Blame the Boomers?

In a review of Helen Andrews’ Boomers, Barton Swaim writes,

“The theme that connects all these seeming digressions,” Ms. Andrews writes, “is . . . the essence of boomerness, which sometimes manifests itself as hypocrisy and other times just as irony: they tried to liberate us, and instead of freedom they left behind chaos.” I’m not convinced that this theme, if that’s what it is, sufficiently connects all the discursive wanderings in these essays; you sometimes get the sense that Ms. Andrews wants to bring up a few points of irritation before she takes leave of the subject. But I don’t complain—she’s worth following.

Each essay in the book has a central Boomer character, such as Steve Jobs or Camille Paglia or Aaron Sorkin. My thoughts:

1. The only character I ever knew personally was Jeff Sachs. When we were in our twenties, he seemed like a great guy. Since then, we have not interacted, and I have not followed him closely. I respect him for not kowtowing to the “in crowd” of Fischer/Blanchard/Bernanke/Yellin and company, but I disagree with a number of his positions on issues. I get the sense that he has not handled fame well, and Andrews dwells on anecdotes that reinforce that impression. But in this Tyler Cowen conversation, I see mostly the Jeff Sachs I knew and little or nothing of the jerk.

2. I think that Andrews is more on target than Swaim gives her credit for. The common element in the Boomers she portrays, and in our generation as a whole, is self-aggrandizement.

The pre-Boomers might be symbolized by Dwight Eisenhower. He was self-effacing. When he was given a major challenge, he succeeded at it. And as President, he undertook the Interstate Highway System, which achieved its goals, rather than the War on Poverty or the invasion of Iraq, or Obamacare, which did not.

The Boomers portrayed by Andrews are gifted at self-promotion. They make grandiose promises to make the world better, and they undertake projects that have results that are mixed, at best. Andrews assiduously reminds us of the adverse consequences of some of Sachs’ economic advice, of Paglia’s celebration of pornography, of Aaron Sorkin’s glamorization of White House aides, etc.

Swaim notes that Jobs accomplished a lot. But Jobs and the other pioneers and the computer and the Internet set goals that were more grandiose than coming up with products. They wanted to achieve a social revolution that gave more power to ordinary individuals. The failure of that project is evident in the popularity of the phrase “tech oligarchs.”

Martin Gurri writes,

We need elites who can stand straight in the digital storm and exploit the institutional stage to build and grow rather than strut and self-promote.

He is hopeful that the younger generation will be better at this than the Boomers. Andrews is pessimistic about that. So am I.