In an interesting think piece that’s been making the rounds, Michael Hobbes argues that Millennials are “facing the scariest financial future of any generation since the Great Depression.” The piece correctly identifies five major problems with our economy:
1. The Baby Boomers have created a fiscal disaster without comparison in American history. They erected a massive entitlement system with no long-term ability to pay for it.
2. “The cost of every prerequisite of a secure existence — education, housing and health care — has inflated into the stratosphere.”
3. NIMBY zoning laws have artificially restricted the supply of housing, driving up the cost of first-time homeownership.
4. Occupational licensing has a created medieval-style guild system that prevents many high-school-educated workers from joining higher-wage trades.
5. Portable benefits would be much better than our employer-based system, where your health and disability insurances are tied to your job.
But while Hobbes is right about these symptoms, he misdiagnoses the disease. He shows a remarkable lack of curiosity about why the economy is so stacked against Millennials. Rather than hunting for answers, he reflexively blames “private equity firms, corporations, and CEOs.” He claims that we have “shredded the safety net” — ignoring the fact that we now spend more than $1 trillion a year on means-tested entitlement programs. And he even casts the obligatory stone at the “rising seas.”
To a large extent, however, the real cause of these problems is bad public policy. We voted for unsustainable entitlement programs, passed restrictive zoning and occupational-licensing laws, acquiesced to a system of employer-based health and disability insurance after WWII, and live with the quasi-state ownership of education and health care that has rendered them the two least productive sectors in our economy. Unlike the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or a polio outbreak, these are problems we have deliberately willed into existence through the legislative process.
Hobbes can’t seem to recognize these simple facts because he believes the individual is a helpless victim of incomprehensibly large, sinister forces. He writes that “understanding structural disadvantage is pretty complicated” and “we’re used to feeling helpless because for most of our lives we’ve been subject to huge forces beyond our control” and, incredibly, “Why is this all so hard?”
His solutions are similarly deluded. “Raise the minimum wage and tie it to inflation. Roll back anti-union laws to give workers more leverage against companies that treat them as if they’re disposable. Tilt the tax code away from the wealthy.” To call these ideas unimaginative would be an understatement. Essentially, he’s arguing that the remedy for the disastrous policy outcomes of the past 50 years is . . . the policies of the past 50 years!
To me — an educated, right-of-center Millennial — this is the fundamental distinction between the liberal and conservative mind. In the crudest terms, liberals believe that the individual is powerless on his own and must be protected by the state, while conservatives believe the individual is completely autonomous and self-sufficient.
Though the truth is likely somewhere between these two extremes, mine is closer to the latter view, while most Millennials lean heavily toward the former.
I believe the deeper, more difficult task is to rewire the Millennial brain. We need to replace the psychology of powerlessness, entitlement, and pessimism with a psychology of confidence, responsibility, and optimism. We can look to our grandparents, who survived the Great Depression, overcame diseases like polio, hoisted the stars-and-stripes at Iwo Jima, put a man on the moon, and built the most prosperous society the world has ever known. They were proud of what they accomplished and never complained about the hardships they had to overcome.
It’s time we took inspiration from the generations that came before us, channeling that energy into finding new solutions to our generation’s problems. I know we can rise to the occasion. And we’ll be happier and more prosperous when we do.