Christopher Caldwell’s The Age Of Entitlement

The thesis of journalist Christopher Caldwell’s latest book is painful but simple: America’s polarization stems from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which did not just amend or augment the original American constitution, but inaugurated a “rival constitution,” that undermined and contradicted the original in key respects. “Much of what we have called ‘polarization’ or ‘incivility’ in recent years is something more grave – it is the disagreement over which of the two constitutions shall prevail: the de jure constitution of 1788, with all the traditional forms of jurisprudential legitimacy and centuries of American culture behind it; or the de facto constitution of 1964, which lacks this traditional kind of legitimacy but commands the near-unanimous endorsement of judicial elites and civic educators and the passionate allegiance of those who received it as a liberation.” The kicker, Caldwell argues, is that the American people, broadly in favor of civil rights and equality before the law, did not comprehend the scope of what had been enacted, and would not have supported its broad reach. The pattern ever since has been the same: politically unpopular positions, from busing school children of different ethnicities to far off school districts to the 2020 Bostock decision that affirmed “gender identity” as being a protected category under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, won the support of lawyers and judges and media pundits while alienating broad swaths of the American public, whose opinions – and votes – came to matter less and less.

The story begins with the post-WWII demographic explosion known to us as the Baby Boom. The birth-and-death cycle of human life plays an important part in the rise and fall of civilizations, as the old seek to transmit the wisdom of experience and tradition to a younger population equally determined to rebel and discover for themselves the varieties of life experience, but the Baby Boomers are an oddity, a demographic juggernaut sandwiched between smaller generations. As Caldwell puts it: “In the first years of the twenty-first century, there were about 80 million Baby Boomers in the United States. For a generation, they made up 37 or 38 percent of the voting population. By contrast, the generation born between 1930 and 1945 peaked at about 18 percent of the electorate.” And two conspicuous facts of American civil life make demographic size important: the vote and the dollar. “In a free-market democracy, population translates directly into political power, through votes. It translates indirectly into economic power, through market share. And it eventually translates into cultural power, because advertisers (and, less avowedly, artists) aim to titillate and flatter large audiences.” The result, Caldwell tells us, has been that “no generation was more fussed over and pandered to.”

The Age Of Entitlement is a history of the United States under the increasing sway of a generation reared on rock and roll and LSD, a generation whose major political battles – against the Vietnam War and for the Civil Rights Movement – came to define their attitude towards their government, their culture and their history. And while its title would seem to direct its ire against the political Left, whose entitlements have bequeathed to my generation unsustainable social programs and ruinous public debt, the book is at least as critical of the aptly titled “Reagan Revolution,” which Caldwell describes less as a conservative movement aimed at restoring America to its cultural and philosophical roots, and more as a Faustian bargain, a “generational truce” between the World War II generation and the Baby Boomers. It was a pact sealed by the national debt, which tripled under Reagan’s tenure, and at precisely the time when, structurally, America was best positioned to secure its financial future.

From an actuarial and from a human-capital perspective, the quarter-century after Ronald Reagan’s election should have been the easiest time to balance the budget in the history of the republic. The entirety of the vast Baby Boom generation, making up 38 percent of the population, was in its productive years. There were relatively few retirees and dependent children to tend to. The country was (until the Iraq War after 2003) at peace. It set the rules for the global economy. But since Baby Boomers were due to leave the workforce between 2010 and 2030, big obligations for Social Security and Medicare loomed. Those would go unmet.

Where did all of that money go? What was purchased with this massive public debt? It was, in Caldwell’s words, “invested in avoiding the choices that the confrontations of the 1960s had placed before the country.” That meant doing two contradictory things: funding Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, which were understood as “the institutional form into which the civil rights impulse hardened,” and buying votes from the white middle class via tax cuts. The math didn’t add up, of course, but it didn’t need to, not for Reagan and not for his voters:

By 1989, the year Reagan left office, according to an estimate by the economist Roy H. Webb of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, the government’s unfunded liabilities (mostly for Social Security, Medicare, and veterans’ benefits) had reached $4-5 trillion, and would rise exponentially if nothing were done. Nothing was done. By the time of the 2016 election, a calculation of those liabilities similar to Webb’s ran to at least $135 trillion.

Here, then, is the crux of Caldwell’s book: everyone wanted something and nobody wanted to pay for it. Or, in Caldwell’s pretty phrasing, “Civil rights was important enough that people could not be asked to wait for it, but unpopular enough that people could not be asked to pay for it.”

Ronald Reagan saved the Great Society in the same way that Franklin Roosevelt is credited by his admirers with having “saved capitalism.” That is, he tamed some of its very worst excesses and found the resources to protect his own angry voters from the consequences they would otherwise have found intolerable. That is what the tax cuts were for. Each of the two sides that emerged from the battles of the 1960s could comport itself as if it had won. There was no need to raise the taxes of a suburban entrepreneur in order to hire more civil rights enforcement officers at the Department of Education. There was no need to lease out oil-drilling rights in a national park in order to pay for an aircraft carrier. Failing to win a consensus for the revolutions of the 1960s, Washington instead bought off through tax cuts those who stood to lose from them. Americans would delude themselves for decades that there was something natural about this arrangement. It was an age of entitlement.

This indictment comes roughly halfway through the book, whose remaining chapters are a discussion of the fallout from these decisions.

The fiscal magic of the Reagan presidency drove up the debt and drove down taxes. The 1965 Hart-Celler “Immigration and Nationality Act” inaugurated a demographic transformation at least as impactful as the cultural revolution wrought by the 1960s: “In the three-and-a-half centuries between its discovery and 1965, the United States had received 43 million newcomers (including a quarter-million slaves). In the half-century that followed Hart-Celler, it would get 59 million.” Caldwell wants us to see this mass immigration and deindustrialization, with its attendant outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, as “a verdict on the pay structure that had arisen in the West by the 1970s,” one that would now favour the employer and not the worker. The bargaining power now shifted: unions collapsed, minimum wage laws were either struck down or not allowed to keep pace with inflation, long vacations and pension plans and job stability became hallmarks of a bygone era. The glut of new workers undercut the bargaining power of the native worker, and even as corporations pocketed these gains in the form of record profits, they passed the costs of increased immigration (from building new roads and schools and hospitals to offering language instruction in secondary and post-secondary institutions) onto the American worker, who was now quite literally paying for the privilege of losing his privileges.

Naturally businessmen preferred this arrangement to the old one, which had involved paying expensive benefits to an entitled, querulous, native-born, and sometimes unionized workforce. Investment bankers preferred it, too. Their decisions on what to fund and what not to fund added impetus to the transformation of the economy. Sectors in which low-wage newcomers dominated (restaurants, landscaping, construction) began to crowd out sectors in which they did not (mostly manufacturing and local retail). Now immigration was the economy.

I would add, to this list of perfidies, the explosion in the housing market, whose gains have accrued almost exclusively to the Baby Boom generation in the form of obscene valuations that often double or triple the original cost of the home, with the predictable consequence that subsequent generations are priced out of the very cities into which they were born.

The Age Of Entitlement ends in 2016, with the election of Donald Trump, and by the time the reader has gone that far through Caldwell’s narrative, the wonder isn’t that Trump was elected, but that his presidency did not occur sooner than it did. In centuries past, political and fiscal mismanagement at the scale Caldwell describes resulted in civil war or revolution. As it currently stands, the only price the Baby Boom generation will pay will be having to watch their children and grandchildren cope with the consequences of their choices.