College students have a lot to be angry about. But sometimes they seem to be wasting their rage on the wrong things.
At Oberlin College, students were incensed that their cafeteria’s sloppy sushi and soggy banh mi sandwiches were inauthentically prepared, and therefore culturally appropriative and possibly racist. (This strikes me as a strange reaction; bad bagels are pretty much everywhere, but I still find bagel ubiquity more flattering than insulting to my Eastern European ancestors.)
At other campuses, students demand trigger warnings for potentially offensive material, which includes everything from spiders to “fatphobia,” and tattle on faculty who don’t comply.
At still other schools, students demand millions of dollars of additional spending on new (sometimes single-race) cultural centers; the hiring of additional administrators; cultural sensitivity training for faculty; and ethnic-studies course requirements for all students. All of this may or may not improve race relations (which, to be fair, remain poor on many campuses). What it will almost certainly do is inflate students’ already inflated tuition bills.
Such demands — and, in particular, the activist spirit that produced them — feel slightly foreign to me.
I graduated from college less than a decade ago. But back in my day, the knock on students wasn’t that we were whiny, demanding, sensitive snowflakes so much as apathetic, disconnected, obedient “Organization Kids.” Instead of trying to build safe spaces and right every social wrong, we were busy padding our ré sumé s, cocooning ourselves in a newfangled advancement in antisociality known as the iPod, ignoring our studies and binge-drinking our way through our second (or third) senior year.
In that light, maybe the latest outburst of campus activism is something to cheer, at least relative to past campus indifference. As State University of New York at Binghamton educational historian Adam Laats put it, “When students are interested in the morals of their reading lists, we might suspect that they are actually doing the reading.” Unlike my half-generation, these students seem motivated to call out and change perceived injustices around them.
But what baffles me is that they seem blind, or at least indifferent, to one of the greatest injustices they face: the huge and growing intergenerational wealth transfers away from them and toward their parents and grandparents.
If students want to feel like victims, there are very real and underappreciated ways they’re being economically victimized.
Older generations have racked up trillions in debt and stuck young people with the bill. This is not just due to expensive wars, unfunded tax cuts, Keynesian financial interventions and the other usual scapegoats for fiscal profligacy.
One of the largest ongoing sources of spending involves huge age-specific transfers: Our politicians are paying off older, higher-voter-turnout Americans in the form of generous benefits that those older people have not paid for and never will. Which means the tab will need to be picked up by someone else — i.e., someone younger.
Older people themselves do not seem to recognize whose hard-earned cash is funding their hip replacements and motorized scooters, and they often insist that they paid for their benefits fair and square. But that belies basic arithmetic, as shown by an Urban Institute report comparing entitlement taxes paid and entitlement benefits received.
For example, a married couple with a single breadwinner who earned the average wage his whole life and turned 65 this year will collect more than six times as much in net Medicare benefits as the couple paid out in taxes. That’s after taking into account both Medicare premiums and other ways the couple could have invested their payroll tax money.
“Invincible” youngsters are subsidizing health care for their not-yet-Medicare- eligible elders on the individual insurance market as well. And elsewhere on government balance sheets, spending on the old is crowding out spending on the young. At the state level, politicians have responded to swelling pension obligations by disinvesting from public higher education. These funding cuts have then been offset with massive tuition hikes — which fall to, you guessed it, today’s college students.
Fiscal issues of course aren’t the only way that young people have been done wrong by their elders. The warming of our planet and some politicians’ promises to undermine what small progress has been made to curb climate change also come to mind.
I applaud — even envy! — Kids Today’s ability to organize, focus their rage and demand specific actions and solutions. But I wish they would channel at least some of that youthful angst elsewhere — such as, say, the voting booth.