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Greg Dennis: Is it Boomers vs. Millenials?

Has my generation of Baby Boomers screwed all the ones that came after us?
Steven Brill thinks so. And he’s at least partly right.
Brill, an attorney, journalist and entrepreneur, had a role in glamorizing the big money created by Baby Boomers. He founded the American Lawyer, a magazine that documented the astounding rise to riches of the legal profession.
Now he’s repenting.
Since the late 1970s, lawyers have gotten fat off the financial, technology, healthcare and other booming sectors they so adroitly service.
Brill’s repentance comes in the form of the book “Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall — and Those Fighting to Reverse It.” His perspective is summarized in a new cover story in Time called “How My Generation Broke America.”
Brill’s thesis is that bright Baby Boomers have built an unbudgeable meritocracy by putting core American values —the First Amendment, due process and election reform — in the selfish service of “financial and legal engineering (that) turned our economy from an engine of long-term growth and shared prosperity into a casino with only a few big winners.”
It’s a thesis worth pondering at this graduation time. As UVM, our state colleges and Middlebury College are launching another cadre of graduates, many of them will join the desperate scramble for profits, position and power.
Of course other grads will go on to benefit society by doing amazing things in nonprofits, government and small businesses. But so many others, believing wealth is the only true definition of success, will start climbing the Big Money Ladder.
Maybe JFK’s entreaty that Americans “ask what you can do for your country” is now just a song for suckers.
Brill sees an America where the protected few have figuratively and often literally fenced themselves off from the great majority, “the unprotected.”
So if healthcare costs balloon and families face bankruptcy because powerful interests used lobbying and legal maneuvers to gut even the modest reforms of Obamacare — well, that’s not a problem for the protected: The affluent folks know the best docs and can afford the best care because they’ve got great private insurance.
If Midwest cities empty out because companies shipped millions of manufacturing jobs overseas — well, the affluent long ago migrated to the coastal enclaves and high-paying jobs in tech, law, medicine and the like.
If you need an affordable place to live in a large metropolitan area — well, move to the exurbs and commute 90 minutes each way in exhaust-filled traffic. Or if your job is in Addison County, find a cheap place on the other side of the lake and drive a rusty beater across the Crown Point Bridge every day.
Aside from lawyers, lobbyists and lawmakers in the pocket of big companies, Brill points a finger at other villains. Among them:
•  Laws that weakened the power of labor unions to gain a living minimum wage, protect workers’ health insurance and provide safe working conditions;
•  Underinvestment in infrastructure and mass transit that serve lower- and middle-class families;
•  Understaffing of the IRS, as a tactic to weaken government;
•  Courts stacked with judges who too often look to protect corporate interests over those of individuals and families.
The now-well-protected winners, Brill writes, have managed “not only to preserve their bounty, but also to root themselves and their offspring in a new meritocracy-aristocracy that is more entrenched than the old-boy network.”
We’ve got a good example of that here in Addison County.
Middlebury College is much better than it used to be at striving for racial and socioeconomic diversity among students and faculty. But as it slowly evolves, it remains among the many institutions of higher education that unwittingly perpetuate the New Aristocracy.
The college gives preference to “legacy” admissions whose parents and other relatives have attended the college. And it admits a large percentage of each first-year class from students at elite public and prep schools — who know enough to apply for early decision and are confident their parents can afford $70,000 a year for a Middlebury education.
“American meritocracy has become precisely what it was invented to combat, a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations,” says Yale Law School Prof. Daniel Markovits. “Meritocracy now constitutes a modern-day aristocracy.”
We all seem fascinated by our “generations.” The Baby Boomers were begat by what Tom Brokaw called “the Greatest Generation” (though I always that it was a fatuous term used to market a book). Then came Gen X, Generation Y and now the Millennials. You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.
But it’s a little silly to put all the praise or blame on one generation.
Baby Boomers span the years between 1946 and 1964. Those born in the shadow of World War II, certainly see the world differently than those born in the shadow of the Kennedy assassination. Plus the world is too complex to be explained by when people happen to have been born.
Whatever the generational arithmetic, we’ve got even bigger problems than bringing every American under the umbrella of the protected.
To Brill’s analysis I would add the preeminent failures of the Greatest and Baby Boomer generations: We have failed to address climate change, overconsumption, sexism, a permanent war footing that finds us fighting battles around the world, and the enduring scourge of racism.
But give Brill some credit, too, for identifying part of what ails America.
And let’s not give up on Baby Boomers. We’ve got some decades left and our ideals aren’t dead. Perhaps in our later years — having seen all that our country has done for us — we will at last see more clearly what it is we can do for our country.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.

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