worth pointing out that many of the people driving the crazy from the top predate the baby boom. Rupert Murdoch was born in 1931. Dick Armey of FreedomWorks was born in 1940. Charles and David Koch were born in 1935 and 1940, respectively.

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