June 25, 2019 at 9:12am | Jeff Hallman

The Boomers Ruined Everything

The mistakes of the past are fast creating a crisis for younger Americans.


Happy Tuesday to all. OK, this is a must read for everyone, and I share for perspectives on real estate values, as I have shared in the past...zoning has already put a limited supply to the future of housing....with more people comes more demand...and prices rise, that is what we experiencing today. The article is titled "The Baby Boomers Ruined Everything" and it is featured in The Atlantic. The Baby Boomers ruined America. That sounds like a hyperbolic claim, but it’s one way to state what I found as I tried to solve a riddle. American society is going through a strange set of shifts: Even as cultural values are in rapid flux, political institutions seem frozen in time. The average U.S. state constitution is more than 100 years old. We are in the third-longest period without a constitutional amendment in American history: The longest such period ended in the Civil War. So what’s to blame for this institutional aging?

One possibility is simply that Americans got older. The average American was 32 years old in 2000, and 37 in 2018. The retiree share of the population is booming, while birth rates are plummeting. When a society gets older, its politics change. Older voters have different interests than younger voters: Cuts to retiree-focused benefits are scarier, while long-term problems such as excessive student debt, climate change, and low birth rates are more easily ignored.  But it’s not just aging. In a variety of different areas, the Baby Boom generation created, advanced, or preserved policies that made American institutions less dynamic. In a recent report for the American Enterprise Institute, I looked at issues including housing, work rules, higher education, law enforcement, and public budgeting, and found a consistent pattern: The political ascendancy of the Boomers brought with it tightening control and stricter regulation, making it harder to succeed in America. This lack of dynamism largely hasn’t hurt Boomers, but the mistakes of the past are fast becoming a crisis for younger Americans.

There’s a debate about why this is: Some researchers say the end of formal segregation may have pushed some voters to look for informal methods of enforcing segregation. Others suggest that a change in financial returns to different classes of investment caused homeowners to become more protective of their asset values.  Today, strict land-use rules—whether framed as rules about parking, green space, height limits, neighborhood aesthetics, or historic preservation—make new construction difficult. Even as the American population has doubled since the 1940s, it has gotten more and more legally challenging to build houses. The result is that younger Americans are locked out of suitable housing. And as I’ve argued previously, when young people have to rent or live in more crowded housing, they tend to postpone the major personal events marking transformation into settled adulthood, such as marriage and childbearing. But, of course, Boomers didn’t only make rules that nudge young people out of homeownership. They also made new rules restricting young people’s employment. Laws and rules requiring workers to have special licenses, degrees, or certificates to work have proliferated over the past few decades. And while much of this rise came before Boomers were politically active, instead of reversing the trend, they extended it.

Just as tight land-use rules make existing homeowners richer by reducing how many new houses are listed on the market, strict licensing rules make existing workers richer by reducing competition in their fields. And while some industries clearly need licensing rules for health and safety reasons, most of the growth in licensure has been in fields where health and safety justifications are less salient: Do you really need hours of course work and special exams to be a florist, an interior designer, or an auctioneer?  

The most glaring example of this growth in regulation and control is also the easiest one to pin on Baby Boomers: the incredible rise in incarceration rates. Even though murder rates are today at the same levels they were in the 1950s, the imprisoned share of the population is higher in America than in any country other than North Korea. We imprison a larger share of the population than authoritarian countries such as Turkmenistan and China.
That huge spike has a very clear origin in the crime wave of the 1960s and 1970s. Academic research has shown that incarcerating more criminals does reduce crime somewhat, so, as with all the other examples I’ve given, this response was understandable.

But many countries experienced a similar crime wave. Most of them experienced similar crime declines in the 1990s, even without so much imprisonment. Furthermore, research has also shown that imprisonment patterns in America were heavily biased by race, with incarceration rates not always reflecting actual rates of criminality.

Today, while incarceration rates are edging lower, they remain astonishingly high. Even as younger Americans are locked out of jobs and housing by strict rules set by previous generations, a startlingly large share of them, especially in minority communities, are literally behind bars. Those who remain free are nonetheless bereft of family, friends, and potential co-workers—and whole communities are, as a matter of law, stripped of potential workers.
It’s understandable that, faced with a wave of crime, Baby Boomers might want to respond with a law-enforcement crackdown. But the scale of the response was disproportionate. The rush to respond to a social ill with control, with extra rules and procedures, with the commanding power of the state, has been typical of American policy making in the postwar period, and especially since the 1970s. And whatever specific arguments may have justified a command-and-control response to crime, this kind of response reared its head for every major political problem encountered by Baby Boomers: housing, jobs, education, crime, and, of course, debt.

Even young Americans today who are free from prison are nonetheless in bondage to debt—sometimes their own debt, in the form of rapidly growing student loans or personal and credit-card loans. But on a larger scale, the problems of entitlements, pensions, Social Security, Medicare, and federal, state, and local debt are becoming more severe all the time. Already, in places such as Detroit, Illinois, and Puerto Rico, where political rules make flexible solutions hard and the population is aging very quickly, massive debt restructurings loom large. But around the country, the pressures of long-term obligations will grow. Below, I show a reasonable projection of the share of national income that will have to be spent paying for these obligations in the future if there is no substantial restructuring of liabilities. It’s based on consensus forecasts from groups such as the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget for economic growth and for programs such as Social Security and Medicare where such forecasts are available—but in some cases, such as state debts and pensions, no such forecast was available, and so I developed a simple one.

Making these payments will require fiscal austerity, through either higher taxes or lower alternative spending. Younger Americans will bear the burdens of the Baby Boomer generation, whether in smaller take-home pay or more potholes and worse schools.  Furthermore, the basic demographic balance sheet is getting worse all the time, increasing the relative burden on young people. Working-age Americans are dying off in alarming numbers.
The odds of a 32-year-old dying have risen by 24 percent in the past five years, even as death rates among older Americans are about stable. Baby Boomers are living longer even as the workers who pay for their pensions are dying from an epidemic of drug overdose, suicide, car accidents, and violence. But, of course, while this sudden increase in working-age death rates is a new concern, the long-run fiscal crunch has been obvious for decades. For virtually the entire period of Boomer political dominance, it has been obvious that long-term obligations needed to be fixed. And yet, the problem has not been fixed. Younger Americans will suffer the consequences.

As dire as this all sounds, there is cause for hope. If the problem is too many senseless rules, then the solution is obvious. Strict licensure standards can be repealed. Minimum lot sizes can be reduced. Building-height ceilings can be raised. Nonviolent prisoners can have their sentences commuted. Even thorny problems such as cost control in universities can be addressed through caps on non-instructional spending, while solutions for government debt and obligations are widely known, even if they are politically unpalatable.
Not all of these problems were first caused by the Boomers, but they each worsened on their watch. If leaders in business, education, and politics want to solve these problems, they can. Whether the gerontocracy in charge today wants solutions may be another question altogether.

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