Generation Greed Wants to Use Up the Future and Dictate it Too

Last March featured one of the angriest opinion pieces I have ever read in Planning magazine. The subject was the Republican House Transportation bill, which seeks to eliminate dedicated funding for mass transit and other alternative modes while increasing funding for highways. This would restore the situation before the arrival of pro-choice Ronald Reagan, when the cities were taxed (in many cases into oblivion) to build infrastructure for growing suburbs, in a development pattern the free market would not have chosen. My interest in the article is not based on the specific issue – frankly given the damage it had done I wouldn’t mind if all federal infrastructure spending was eliminated, and everyone had to pay for their own. It is based on the “big picture” discussion at the end.

“Budgets allocate resources, demonstrate priorities, and determine winners and losers in any society. So where does this leave those who are now choosing different options when they are provided by the market? The Gen Xers and the Millennials are making very different choices than their parents or grandparents. Their brand loyalty is up for grabs. And that frightens the dumb growth industries that now seek to tilt the playing field back in their favor.” Aha. And guess what, aside from the one percent and future retired public employees, Gen Xers are poorer than Boomers, and Millenials are poorer than Gen Xers. And they are being forced to pay more for less government to offset the greed of the generations who went before, and control the government. They can’t afford the lifestyle older generations had chosen any more than the older generations could, which is why older generations made younger generations pay for it. You’d think older generations would leave them alone to get by as best they can. But no.

“Thus,” according to the article, “we see screeds that are antitransit, against mixed use developments, and really antidensity. Writers and talking heads are generously funded by ideological think tanks, and they seek to enlist the support of those disaffected with government in general and social engineering in particular. Forget the fact that highway funding and those deductions for second homes in vulnerable locations are just two examples of ongoing social engineering efforts on an enormous scale. Those programs tell people where to live and how government will support them.”

The fact that the anti-transit screeds are generally composed by “pro-free market” Republicans just adds to the irony. These same people would probably hold that the pay granted by Boards of Directors to top executives is the result of free market competition and tough negotiating, with the Boards seeking to minimize costs they way executives do for other workers when they outsource work to low wage countries. And that the wealth piled up by the wealthy is something other than the flip side of all the excess public and private debt in the economy, debt that allowed – for a time – most Americans to spend more even as they gradually earned less.

“The sprawl industries do not want to lose any market share to the reemerging industries that build transit and mixed use developments. In the 1950s, while automobile use and new suburban detached housing were being encouraged by government policies, people still could choose transportation and convenient, denser housing left from earlier development. Today, many of those once common choices no longer exist.”

And the social and economic collapse of most municipalities with “denser housing left over from earlier development” is why those that survived have become so expensive that few people can afford them. When I purchased a rowhouse in Brooklyn in 1994, its price was similar to the price of a similar house in further out Queens, and a Levitt house out on the South Shore of Nassau County. Twenty years before that this Brooklyn neighborhood was redlined, and people were fleeing to the suburbs in droves. But now the suburbs are aging, and their relative prices is falling. Meanwhile, who the heck can afford what is being paid for rowhouses in my neighborhood today without consigning themselves to a life of house poverty?

“The lobbyists, now with the support of the House, are moving to support their industries and to destroy government programs that support choices. That's the reaction to the brand allegiance of new households that is shifting in a way that hasn't been seen since the days of the great farm-to-city migration of a century ago and the great city-to-suburb migration following World War II. Those who support more and more choices for Americans — still including single-family, detached homes, transportation options, and private automobiles — need to wake up and recognize that this very idea of choices is under attack.”

And not just with regard to development patterns.

What is happening is that politics is lagging markets, with Generation Greed trying to use the former to prevent those coming after from having choices in the latter. So they can sell their suburban homes for excess prices to younger people who are earning less than they did (inflation-adjusted) at a similar age, and use the profits to retire to Florida and take cruises.

This was never more clear that at dueling rallies for and against the Prospect Park West bike lane a couple of years back.

Everyone against the bike lane was over 50. They wanted all 13 moving and parking lanes on 7th Avenue, 8th Avenue and Prospect Park West in Park Slope to be available primarily to those who drive, with cyclists permitted to use some of the space only if they were willing to accept a high risk of being killed motor vehicles. A risk that kept the number of bicycles, particularly bicycles ridden by women, children, and seniors down through fear.

Those for the bike lane came from all age groups. They wanted one of the 13 lanes to be used for a protected lane for bikes. And they were the vast, vast majority on that day, a year or so ago.

Now go back in time 25 years, and hold imaginary competing rallies on the same subject with the same people. Most of those in favor of the bike lane are no longer there. They aren’t adults, or perhaps aren’t born, or aren’t paying attention to issues like these. Those who get around by driving, and don’t feel any need to share space with those who do not, are the majority — even in Brooklyn. They may still be the majority among those over 50. But in the 2010s, with all those younger included as well, they are the minority. Those supporting the younger people’s choice, which was their own minority choice in the past, are now in the majority.

Neither politics nor the free market, however, adds things up this way.

In politics we have government of, by and for the seniors who took over years ago and stay in place through perpetual incumbency. Among Democrats. Among Republicans. It is only those older who matter – those 55 and over based on various plans to further enhance federal old age benefits for those older while taking them away from those younger, who will then face deprivation in old age without them.

What the majority of those older seem to want is big government for themselves, with small government taxes, paid back by even smaller government for those coming after. You see it at every level of government, on every issue. The young are having public services and benefits taken away, including mass transit, affordable higher education, and quality elementary and secondary education. Their taxes – taxes on work as opposed to wealth and retirement – are going up. And if they enter what used to be called public service, they’ll pay more into pension funds for less valuable pensions, to make up for the pension enrichments Generation Greed voted for itself.

Those over 55 who actually care about their children, their grandchildren, and the future of their country and community are a minority among Generation Greed. That minority has been unable or unwilling to call out the majority, join with those coming after, and form a new majority, the way they did on the bike lane protests. And many of those coming after are fooled the relentless propaganda.

In politics, younger generations don’t matter. In the marketplace, however, it is older people who no longer matter. Because their choices have been made, and cannot affect the future direction of things on the margin. The suburban houses they live in have already been built and bought, and with the housing bubble over they are less likely to buy two or three. Development will go where younger generations choose to live, and jobs will go were the educated workforce chooses to work. And no additional motor vehicle production capacity is required to accommodate their one vehicle per adult lifestyle, because that capacity was already in place. In fact, with younger generations owning fewer vehicles, that capacity needs to shrink.

Younger people, on average and the vast majority of them, will be poorer. Poorer when they are young. Poorer when they are middle aged. Poorer when they old. In part because those who are now older made them that way, and will collectively leave behind debts and burdens when they are gone that will outweigh their legacy benefits and endowments – unlike virtually all prior generations in U.S. history. Some will leave personal legacies to their own children that will outweigh this collective disadvantage, but most will not.

Those in younger generations will have to adjust. Adjust to lower inflation-adjusted incomes, thanks to the one percent. Adjust to sharing the world’s natural resources with people in other countries who have become better off and can bid higher for them with more valuable currencies. Adjust to the loss of public education, as money goes to the early retired as well, thanks the unions. Adjust to facing old age without Social Security and Medicare, and to the loss of employer- or government-provided health insurance, thanks to the Republicans and their 30 years of tax cuts and their Medicare prescription drug plan. Younger generations will be expected to save whereas those who came before borrowed. They will be expected, in much higher percentages, to put their children first, even if they have been put last themselves.

One way to adjust is to avoid having to have one motor vehicle per person over age 16. And to avoid having so many square feet of housing per person, square feet that not only requires lots of money to acquire but also lots of money to heat, cool, furnish and maintain. But that would mean older generations would be unable to sell all of their suburban houses in auto-dependent locations, unless they sell them cheap, and the “dumb growth” industries will face a smaller market – at least in the United States. Already you see articles about the housing market being “hurt” by high student loan burdens, since younger people cannot buy houses at high prices. The price at which those houses sell will determine whether younger generations can take back some of the value older generations have taken from them, by paying older generations much less for the places they will live. And perhaps reshaping some of them to additional places they want to live in, and can afford.

Politics is thus making war on both younger generations and the choices in the marketplace. It will take a long time, longer than it would in a real democracy with lots of real elections based on factual information, but politics will eventually catch up. You’d think our politicians would be thinking ahead and taking this in to account. But then again, if Generation Greed politicians thought ahead, perhaps we wouldn’t be in this mess.