The day before I finished reading A Generation of Sociopaths, who should pop up to prove Bruce Cannon Gibney’s point, as if he had been paid to do so, but the notorious Joe Walsh (born 1961), former congressman and Obama denigrator. In answer to talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel’s plea for merciful health insurance, using his newborn son’s heart defect as an example, Walsh tweeted: “Sorry Jimmy Kimmel: your sad story doesn’t obligate me or anyone else to pay for somebody else’s health care.” Gibney’s essential point, thus proved, is that boomers are selfish to the core, among other failings, and as a boomer myself, I feel the “you got me” pain that we all ought to feel but so few of us do.
Gibney is about my daughter’s age – born in the late 1970s – and admits that one of his parents is a boomer. He has a wry, amusing style (“As the Boomers became Washington’s most lethal invasive species … ”) and plenty of well parsed statistics to back him up. His essential point is that by refusing to make the most basic (and fairly minimal) sacrifices to manage infrastructure, address climate change and provide decent education and healthcare, the boomers have bequeathed their children a mess of daunting proportions. Through such government programmes as social security and other entitlements, they have run up huge debts that the US government cannot pay except by, eventually, soaking the young. One of his most affecting chapters is about how failing schools feed mostly African American youth into the huge for-profit prison system. Someday, they will get out. There will be no structures in place to employ or take care of them.
The boomers have made sure that they themselves will live long and prosper, but only at the expense of their offspring. That we are skating on thin ice is no solace: “Because the problems Boomers created, from entitlements on, grow not so much in linear as exponential terms, the crisis that feels distant today will, when it comes, seem to have arrived overnight.” As one who has been raging against the American right since the election of Ronald Reagan, as someone with plenty of boomer friends who have done the same, I would like to let myself off the hook, but Gibney points out that while “not all Boomers directly participated, almost all benefited; they are, as the law would have it, jointly and severally liable”.
Gibney’s theories about how we boomers got to be sociopaths (inclined to “deceit, selfishness, imprudence, remorselessness, hostility”) are a little light: no experience of the second world war, unlike the Europeans; coddled childhoods owing to 1950s prosperity; and TV – “a training and reinforcement mechanism for deceit”, not to mention softening viewers up for ever more consumption of goods.
My own theories are based on my experience of the cold war. I think that the constant danger of nuclear annihilation and the drumbeat on TV and radio of the Soviet threat raised our fight-flight instincts so that some of us became overly cautious (me) and others overly aggressive (Dick Cheney). I also think that our parents were not “permissive”, but that they produced too many children in an era when there was nothing much for the children to do but get out of the house and into trouble – few time-consuming tasks around the house or on the farm, plus bored mothers and absent fathers, who felt a sense of despair when they compared themselves with the shiny advertisements of middle-class perfection they saw everywhere, not just on TV. This was what America had to offer – washing machines, high heels, perfect hairdos, Corn Flakes, TV dinners, patriotism and imminent destruction.
Gibney’s book includes more than 100 pages of documents and notes, and he is best at analysing the financial details of the various forms of national and environmental debt that our children and grandchildren will eventually have to pay. He slides around the obvious – to me – solution of just shooting us so that we can’t suck social security dry (I am not in favour of shooting even rats: the gun rights advocate Wayne LaPierre, born the exact day I was due in 1949, though I came six weeks early, is surely the ultimate example of this book’s sociopaths, completely indifferent as he is to the lives lost to the gun rights lobby). Yet Gibney does convince me that those of us born between 1940 and 1965 (his definition) are a drag on the future.
His last chapter concerns what can be done before it is too late. “Remediating the sociopathic Superfund site of Boomer America will be expensive,” he writes. “In money alone, the project will require $8.65 trillion soon and over $1 trillion in additional annual investment.” Then he asserts that it can be done, that the investment will pay off, that “it will be helpful to view reform as a process of manageable fiscal adjustments”. Good luck with that, and I say that with deep sincerity. As I watch my fellow boomers, Paul Ryan, Donald Trump and Mike Pence grin and fistbump at the idea of killing their fellow Americans with their newly passed health bill, I suspect that no one, not even their children, can redeem these people.
The first sociopath I actually knew, in the 1980s, was born in 1961, just like Joe Walsh. In the 80s, he was in finance. When, over dinner, I objected to off-shoring jobs and destroying unions, he said, in a sneering, Ayn Randian way: “They don’t have a right to those jobs!” He ran through his millions and is now in jail for pimping his girlfriend. I doubt he has learned a thing.
Read A Generation of Sociopaths and hope for the best. Gibney is more optimistic than those who predict an imminent third world war, than the scientists who warn of sudden climate shifts and the end of antibiotics, and even – in one sense – than the evangelicals who believe in the Rapture. He also has a better sense of humour.
• A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America is published by Hachette. To order a copy for £17.84 (RRP £20.99) go to bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian