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Generational conflict: Neo-liberalism's new bait-and-switch ploy

The world seemed to change dramatically in 2011. On the global stage the democracy movement that started in Tunisia spread throughout the Middle East and beyond, eventually settling into tiny Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, just blocks from Wall Street. From there, Occupy Wall Street rippled out to become a global protest movement.

The Occupy movement introduced two powerful frames into public discourse, says Joe Brewer, director of Seattle-based Cognitive Policy Works. The "99 Percent" frame "evokes a maximal inequality that resonates deeply with the lived experiences of working-class people in the U.S. and around the world," he writes in a January 2012 memo, while the "Occupy" frame is action oriented and can be activated anywhere: Oakland, Congress, Democracy itself.

Together they present a robust agenda for progressive change. They also represent a serious challenge to the established order, and the elites are fighting back.

Brewer warns us to not let "the real culprits -- the reckless bankers and their enablers who have infiltrated our government -- shift blame."

But that's exactly what they and their neo-liberal foot-soldiers are trying to do.

Neo-liberalism remains the dominant global ideology because of its ability to adapt to changed circumstances. Even when neo-liberal policies result in unmitigated disasters like the 2008 meltdown, neo-liberals seem able to pick up the pieces and move on, turning failure into success. Neo-liberalism is now engaged in manufacturing a new reality, using an ambitious blame-the-victim bait-and-switch strategy.

This aggressive program is what differentiates neo-liberalism from small-government, laissez-faire capitalism. The neo-liberal utopia, as envisioned by market fundamentalists like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman and evangelized by think tanks like the Fraser Institute and Heritage Foundation, is a market-driven society which governs all social and economic transactions. Where markets don't exist, the role of government is to create them, by force if necessary, as the neoliberals did in Pinochet's Chile.

When the deregulation and greed unleashed by neo-liberalism led to the market collapse of 2008 and forced governments to spend massively to prevent total economic meltdown, corporate and political elites set out to shift the blame for the near collapse from the actions of the one percent -- who caused the collapse -- to the Boomer generation -- which had nothing to do with it. A discourse was fashioned that people nearing retirement age had skimmed off more than their fair share of wealth and borrowed till they were blue in the face, leaving scraps and mountains of debt for those under 45.

In the U.S., with its more colourful political rhetoric, the blame-the-victim strategy is labelled "generational theft." This term was first used to refer to the financial crisis by far-right blogger Michelle Malkin -- a keynote speaker at the very first Tea Party rally -- in an early 2009 post.

Malkin's target was newly-elected president Barack Obama and his massive fiscal stimulus plan. Titled the "American Recovery and Investment Act," the purpose of the legislation was to save jobs and create new ones by boosting spending in a variety of areas such as low-income workers and the unemployed, infrastructure improvements, education to prevent teacher layoffs and energy efficiency. Malkin didn't seem to think these were useful activities because they weren't market-driven, so she renamed the act "The Generational Theft Act of 2009." She saw the stimulus -- "Obama's prescription for economic pain" -- as being "useless in encouraging short-term growth, while ensuring anemic longer-term growth for the next decade (and beyond) at the expense of Obama's kids and my kids and yours." It was "more of the same old, same old mortgaging of our children's future for the sake of present political crisis management."

Malkin had deftly diverted attention from the real reason for the stimulus -- to prevent a major economic collapse because of Wall Street's greed and corruption -- to a more nebulous discussion about our children's children, many of whom had not yet been born.

Americans -- and Canadians -- were victims of horrific crimes committed by the one per cent. But Malkin transformed the victims into criminals who were prepared to rob their own grandchildren. Meanwhile the one per cent slipped out the back door. Growing inequality of income, wealth and power faded away as a subject of concern, at least for those on the right and for many in the media.

Such brilliant attention-diversion didn't go unnoticed in senior Republican ranks. Within a few weeks House Republican leader John Boehner offered that the "hundreds of billions of dollars Washington is borrowing to finance this pork-barrel monstrosity will come from our children and grandchildren. This is not 'stimulus' -- it's generational theft."

And Arizona Senator John McCain spoke about generational theft at the neoliberal Heritage Foundation a month after that. The folk at Heritage liked the idea so much they set out to write a book about it called The Debt-Paying Generation.

And when McCain's 2008 vice-presidential running mate Sarah Palin spoke to a sell-out crowd in Calgary the following year at an event sponsored by the Fraser Institute, she repeated her Tea Party message that the extent of the debt being incurred in America was "immoral generational theft."

Generational theft had arrived, the Boomers became the target and the one per cent was off the hook. You can even buy a "Generational Theft" bumper sticker thanks to the conservative CrusaderPatriot store.

The term "generational theft" hasn't come into widespread use in Canada, Palin's efforts notwithstanding. For one thing, Canadian political rhetoric is not as maniacal as American -- although Sun TV is working hard to change that -- but generational conflict did become an issue north of the border. Canada's income inequality is soaring to American levels, so the generational conflict frame had some heavy lifting to do here, too.

It appeared first in Quebec, where avowed libertarian polemicist, Sun newspaper columnist and cofounder of the Quebec Freedom Network Eric Duhaime published a book titled L'État Contre les Jeunes: Comment les Baby-Boomers ont Détourné le Système. (The State Against the Young: How Baby-Boomers are Hijacking the System).

Duhaime, who had attended various Fraser Institute student programs in the late 1990s, wrote the book, he told a reviewer, because he detected a growing problem of "generational inequity" in Quebec. In a luncheon speech hosted by the Fraser Institute in Montreal, Duhaime approached Malkin-level rhetoric when he labelled Quebec's "irresponsible and insatiable spending" an "intergenerational holdup."

But it's in British Columbia where the generational conflict frame is achieving its greatest salience, thanks to a partnership between the Vancouver Sun and a professor at the University of British Columbia.

In September 2011, Paul Kershaw, an associate professor in UBC's College for Interdisciplinary Studies, was given a regular column by editorial page editor and former Fraser Institute staffer Fazil Mihlar to "start a public dialogue about how we can distribute/invest tax dollars in a more equitable and efficient manner." This is necessary, Mihlar explained, "because boomers are hogging a lot of public dollars with potentially disastrous consequences for society" and particularly for young families with children who "are being deprived of a chance at a good life."

Boomers-versus-young-families-with-children replaced the 99-per cent-versus-the-one-per cent frame in the pages of the Vancouver Sun, whose editorial policy regarding the Occupy movement was one of outright hostility.

And it was going to be a dialogue about how to divvy up a shrinking pie, because Mihlar offered no mandate to discuss restoring Harper's personal and corporate income tax cuts, which were estimated to cut federal revenues by $220 billion between 2007 and 2013. That's almost one full year's worth of federal spending. Nor was there a mandate in the Kershaw columns to discuss restoring Gordon Campbell's tax cuts, which slashed billions more from the province's budget, leaving less for both Boomers and young families.

The appearance of the column just as the Occupy Vancouver movement was taking off seemed more than coincidental. When Kershaw advocated for a new deal for young families -- a national child-care strategy, more generous federally-funded parental leave -- progressives would agree. But when he engaged in what Trent University history professor Robert Wright has termed "silly pseudo-demography about competing generations," he diverted attention from the real issue -- the growing gap between the rich and the rest -- and advanced the neo-liberal agenda.

Evidence the bait-and-switch strategy may be more than coincidental could be found in one piece titled "Movement should change focus: Occupy Wall Street zeroes in on 'fat cats,' but this thinking overlooks important generational realities." This column appeared three days after Occupy Vancouver had settled into its Art Gallery camp. Kershaw had to admit that "the richest one per cent of Canadians make 14 per cent of total income." But there was a problem, Kershaw warned his readers. "‘We're the 99 per cent' frames the issue as a select few fat cats gorging themselves on cream produced by many little mice churning the milk. The story of Mouseland governed by cats is a metaphor that worked well for Tommy Douglas back in the day. It is less likely to move public opinion in Canada now."

It was a bizarre image that had no salience with anything anyone else had said about the 99 per cent. The only media references to cats and mice were written in relation to occupiers and police who were engaged in "cat-and-mouse games" of position in Oakland and other cities.

Kershaw continued: "Occupy Wall Street may signal a growing concern about inequity between the rich and the rest, but we can only address these pressures by tackling the intergenerational tension." Really? Why not address inequity directly and start by re-installing a progressive tax system in which corporations and individuals are taxed on their ability to pay?

That Kershaw may have an affinity for one percenters was revealed the following week. Picking up on his weird fat-cat-cream-and-mice caricature, Kershaw admitted this insight "rightly illuminates some systemic problems with the distribution of income in our country and around the globe," but, he countered, "it wrongly caricatures many individual business leaders today."

Leaving aside the fact that it was a caricature of Kershaw's own creation and ignored how the unequal distribution of income occurred, the question arises: how many business leaders were wrongly caricatured? Kershaw offered the names of four. (In Canada, the one per cent comprises over 300,000 individuals.) "Far from caricatured fat cats, these corporate leaders are some of the hardest working citizens I know," Kershaw assured us.

But in the generational analysis game, statistical research rules. Providing four examples of one percenters who may be pillars of the community is irrelevant.

The grievances Kershaw touches on are real. But they are not the result of a Boomer gang-up.

Soaring post-secondary tuition and student debt are the desired result of the neo-liberal plan to privatize education. Children of the one percenters don't have problems paying for their education.

Soaring housing costs result from multiple neo-liberal goals: to eliminate direct government participation in providing and financing housing; to create global markets for housing; and to minimize community planning and shift power to developers, to name a few.

Rampant air, water and land pollution are the inevitable consequences of neo-liberal goals to deregulate the economy and hobble the ability of government to set and enforce environmental standards.

Soaring carbon dioxide emissions are the inevitable result of more than two decades of neo-liberal propaganda to manufacture doubt and confusion about global warming, thus allowing the fossil-fuel industry to continue to reap its unprecedented profits.

These ills have little to do with the alleged activity or neglect of Boomers. Their roots lie in the 1970s, when the income gap between the rich and the rest was at its lowest level in a century thanks to a vibrant union movement, unemployment insurance, social welfare, a progressive tax system, medicare, environmental regulation, government enterprise and inexpensive post-secondary education.

That's when the business elite -- with the intellectual support of the neo-liberal thought collective such as the Fraser Institute -- decided to end its three-decade-long truce with labour, reassert its control over the economy and society, and restore its historical fraction of income and wealth. And that's what it set out to accomplish over the next 30 years.

The agenda is well-known: crush union power, cut regulation and taxation (at least for the rich), reduce government's role in the economy, cut social spending, impose free-trade deals, offshore good-paying industrial jobs, and offload costs onto the environment.

The squeeze on Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z, or whatever you want to call these artificial constructs, is a consequence of the neo-liberal capture of the reins of power. It has nothing to do with a cohort of people whose only crime was to have been born between 1946 and 1964.

A version of this article was published in The Tyee.

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