David Willetts and his new book The Pinch v Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist
“Forget the prophets of doom – I’m proud to be a baby boomer” says Boris Johnson
We are the most selfish, greedy, job-hogging, pension-grabbing bunch of egomaniacs history has ever seen. Here we are, in our overpriced homes and exploiting our political power to shaft the younger generation. We use our demographic throw-weight to skew the welfare system in our favour and above all we are squandering the natural resources of the planet. You know that Goya picture of the giant eating a naked human being?
That’s us, all right – Saturn devouring his children. Or at least, that is the portrait presented by my brilliant old friend and colleague David Willetts in his new book, The Pinch, which has been received with rapture by one and all. You can see his point. We baby boomers – those of us born in the great bulge of fecundity in the Fifties and Sixties – have had it easy. We are the ones whose extravagant pension entitlements must now be met by our kids.
We are the ones who hung out at university entirely at the taxpayers’ expense – and now we tell our children they must pay tuition fees. We are the ones who luxuriate in housing equity our children cannot afford, and we are the ones whose lifestyles splurged CO2, that posterity will have to pay for. We have raided the young ones’ piggy bank, says Willetts. We have mortgaged their future; we have broken the eternal Burkean contract between generations, he scolds. Is he right? As it happens – and I speak as one who has long sat at the feet of Two Brains – I think he is wrong; or at least that he tells only a tiny fraction of the story. No, I don’t think we baby boomers have anything much to feel guilty for. I don’t think we have treated the next generation badly. We haven’t ripped off our kids. Indeed, by comparison with our grandparents I would say we baby boomers have been, if anything, excessively tender-minded and absorbed in the upbringing of our little ones.
There is every chance, moreover, that by our exertions we will leave a world considerably improved on the world we found. Just as Willetts is about to become the received wisdom of the chattering classes, we are lucky to see the publication of an elegant and devastating rejoinder to all gloom-merchants everywhere, in the form of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. If you want to predict the course of the next 50 years, says Ridley, it is not unreasonable to look at the last 50.
Ridley’s key argument is that, whatever the economic difficulties of today, it is the baby-boomer technology that is delivering and will deliver incredible improvements in the standard of life of the next generation. Who gave us email and eBay? Who gave us Amazon, Starbucks, Walmart, iPod, Prozac, BlackBerry and spreadable butter you can keep in the fridge? It was the baby boomers. Who is responsible for the tolerance and openness that has helped to break down sexism, racism and homophobia? The baby boomers, that’s who. Who ensured that you can read this article either on Finnish newsprint or with electronic technology sourced from around the world? It was us baby boomers, and our doctrines of liberal market economics.
Of course David Willetts is right to draw attention to the financial and environmental problems of the world. But then Matt Ridley is even more right to show how human beings have solved those problems in the past. Yes, we still face the challenge of pollution – but then someone once predicted that horse-drawn traffic was growing at such a rate that by 1950 London’s streets would be under 10ft of manure. Where is that dung today? As Ridley says, there is no limit to our inventiveness. Solar-powered LED bulbs offer the hope of zero-carbon illumination for the 1.6 billion Africans who don’t have mains electricity. Ever since Hesiod, ever since Isaiah, human beings have loved to listen to prophets of doom and they have loved to believe that theirs is a uniquely fallen and selfish generation. I don’t believe it of the baby boomers, and in any case I am sure the next generation is well up to the challenge.
For the complete article and more news and views go to the Daily Telegraph here