The Three Card Monte of Generational Warfare

Posted: 07 Jan 2014 03:37 AM PST

Stock speculator Jay Gould remarked, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.” That, sports fans, is the real foundation of the generational warfare propaganda effort.

It’s being openly pushed on college campuses by billionaire and long term heavyweight Republican donor Stan Druckemiller, and is apparently being worked hard through media channels. I was surprised to see a website that has often featured cogent, articulate political analysis serve up a boomer-blaming piece that was all broad stereotypes, and a couple of tidbits presented as evidence when they were at most decoration (I’m not about to dignify it by linking to it). If anyone had tried running a similarly hate-mongering piece about blacks or gays, they would have been called out. At least this post got some pushback in comments.

We have two events happening that may simply be coincident in time in their genesis, but they are working synchronistically in a nasty way. And the driver of one is unquestionably class, not generational. I can’t get over the way young people are falling hook, line and sinker for the efforts to divert attention from the real perps, which are overwhelmingly the top wealthy and their allies and operatives, such as CEOs and C-level executives at large companies, and the large cohort of neoliberal pundits. (Not all are on board; for instance, I know a private equity firm head who loves annoying people in his industry by telling them they need to pay a ton more in taxes and donates generously to “progressive” candidates, but people like him are few in number).

The first is that a small group of audacious, visionary, committed, radical conservatives set in motion a plan in 1971 to undo the New Deal and cut social safety nets back. They did this via a concerted effort to change values and deeply inculcate pro-business thinking, to give economic “freedom” primacy over democracy, and to train lawyers to think like economists (which is at odds with foundational legal concepts like equity) and over time, pack the courts with corporate-friendly judges. The key figures of this movement and its intellectual leaders were all born well before or during the Depression: former Nixon Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell,Henry Manne (founder of the law and economics movement), and of course, Milton Friedman. Its major funders included Birchers like the Coors family (which provided a large donation to help found the Heritage Foundation in 1973) and the Koch family.

This initiative started to bear fruit quickly; 1976 was the year when you see wages starting to stagnate as corporations stopped sharing the benefits of productivity gains with workers. Key figures who helped carry this effort forward include Paul Volcker (who saw breaking the wages expectations of labor as one of the most important objects of his interest rate policy); Ronald Reagan and Randian Fed chair pick, Alan Greenspan; former Nixon Administration cabinet member and billionaire Pete Peterson, who has funded a newly 30 year campaign against Social Security; and Bob Rubin, who turned the Democratic party (and American policy generally) firmly in a neoliberal, pro-finance direction. None of them are boomers.

On the business side, another factor in the fallen standing of American workers that does not get the attention it deserves was the 1980s LBO artists. Most of them were also older (Carl Ichan, Boone Pickens, Saul Steinberg, Harold Geneen, James Goldsmith, Henry Kravis) but Michael Milken’s original issue junk bonds turbo-charged their efforts. They could initially make juicy returns simply by breaking up companies (the parts would often sell for more than the whole), getting rid of corporate fat like art collections, golf courses, and bloated head office staffs. Many companies restructured defensively.

But to keep the game going, the leverage and the squeezing of workers and suppliers increased, leading to more and more outsourcing and offshoring (which even when it worked increased operating risk). CEOs were effectively bribed by giving them hefty performance based packages if they signed up with raiders, giving other companies the excuse to implement similar deals (to retain “talent”). This was another big driver of the deteriorating standing of the middle class: less job security, which meant less bargaining power.

But weren’t the Boomers enablers? No, it was much more the wealthy across all age groups. Election results in both Reagan elections show younger people less in the Reagan camp than older cohorts, but the income is a vastly more powerful predictor: the richer you were, the greater the odds you voted for Reagan. And separately, age cohorts are not political interest groups. Is there a Gen X party or even lobby? A Millennial lobby? These cohorts don’t have unified interests and you can’t find that sort of group exercising political power in any past historical period either. You do see a lobbying group for the old, the AARP, but most people become old, eventually; this is not an organization that represents a particular birth year cohort.

Now we’ve had periodic enclosure efforts where entrepreneurs seek to strip ordinary people of economic rights, such as access to pastureland; they result in the early years of the Industrial Revolution was nearly two generation of falling living standards for ordinary people in England.

But we have a second factor at work, which is incipient collapse dynamics. For instance, various efforts to relocalize are typical of complex societies that are breaking down. The driver is the strain on planetary resources, driven by population increases compounded by rising living standards (leading to higher levels of resource consumption) in so-called developing economies.

That warning was sounded by the Club of Rome in the 1970s. It was quickly discredited because they called for catastrophe a little too early (and even though they revised their original models, their second set of forecasts didn’t undo the impression made by their first release). But again, remember that the assault on it came not just from business, but also from economists who saw it as not just encroaching on their turf but potentially fatal to their raison d’etre. The power of economists in the West is in large measure due to the Cold War: a command and control economy like Russia was seen as better at marshaling resources for war. Soviet Russia had managed the impressive task of industrializing in the 20th Century.

So the economists’ promise of helping structure a free enterprise system to be productive enough to compete with the Communist bloc gave them a seat at the policy table. They were reflexively hostile to an anti-growth message (and that’s before you get into deeply entrenched societal pressures to have children; I can’t tell you how many of my female peers report being harassed by their parents for delaying becoming parents themselves. My parents weren’t like that, but I’d sometimes get it from parents of my college friends when I’d tell them I had no interest in having kids. I recall one aristocratic, well-groomed woman looking at me, completely stunned, and then sputtering, “But it’s your duty.” And men are similarly pressured to at least be married, albeit in less heavy-handed ways; my sense is it is more peer group driven than parental).

So we have two sources of considerable economic and political pressure converging: one a long arc of the Industrial Revolution reaching its limits and placing dangerous strains on the planet, and the second an overt finance-led class war in the US and other advanced economies.

Societally, turning the oil tanker of our global economy would be enormously difficult, even if there was consensus that that needed to be done. But there are too many who are in denial about the urgency of the task.

And we have more immediate political/social pressures in the US, due to the success of the campaign to put control of the country in the hands of the top wealthy, who unfortunately have come to believe their R and for the most part are sorely wanting in the sense of noblesse oblige that constrained the behavior of the upper classes in the past.

Needless to say, this is an extremely depressing outlook and particularly disheartening for the young. But they need to identify the right targets if they are to have any hope of changing this picture. They have no hope of winning on their own, which is why turning them against their allies in other age cohorts is such a promising exercise for the people on top of the heap. Sadly, they’ve been able to manipulate ordinary people to act against their interests for forty years. They look to be succeeding yet again.


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