Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Candy Store Generation, Part 1: Election 2000

September and October, 2000. The presidential debates. Vice President Albert Arnold Gore Jr. vs. Governor George Walker Bush from Texas. Most of us watched them, and may remember something of the proceedings.

The backdrop was the winding down of the Clinton presidency, the last six years of which were with Republican majorities in Congress, both House and Senate--majorities large enough that Clinton could not pick off a few disgruntled Republican moderates or liberals (yes, the latter existed back then, as Rhode Islanders know too well) and get his preferred agenda passed into legislation. He had to deal with Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole then Trent Lott, who set the economic agenda. Fiscal responsibility was in, and "The era of big government [was] over."

Nearing the end of those six years, the budget was more or less balanced, and, thanks more to Congress than to the president, the Congressional Budget Office was projecting surpluses as far as could be forecast, perhaps totalling a trillion dollars over a decade. Conditions not seen for a generation--or two--or maybe three.

So the presidential debates took place amid economic good times, and a key topic was what to do with the surplus. Gore's solution: bold new social programs, and pay off the national debt in twelve years, rather than continue to roll it over (as a taxpayer who expected to be in twelve of his sixteen peak earning years during that time, I wasn't sure why I should be called on to obliterate in twelve years what a procession of Congresses created in forty), no relief for tax payers. Bush's solution: bold new social programs, coupled with tax reductions that paid lip service to the notion that the surplus would be (remember, it hadn't actually happened yet; it was just a projection) an excess of government revenue--taxes and fees--over government needs. It wasn't the government's money; it was the taxpayer's money. And the candidates were fixin' to either spend all or most of it on social programs, programs unthinkable a generation before, "rights" suddenly discovered as possible through prosperity, not endowed by God.

I was struck by the idiocy of it all, and how everyone running for office, everyone in the media, everyone around me listening to the rhetoric, lapped it all up. I saw myself in a candy store, watching those around me. Gore and Bush were children in the candy store, there with their daddies. Daddy, who came of age during a depression, was a frugal soul, and normally gave each child a few grudging pennies and told them to buy as much as he could. But on this day, as I watched, their daddies gave each of them $100 dollars and turned them loose. Children expecting Daddy to give them a few pennies when he gave the 10,000 are dangerous. They went crazy, created havoc as they purchased a full hundred dollars worth and made themselves sick on the confections.

Besides the election of Republican majorities elected in 1994, Congress changed in another way between that year and 2000. In 1981 when Ronald Reagan took office, with a Democratic House and Republican Senate, he was able to make headway toward fiscally responsible government because Congress was still composed of a majority (or at least a sizable contingent including the leadership) of "the greatest generation"--those born in the late teens, 20s, and early 30s of the 20th Century, who weathered a long depression, fought and won a world war, drove the nation to post-war prosperity, and faced their own racial prejudices and enacted public policies to offset what their bigoted hearts felt. But by 1994, the balance in Congress had begun to tip, a process more or less completed by 2000, from that generation to its progeny--the Baby Boomers, a generation raised on privilege and ease, coddled by our televisions and indiscriminately drinking words of the information age, accepting of big government--my generation.

In three additional posts (hopefully over the next three days, if the creek don't rise), I'll explore this concept of the Baby Boomers being the Candy Store Generation. This will be my thoughts, rather than extensive research. Perhaps, some day, the research will follow.


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