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P.J. O’Rourke “Talkin’ ’Bout His Generation”
February 13, 2014
P. J. O’Rourke


David J. Theroux, President of the Independent Institute

Well good evening, ladies and gentlemen. My name is David Theroux and I’m the President of the Independent Institute. I’m delighted to welcome you all to our event tonight. As many of you may know, we hold these events periodically here in Oakland in our conference center. We feature notable speakers and we have debates and panels discussions and other events and tonight is certainly no exception. We’re particularly delighted to have our old friend P.J. O’Rourke back with us. P.J. is going to be talkin’ ‘bout his generation and his great new book, which is getting a lot of attention, called The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way...And It Wasn’t My Fault ...And I’ll Never Do It Again. We’re both card-carrying members of this illustrious generation. I guess it’s our fault. Is that what you’re trying to say?

P.J. O’Rourke

I’m wiggling out of it.

Mr. Theroux

For those of you who are new to the Institute, hopefully you got a packet when you registered this evening. The Independent Institute is a nonprofit, scholarly, public policy research institute. We sponsor studies in major economic and social issues. We publish many books. This is a copy of our quarterly journal, The Independent Review, which I know everyone’s going to want to subscribe before the night is up. And our mission is to essentially advance peaceful and prosperous and free societies with a commitment to human worth and dignity, something that seems to be lost in Washington these days. Tonight we, I think it’s fair to say, face a rather unusual malaise that’s been building. We sort of moved into a realm of economic and political turmoil or havoc. It seems to be growing daily. Issues like ObamaCare and the economic malaise itself, unemployment, government debt, spending, bailouts, cronyism, NSA surveillance, of everyone’s communications and who knows what else, and the list just goes on. And the baby boom generation, in all its self-obsessed glory, as P.J. has pointed out, is running the show. So what’s that about?

P.J. O’Rourke is, as I said, sort of a card-carrying member of the baby boom, is quite admirably now calling the baby boom to account for what it has wrought as he notes, “We’re often silly and we’re spoiled by any measure of history. At the same time, we have made the world a better place, not just necessarily in the ways we set out to.” A founding member of our Board of Advisors at the Institute, P.J. is really America’s leading political humorist. He’s the best-selling author of at least a dozen books. He graduated from Miami University, attended graduate school at Johns Hopkins, and has become well known in his remarkable career in skewering both the left and the right on the ends of his razor-sharp insights. He’s former editor of the National Lampoon. He’s written for many, many publications, like The Atlantic, American Spectator, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s. So please welcome P.J. O’Rourke.

Mr. O’Rourke

Thank you. Thank you very much. I find myself in a little bit of an unusual position with this particular book, because normally my role at Independent Institute, standing up here, would be to give the bad guys hell, stand up here and give the bad guys hell, and that’s a lot of fun to do, and I enjoy it. And the only trouble is that I’m giving the bad guys hell and they’re not here, you’re here, and I’m talking to the good guys. And made me think a little bit about that whole journalistic thing that we hear about, about that speaking truth to power stuff, and well it’s easy to speak truth to power when power is far enough away. I mean I can stand up here in complete security and say that Kim Jong-un, “You stink,” speaking truth to power.

So anyway, tonight what I’m going to do is something that’s somewhat different. Instead of giving bad guys hell and making us good guys feel good about ourselves, I’m going to talk about a large group of Americans who are neither good guys nor bad guys or are a little bit of each or are both at the same time, and these are the baby boomers, 75 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. And the fact that I’m talking about the baby boom and the fact that this book is for sale, that’s strictly coincidental. [Laughter] But I digress.

There are 75 million baby boomers and they are extremely important to those of us who have a libertarian philosophy, 75 million Americans who are right there in the key, high voter turnout demography who are at just age, in their 50s and 60s, when they hold the greatest political power, the greatest economic power, even a very great amount of cultural power adheres to people in their mature years. And this is also a generation that behaved in its heyday in a very liberation-like, a very libertarian—liberated at any rate—behavior, sex, drugs, and rock and roll and need I say more. So why the hell aren’t they libertarians? I mean why is this group of 75 million Americans, why isn’t libertarianism their core philosophy? Why isn’t it the dominant force in American politics, which we all know ObamaCare is there to prove that it ain’t.

Now I wish I could say that I’m going to answer that question. I wish I could say that I answer that question in my book. I haven’t been able to answer that question. I know that it’s not a matter of nutty old ‘60s ideals. Those went out in the trash along with the bong when I had to move out of Mom’s basement and get a job. I know it’s not that that’s just hanging around. And yeah, I don’t know why the baby boom isn’t more libertarian. I suspect it has something to do with what I think of as the three-legged tripod upon which libertarian principles stand. There are basically three legs to our stool, and those legs are individual dignity, individual liberty, and individual responsibility. Well now speaking as a baby boomer, we were never all that good on the responsibility thing, which kind of leaves us on a two-legged stool, and I was saying that the other day and somebody pointed out to me that the dignity part wasn’t really our strong suit either, so this kind of leaves us on a one-legged stool. And so that’s really as close as I can get to explain the phenomenon. I can’t answer the question.

And I’m afraid actually that the answer to the question of making the baby boom more libertarian and I do not believe that it’s too late to do this. I honestly don’t. But the answer lies with each of us, lies with each of us being logical, being respectful, and most of all, being patient in our attempts to convince individuals that every individual should have what in fact every individual wants in his or her heart, which is dignity, which is liberty, and which is responsibility, even if it’s just for selfish reasons. We do want responsibility because we can’t get rewarded for what we do unless other people know that we’re responsible for doing it. So we want responsibility too.

And so anyway, I can’t give you the solution, but maybe I can sort of make the problem a little clearer. I mean we the baby boom are the generation that changed everything. Of all the eras and epics of Americans, ours is the one that made the biggest impression on ourselves. [Laughter] But that’s an important accomplishment because we are the generation who created the self, made the firmament of the self, divided the light of the self from the darkness of the self and said “Let there be self.” I mean if you were born between 1946 and 1964, you may have noticed this yourself.

And now this is not to say we’re a selfish generation. Dictionary definition of selfish is too concerned with the self. And self isn’t something we’re just concerned with. No, no, no, we are self. I mean before us self was without form and void, like our parents and our dumpy clothes and vague ideas. And then we came along and now the personal is the political, the personal is the socioeconomic, the personal is the religious and the secular, the science and the arts, the personal is everything that creepeth upon the earth after his, and let us hasten to add her, kind. If the baby boom has done one thing, it is to beget a personal universe and our apologies to anybody who personally happened to turn out to be a jerk.

Because you see self, self is like fish, proverbially speaking. I mean give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and if he turns into a dry fly, catch and release, angling fanatic up to his liver in icy water, pestering trout with a three-pound test line on a thousand-dollar graphite rod, well at least his life partner is glad to have him out of the house. [Laughter]

So here we are in the baby boom cosmos, formed in our image, personally tailored to our individual needs, and predetermined to be eternally fresh and novel and we saw that it was good or at least pretty good. I think we should have had a cooler name than the baby boom, like the lost generation. That was a very cool name I think. Of course good luck to anybody who tries to tell the baby boom to get lost, but nonetheless, it’s too late now. We’re stuck with being described as exploding infants, and maybe it is time, now that we have splattered ourselves all over the place for the baby boom to look back and think, “What made us who we are? What caused us to act the way we do?” And as the kids say, “WTF?”

Because the truth is if we hadn’t decided to be young forever, we’d be old. [Laughter] The youngest baby boomers, born in the last year when anybody thought it was hip to like Lyndon Johnson, the youngest baby boomers are turning 50 this year, in 2014. Now we’d be sad about getting old if we weren’t too busy marrying younger wives and reviving careers that hit glass ceilings when children arrived and renewing prescriptions for drugs that keep us from being sad. And we’ll never retire. We’ll never retire. We can’t. The mortgage is under water. We’re in debt up to the Rogaine for the kids’ college education, and it serves us right. It serves us right, because we’re the generation who insisted that a passion for living should replace working for one. [Laughter]

Still, it is an appropriate moment for us to weigh what we have wrought and tally what we have added and subtracted to and from existence. We’ve reached the age of accountability. The world’s our fault. The world is our fault. And we’re a generation—we’re the generation that has an excuse for everything, which I think is one of the greatest contributions that we’ve made to modern life, but it’s still a fact that the world is our fault, and this is a matter of power and privilege demography. I mean whenever anything happens anywhere somebody over 50 signs the bill for it. And the baby boom, seated as we are at the head of life’s table, is hearing Generation X and Generation Y and the millennials all saying,“Check, please.”

So now I had a little problem with this book, and the problem that I had with this book was trying to talk about the whole baby boom all at once. I mean to address America’s baby boom is to face big broad problems. Like I said, we number more than 75 million. And we’re diverse. And not only are we diverse, but we take a thorny pride in our every deviation from the norm, even though we’re in therapy for it. I mean we are all alike in that we each think that we’re unusual. Now fortunately, we actually are all alike in our approach to big, broad problems. We won’t face them. [Laughter] There’s a website for that, a support group to join, a class to take, alternative medicine, regular exercise, a book that explains it all, a celebrity on TV who’s been through the same thing, or we can eliminate gluten from our diet. [Laughter]

History is full of generations that had too many problems. We are the first generation to have too many answers. And not a problem as far as I’m concerned, because consider the people who have faced up squarely to the deepest and most perplexing conundrums of existence. I would use as an example Leo Tolstoy. Leo Tolstoy, he tackled every one of the conundrums of existence. Why are we here, what kind of life should we lead, the nature of evil, the character of love, the essence of identify, salvation, suffering, death, and what did it get him? Dead, for one thing, and completely off his rocker for the last 30 years of his life. Plus, Tolstoy was saddled with a thousand-page novel about war and peace and everything you can think of, and he couldn’t even look this up on Wikipedia to find out what it was about, ‘cause he hadn’t written it yet. What a life. If Leo Tolstoy had been a baby boomer, he could have entered a triathlon as a baby boom innovation of the middle-1970s. By the middle-1970s, we knew we couldn’t run away from our problems. But if we added cycling and swimming. [Laughter]

So to the problems of talking about the baby boom, let us turn our big, broad yet soon to be firmed up thanks to the triathlon for seniors that we’re planning to enter generational backsides and yet another difficulty remains. Most groups of people who get tagged by history as a generation can be described in sort of an easy and an offhand way. They’re folks sort of the same age, experiencing sort of the same things in sort of the same place, kind of like the cast of Seinfeld or Friends. I’m pretty sure as a result of taking modern literature in college, I’m pretty sure that Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, and Ezra Pound were roommates in a big apartment on the Left Bank in Paris during the 1920s. If that turns out not to be true, I give this idea for a sitcom free to you members of the audience.

But unlike most generations, the baby boom actually has as an exact definition. We are the children who were born during a period after World War II when the long-term trend in fertility among American women was exceeded. And this excess began promptly in 1946 when the guys got home from overseas and then it gradually tapered off until 1964, when American women were taking the pill or rolling over and pretending to be asleep or telling their husbands to go phone the Pope about where to buy rubbers. [Laughter] But ’46 to ’64 is a long time and distinctions have to be made among different kinds of baby boomers. It’s necessary to sort them out.

Now geographical distinctions aren’t really going to work for our generation, because we moved around too much. And distinctions according to race, class, gender, or sexual orientation, those would be offensive to baby boom sensitivities, and furthermore they just really wouldn’t work for me in this book because much as I want to be as completely different from everyone else as a member of the baby boom is supposed to be, I am in fact not. I’m from the Midwest. I grew up in an absolutely middle-class family. I’m hopelessly ordinary in matters of race, class, gender identification, and which section of Playboy I turned to first when I was 16. I’m just normal.

So I’m trying to figure how do I go about sorting the baby boom, and I thought well, we’re the generation that would never grow up, we absolutely refuse to grow up, and so what better method to use than high school classes, was basically the way I analyzed the baby boom. And the baby boom senior class, of which I am a member, we were born in the late 1940s, and we members of the senior class, we were on the bow wave of the baby boom’s voyage of exploration and yet, born when we were, we were still very closely tethered to the previous generation, to the greatest generation. So in effect what happened to the senior class among the baby boom was that we got keelhauled. We got dragged under the hull and we were left a bit soggy and shaken by the experience. So if we wound up as financial advisors trying to wear tongue studs or as Trotskyites trying to organize Tea Party protests or both, I think we are to be forgiven. I guess the best way to explain the senior class of the baby boom is just to point out that Hilary Clinton and Cheech of Cheech and Chong are both members of it, and I think if you average those two people, you come up with your basic senior class in the baby boom.

Now the juniors, the juniors were born in the early- to middle-‘50s, and they were often the younger siblings of the seniors, and the thing with the juniors, makes the juniors different, is that when they were coming of age, parents were just throwing in the towel. Parents were just giving up on that big screaming match that had so marked their relationship with the seniors. And so the result was that the junior class pursued the notions and the whims and the fancies of the baby boom with an even greater intensity than the senior class. I mean for the juniors, drugs were no longer experimental; drugs were proven. [Laughter]

John Belushi was a member of the junior class. Actually, he was born in 1949, but I knew John, and I’m sure he was held back a couple of years. [Laughter] And so fits into the category. So the juniors were the teenyboppers, the groupies, the barefoot urchins over in Haight-Ashbury. Now they hunted up some shoes eventually when they made their way to Silicon Valley. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, both born 1955, but you may have noticed they never did find their neckties.

And then come the sophomores. Sophomores were born in the late-1950s, and by the time the sophomores reach adolescence, the baby boom ethos has pretty well permeated society. So sophomores gladly accepted sex, drugs, and rock and roll and the deep philosophical underpinnings thereof, but they had seen enough of the baby boom in action to realize that what works in general terms does not always work when the bong sets fire to the beanbag chair. [Laughter] So the sophomores and sophomores in college—the sophomores, some of them actually went to class. Some even sneaked off and got MBAs.

But it’s the freshmen that interest me most, the freshman class of the baby boom, born in the early 1960s. They’re different because they have no visceral feeling—they had no visceral effects from the events that formed the baby boom. To freshman, the Vietnam War, if they remember it at all, it was just something that was always inexplicably on television, like Ed McMahon. It was—feminism had gone from a pressing social issue to Maude, a TV comedy show that their parents liked. And Martin Luther King was a day off from work. I mean they just didn’t get the whole—what had formed the baby boom.

And of course this is of particular importance because our president, the President of the United States, is a member of this and his wife. They are members of this freshman baby boom class. And I think one of the ways that—one of the things that impressed me about the freshmen was something that happened during President Obama’s run for his first term in office. And that was the kerfuffle about Reverend Jeremiah Wright. I’m sure you all remember that. Reverend Wright was the pastor at the Obamas’ church. He had married the Obamas. He had baptized the Obama children. And the Reverend Wright was a man of, how shall we say it, strong opinions. [Laughter] Strong opinions, forcefully put, “God damn America,” and all sorts of theories about how the CIA had invented AIDS to kill black people.

And the Republicans and the conservatives and the Fox News people just glommed onto this. There’s this raving maniac who is the pastor of this presidential candidate’s church. And yet it never really developed into a scandal you may remember. So it never really gained traction. And the reason it never really gained traction is because we, we baby boomers, realized that while Reverend Wright was standing up there spewing all this stuff out, Barack Obama wasn’t paying any attention at all. [Laughter] Not paying any attention at all. He’s sitting in a black pew, Blackberrying with Rahm Emanuel. This is all—it’s going right over his head. And it’s going right over his head because he just assumes the world is bullshit, I mean everything is bullshit, and this is just—bullshit is the ocean that we swim in. The baby boom had, with its talent for BS, had managed to create this world that Barack Obama was perfectly at home in.

And now, now the American baby boom is, I think, in my opinion, it’s the future of the world. It’s the future of the world. I actually believe that everyone on this planet is going to turn into an American baby boomer eventually. This may take a long time. It may take decades. It may take centuries, but it is going to happen. As soon as families get excessively happy. As soon as families love their children too much and are too permissive with them and are leading lives that are too stable and too ordinary and too suburban. I think the whole world will one day turn into the baby boom.

Of course it might not happen, because the baby boom’s not, like I said, the most responsible generation in the world, and maybe our style of extravagant freedom and scant responsibility and plenty of money and a modicum of peace and so on, that may lead to a rate of carbon emissions that will cause us all to fry or drown. I can’t keep it straight. [Laughter] I can never remember whether we’re going to fry or drown. It was global warming for a long time, and then it got so cold this winter that it became climate change, because climate change explains everything that happens.

So we may all die, but you can’t have everything. [Laughter] And you can have a profusion of opportunity and at the same time a collapse in traditional social standards. And if you look around the world say at Western Europe and the wealthiest parts of Asia and Latin America, they’re almost as useless as we are. And I mean useless in a good way, with plenty of disposal income and ample leisure time to devote to pointless activities like trout fishing.

And another interesting thing to me is that these baby-boom-like places around the world, they all seem to have the same kind of political deadlock, political polarization and deadlock, that we have been experiencing here in the United States. And I think that, yeah, I’m a little—if you have been researching the legalization situation in Colorado and Washington State, if you have been researching that as extensively as I have [laughter] it takes a little toll. [Laughter]

No, you look at these countries, and you see them experiencing the same kind of deadlock that we are, and there’s a lot of tut-tut-tutting about that from the pundit class, but it doesn’t really bother me that much, because I think political deadlock, well the German’s weren’t politically deadlocked when they marched into Poland in 1939, were they? Japanese weren’t politically deadlocked when they bombed Pearl Harbor. There are worse things out there than political deadlock. I’ll give you an example more recent from our own country, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that turned LBJ loose to do whatever he wanted in Vietnam. We know how well that worked out. There were two votes against that in the Senate and none in the House. So when we wish for bipartisan cooperation, let us be very carefully what we wish for. As I said, there are worse things than deadlock.

And I foresee a day really when I—and it’s happening already in more developed places—when the kind of really noxious politics that marked the 20th century, the fascism, the communism, the Nazism that rose in the 20th century, that this just isn’t going to be able to happen anymore. And it’s not going to be able to happen anymore essentially for the same reason that my political science class back in 1968 just degenerated into an hour-long shouting match. And the beauty of this was, the thing I really don’t understand, is I can’t remember what we were shouting about, because the professor was against the war in Vietnam, we were against the war in Vietnam, as far as I could tell the custodial staff was against the war in Vietnam, but we would spend a whole hour shouting at each other, because we’re the baby boom, we love to do that. Explains a lot about what’s going on down in Washington too. It’s not so much deadlock as it is the pure fun of shouting at each other.

Economics, too, I think will get better, because the ideas of central planning, of nationalization, of protection trade barriers, they’re going to disappear essentially because everybody is going to be asleep in Econ 101 the way I was asleep in Econ 101. We’ve made tremendous worldwide economic progress on the baby boom’s watch, largely because we slept through Econ 101, so we’re not affected by that.

And there are still 1.3 billion people in this world who are living on less than $1.25 a day, less than a buck and a quarter. Less than a buck and a quarter a day, the way I was when I was selling pot, because I smoked up all the profits. [Laughter] And one of these days, that 1.3 billion people, they’re going to figure out that there is a better way. And in fact I just received an email from Nigeria about [laughter] a rather large amount of money that’s needing to be transferred to an American bank, requiring only modest assistance on my part. [Laughter]

And there will be no religious fanaticism someday. When the world is the baby boom world, there will be no religious fanaticism, because we are a generation who listens to nobody. We will not listen to anybody, God included. And I’ve got to think I doubt God minds very much about us not bothering about him, because very few of the people that we’ve bothered, parent, college deans, the police, LBJ, attractive types in bars, very few have minded when we quit bothering them, and I’m feeling God is probably—feels about the same.

World peace is probably too much to ask for, but we will never again have those kinds of enormous, conscripted armies that were used to fight the really horrible wars over a century, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam. We’ll never be able to get those huge, conscripted armies together, because everyone will have a letter from his doctor about how he’s allergic to camouflage. [Laughter] It just isn’t going to happen.

And besides, war is about power, and there are many criticisms that can be made of the baby boom, but one thing that can’t be said about the baby boom is that we’re power hungry. We are not power hungry. And the reason for that I would say has to do with that responsibility that I mentioned earlier, because with power comes responsibility and we don’t really like responsibility. I mean we’re greedy, we’re greedy for love, for happiness, for experience, for sensation, for thrills, praise, fame, adulation, inner peace, and as it turns out money and health and fitness too, but we’re not greedy for power.

And I can prove this to you. I can prove this to you. Observe the baby boomers who have risen to the pinnacles of power in Washington, DC. Now we’ve come to a time in our lives in our 50s and 60s when politics really is our oyster. I mean it is the baby boom that is running Washington, DC. And I just want you to take a look at those people in Washington and ask one simple question; the best and the brightest? [Laughter] I don’t think so, no, no. The best and the brightest are over at Goldman Sachs.

So I have this prediction to make, an optimism, and a kind of statement that I would like to make to all the tyrants, all the despots, all the dictators, all the horrible people out there running the horrible countries that still remain in this world. And I want to say to them, “You shall turn into baby boomers too. It shall rain on your Woodstock. You shall spend your treasure on disco, cocaine, and rehab. Your junk bonds shall default and your dot com bubble shall burst. You shall form overage garage bands and try to play Margaritaville. Your third spouse shall acquire an American Express black card with a credit limit higher that than the U.S. national debt. Your daughters shall wear nose rings. Your sons shall have pagan symbols indelibly marked upon their necks, unless of course you belong to one of those cultures where sons wear nose rings and daughters have pagan symbols indelibly marked upon on their necks, in which case they shall not.” [Laughter] “You shall be perplexed by the internet. You shall grow old and addled enough to vote for Ross Perot in a presidential primary. There is no escape from happiness. There is no escape from attention and affection and freedom and irresponsibility and money and peace and opportunity and deciding that everything that you have ever heard is bullshit.” So I say to these tyrants, to these dictators and these horrible people out there, I say, “Behold the baby boom, ye mighty, and despair.” [Laughter]

Okay, that’s everything I know. However, if anybody has any questions, I will make up some other stuff. [Laughter]


Mr. Theroux

So Paul has the mike.

Mr. O’Rourke

Here comes the mike fellow. We have a question right here, front row.


This isn’t about baby boomers. I have—did you go to all the countries you wrote about in Eat the Rich?

Mr. O’Rourke

Oh, yes, absolutely.


You really went there?

Mr. O’Rourke

Eat the Rich and a lot of other books. I spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent, mostly in trouble spots, from the 1983—from the civil war in Lebanon, 1983, until the Iraq War, I was overseas most of the time. Yeah, I think I’ve reported from—filed stories from 40 different countries—and none of the nice ones. Ma’am? Wait, you have to wait for the mike.


Sorry. What surprises you most about your children’s generation?

Mr. O’Rourke

Well my children’s generation, as far as I can tell, I think they’ve really picked up something. They’ve picked up certain things from the baby boom and mostly the good things from the baby boom. They are—prejudice does not exist in the way that we knew about it as kids. They’re very accepting, even embracing people who are different. And yet at the same time, a bit like the sophomore class of the baby boom that I talk about here. They are not I think as maniacal and somewhat self-destructive as we baby boomers tended to be when we were at our most hormonal peak. I am a pretty—yeah, they’ve got too many nose rings, but I am generally quite impressed with the younger generation.

I’m going to tell a brief anecdote here about the change in the nature of racial perceptions, and this comes from my—I’ve got a 13-year-old daughter, and when she was—several years ago, when she was about, oh I don’t know, maybe 8 or something, she comes home from school and somehow at school the discussion had come up in a classroom about adoption. And she wasn’t quite clear on the concept. So my wife and I sat her down and we told her about the adoption process and what people do and we said “You’ve got friends who were adopted.” And she said, “I do?” We said, “Yes, yes, you have this friend Bet Imhofe.

And Bet is this wonderful girl and her—she’s got these German/Irish parents, little, pink, freckled people. [Laughter] And Bet was adopted from Ethiopia. And she’s only about 13 or 14 years old. She’s already about that tall and just gorgeous and with that wonderful sort of sable shade of skin and with her two little, pink, freckled parents. [Laughter] And my daughter Olivia says “Bet’s adopted?” And we said “Yeah.” [Laughter] “We told you about how the Imhofes went to Ethiopia one day,” and she said, “I thought she looked a little different from her parents.” [Laughter] No, and I mean that’s sweet. That’s golden. That’s the world we want. Another question? Sir? Well, wait, microphone guy.


A number of years ago another Washington, DC pundit and his professorial partner wrote a book called Generations and a whole series of books after that about this interesting 80-year to 100-year cycle and they talked about the baby boomers. They gave them another name. I’d love your thoughts about that and how that fits in with your take on the baby boomer generation.

Mr. O’Rourke

Well I mean we do have these cycles in democratic politics in a democratic country. We have status cycles and then we have retreats. Unfortunately, it’s hard to retreat from the status cycle, because once entitlement programs are in place, they’re very—it almost takes a crisis to get rid of them, but the crisis will come. So we needn’t worry about that.

And we have polarization, more and less polarization, and people say, often say now, “Oh, Washington’s so polarized, it’s so polarized,” and I think are they forgetting the ‘60s. I mean or how about 1861? [Laughter] That was polarized. This is nothing.

But it’s interesting. The generations of people don’t seem to have so much effect on politics as generations of ideas, changes in ideas seem to be really, not the changes in the people who are around, because with the baby boom’s politics, I earlier mentioned the mystery of why they aren’t more libertarian, but I mean it’s even more mysterious than that, if you think about it. We’ve had three baby boomer presidents so far, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Now if you plot them out, map them out politically, you would have to go to Pyongyang to find somebody more different from them than they are from each other. There doesn’t really seem to be a dominant baby boom political ethos, but there are cycles in ideas, and let us hope we get into a better one soon.

In the back. We’re giving the microphone guy a lot of exercise here, aerobic.


That’s good. There are these cycles, and we came into the ‘50s and the ‘60s and the ‘70s with a tremendous amount of wealth.

Mr. O’Rourke



A lack of war, a lot of opportunity, and that gave rise to this whole baby boomer possibility.

Mr. O’Rourke

Yes, absolutely.


For expansion in thought and liberty. To what extent do our own chickens come home to roost and cause that to revert back to what it was before?

Mr. O’Rourke

Yeah, this is a worry, and it’s a worry that actually doesn’t have so much to do with baby boom selfishness or self-absorption or political misbehavior. It has to do with two entitlement programs that were just remarkably badly designed, and if you put those together with American demography, which has a huge lump of people now just turning social security and Medicare age, because the baby boom, while it’s 75 million, it’s strongly front-loaded. The late ‘40s, early ‘50s are the largest numbers of the baby boomers and they’re coming down the python. And after the baby boom, there comes a baby bust. There’s a period where Generation X, they’re relatively scarce on the ground. And so what we’re doing is we’re creating a situation—and this is happening all over the developing world, I mean Japan’s got a much worse case of it than we do—we’re creating a situation where we’re going to have too many old people on too many entitlement programs being supported by too few young people in their most productive years. We’re not feeling this so much quite yet, because for one thing the baby boom has stayed productive, economically productive, longer than prior generations did, and maybe because we have been quite economically productive.

So we can afford it for the moment, but soon we’re going to be up against it. And the problem here, and of course it’s a wonderful—and this has nothing to do with the baby boom really—it’s a wonderful lesson in entitlement programs and the kind of thinking, the kind of deep, deep thinking that one has to do before any entitlement program is enacted. Social security would work just great if everyone would politely die at 67½. There would be just no problem with that. That would be a great system. At the time in the ‘30s when social security was created, they already knew—they weren’t as statistically sophisticated as we are today—but they already knew that there was a long-term trend in American society of people leading much longer, much healthier lives than they had just a few decades before. It was foreseeable, the demographic difficulties of the social security system were foreseeable. They were of course quite a ways in the future.

But the really sinful one was Medicare, because by the time Medicare is instituted, we really have a sophisticated understanding of demographics and so on. We have a lot of data. We know that Americans are living much, much longer, and the idea of suddenly giving all of them over 65 free healthcare for the rest of their lives, which may be another 35 years, we know that. The other thing that we know is that the cost of medical care is going up, and the reason it’s going up is because it’s getting better basically. It’s getting much more sophisticated. By the time Medicare is enacted, the heart/lung machine has been invented. Open-heart surgery is being done. A lot of other very advanced and extremely expensive medical procedures and indeed drugs too were on the horizon. So I mean the Great Society people, Lyndon Johnson, there’s just no living excuse for creating this entitlement program which kept anybody over 65 basically from having any skin in the game and hence any controls on the price.

So this is the main problem we’re facing, and it’s not actually a problem of the baby boom’s making, but what it will be is a problem for the generations that come after us to solve. And one way we carry blame here is that we have not exercised the political will to fix these things. It’s going to be painful to fix them no matter how we go about doing it. It is going to be painful to fix them, but it’s going to be—the sooner we fix them, the less painful that it is, and we have not shown that political will. There was a little blip when George W. Bush was elected about privatizing social security, making some reforms, and we’ve got an anti-blip now. I mean President Obama looks at Medicare and Medicaid and goes “Hey, great, let’s make it 100%. Let’s go all the way with the thing.”

So we as a generation have not exercised the political will that’s necessary to do this. And in fairness, it ain’t the best way to get elected. I mean if you think about politicians, I mean they’re human too, and it would mean them standing up on the campaign stump and saying “I can do less for you.” [Laughter] “Whatever it is you want, I can give you less of it.” And that isn’t an ideal way to get elected.



So we’ve proven ourselves to be somewhat spineless when it comes to things like programs and entitlements and do you think the next generation or two are going to find any more spine than we’ve found?

Mr. O’Rourke

Well I think the future generations are going to have to find that spine. I mean it’s that or pay 60%, 50%, 60%, 70% of what they make in taxes, and that’ll put some spine in anybody, facing that. [Laughter] So I think that they will, but it’s probably going to require a crisis before it happens. These plans will have to—they’ll have to be a fundamental—remember Al Gore running around talking about the lockbox, the social security lockbox. There’s no money in the social security lockbox and there never was, because money is a government IOU, and you cannot save your own IOUs. That simply doesn’t work. I mean that’s just like writing down on a piece of paper—like me making a trust fund by writing down on a piece of paper I get a bunch of money when I turn 21. Social Security, the same thing. It’s just a piece of paper that says I get a bunch of money when I turn 65. The government promises; consult American Indians for further discussion of government promises. [Laughter]

So yeah, they’ll have to the spine. They won’t have much choice.


I believe you said earlier that you were somewhat optimistic that the libertarian philosophy was going to I guess carry the day eventually, but I’m wondering how can you be so optimistic when the last ten years what we’ve seen is pretty much the opposite, that Americans have been perfectly willing to embrace more and more government and more intrusiveness and more goodies.

Mr. O’Rourke

Yeah, it’s tough, because as we all know in this room, there are two sides to the libertarian argument. There is essentially the social side and there is the economic side. And frankly the social side’s an easier sell. And although I am surprised, given the baby boom’s attitudes, that it has taken so long for something like gay marriage to start to catch hold. But it’s been remarkable how fast the change in public attitude has been about that once it finally began. Legalization of the sort of lesser drugs, the kind of—I’m not a person that believes that marijuana is harmless. I mean we are going to pay a social price for legalizing it, but we’re paying a huge social price for making it illegal. I mean we’re jailing all sorts of kids, especially if they’re kids who can’t afford a lawyer. I mean we’ve got this whole generation of convicted felons out there who basically did the same thing as the PhD students at the University of Colorado did, except that they got caught, because their street corner was a little more heavily patrolled by the police than the street corner in University of Colorado.

And so we’re moving. I think we’ve made—just in the past year there’s been remarkable progress on the social side of libertarianism. But the economic side is just a harder sell. It is a harder sell, and the reason it is a harder sell is because of that bogus issue of fairness, which the President has been just awful about this, this idea of equal outcomes. I mean you cannot have a free society with equal outcomes. That’s all there is to it. And the way—yes, there is such a thing as being fair. Every man and woman must be equal before the law. There’s absolutely—that’s fair. There are lots of kinds of fairness. But the way fairness is currently being used in politics is a lie. And I know about this, because I’ve got a 16-year-old daughter. What do I hear around the house all the time? “That’s not fair, that’s not fair, that’s not fair. You let my sister do this. You never let me do that. That’s not fair. So and so has this sweater. It’s not fair. It’s not fair.” And one day, I just snapped and I said, “Honey, you’re cute. That’s not fair. Your family’s pretty well off. That’s not fair. You were born in the United States of America. That’s not fair.” I said, “Darling, you had better get down on your knees and pray to God that things don’t start getting fair for you.” [Laughter] [Applause]

And I think it’s incumbent upon us to come at those economic issues a little bit more from that angle and a little less from the angle of “I want to keep more of my money and pay less taxes.” Well of course I do, I mean we all do, any sensible person does.


So especially in the Bay Area lately with the Google buses and the Yahoo buses and now the ferries and everything else and there seems to be just upwelling of anger and irritation at the well-off, and that seems to have traveled from the 1% down to about the top 20% at this point.

Mr. O’Rourke

Yes, it does, yeah.


And it’s moving further. Where is this going?

Mr. O’Rourke

Well, where is this going is it’s going away eventually, but what happens during any major technological transformation is generally a good—I mean it’s a good thing. Like let’s just take the Industrial Revolution as an example. We know now looking back from 200 years, we know that the Industrial Revolution lifted millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people out of abject rural poverty and gave them a decent chance at life. But was it painful while it was happening? Did it cause dislocations that were—Blake’s dark satanic mills. I mean there was huge objection to this industrial revolution as it went on, and did it create temporary inequities in society? It did indeed. There were all sorts of relatively well-paid agricultural jobs that disappeared with mechanization, leaving people on their uppers, just as we are in a period where a decent paying manufacturing job for somebody with a high school education and no specialized skills is hard to find. And people are mad about that, and you can’t really blame them for being mad about that.

And we have to take the long view. We know that in the long haul that this technological transformation is going to be good for everybody, but it’s not going to be good for everybody all the time at every moment. And there is frankly no easy answer to that. I mean we know that raising the minimum wage doesn’t work, but it is a damn hard thing to explain why it doesn’t work. I was just writing about that today. I said it’s because it gives hope. It gives hope. Raising the minimum wage gives hope, because it gives hope to the unemployed, because instead of not having a job that pays $7.25, they will not have a job that pays $10.10. [Laughter]

But so it is hard to make an answer to this. And will politicians probably try and do some element of redistribution? Well our experience during the Industrial Revolution with the rise of the Whig party in Britain would indicate that during major technological transformations the government will probably step in and the things that they do will probably be wrong and surely be expensive, probably won’t help the right people and so on, but we can kind of count on—and I mean it’s our job to argue against that stuff, but it’s not an easy job.

What’s my next book? I don’t know. I’ve got to live through this one. No actually I’m doing a reader—my editor pointed out to me that I’ve been doing this—he said, “You’ve been writing for—you’ve been publishing books and writing for 40-some years. You’ve been publishing books for 30 years, 31 years now.” And he said, “It is time for you to have younger, potential younger readers that are not familiar with you. You’ve aged out of a certain group.” I don’t know if they read books anyway, but the idea is to put together a best-of or a reader or something and so it’s not that interesting.


Okay, somebody could, would, could—would you tell the hilarious story about your girlfriend who came back for her ironing board. [Laughs] I’ll do my best. This is—I mean it’s actually a long story, and I will make it as short as I can possibly can. But we were—I was at an underground newspaper. I was working on an underground newspaper as if this were illegal or something. A lot of stuff that we were doing was illegal but it was newspaper. And it was very anti-war and anti-capitalism and anti-this and anti-that. But it was also kind of a fun-loving little newspaper staff, and we were much more interested in testing waterbeds really than we were in the great issues of the day.

So our office got taken over. Our office got taken over by more radical—this is in Baltimore when I was in graduate school, and there was a group in Baltimore that—honest-to-God—called themselves the Balto Cong, as in Vietcong, the Balto Cong. And the Balto Cong came into our office armed with like clubs and knives and so on and said that they were liberating the place or liberating our newspaper. And we go, “Well you understand that our newspaper consists of this ratty townhouse that we’re about three or four months behind on the rent and like a $4,000 loan from somebody’s uncle, and like two typewriters.” And so liberate away. [Laughter] It’s yours. Go for it.”

But that wasn’t enough for them. They subjected us to consciousness-raising. We had to be—we were sat down in a circle and they encircled us and we had to self-criticize and they yelled at us and screamed at us and we yelled back at them and, I don’t know, this would go on forever. And so they kept talking about how we were—they were liberating us in the name of the people, the downtrodden. And mercifully, two of the people happened to stop by that night.

So it was like a neighborhood not too many blocks from Johns Hopkins, but it was a predominantly black neighborhood. It was a pretty tough neighborhood that we were living in. But there were these two kids that used to come by the office, and it’s two big kids from the neighborhood, and they used to come by the office because they wanted us to publish their poetry. They were English honors students at the local high school and they wanted to publish their poetry, which frankly, like most high school kid poetry wasn’t very good. But they were two big guys, Phillip and Levon, and Phillip and Levon, while they were English honors students, they were also dressed in a sort of currently fashionable Huey P. Newton three-quarter length leather coat and hat, and they walked in on this consciousness-raising session and they said “What the heck is going on?” and the Balto Cong jumped up and ran out of the place. [Laughter] So we were saved by the people. And I’m glad to say that thereafter we published all of Phillip and Levon’s poetry. [Laughter]

But when they did, when the Balto Cong left, my girlfriend went with them. [Laughter] She’d gotten her consciousness raised. So we’re freaked out. We don’t want these people to come back. So we say, okay, we’re going to stand guard over the office. And I had this little .22 pistol that I’d had, I don’t know, since I was a kid. So okay, I’ve got a gun. I’ve got a gun. I’ve got the little .22 pistol, and our staff photographer who is a Vietnam vet, he had his service revolver, or so he said, because actually the staff—I told you this was a long story—the staff photographer turned out to be an undercover cop [laughter] assigned to our underground newspaper, and he loved it because he got to meet all these hippie girls.

And so every time—we would periodically get busted for a little marijuana or something and the charges would disappear, because Glenn, our photographer, would go down to the DA’s office and say “You’re going to blow my cover, man. You’re going to blow my cover. I’m undercover here. You prosecute this and everybody has to testify, you’re going to blow my cover and I’m keeping an eye on dangerous radicals” [Laughter] “such as the Balto Cong,” which Glenn didn’t happen to be there that night, so he didn’t do anything about the—so Glenn had a gun. Of course he had a gun. He was a cop. But he was a cop, he was in plain clothes. And this is 1970, ’71 so you remember what passed for plain clothes. He had like these orange bell-bottom pants and like a yellow ruffled shirt. And he’s got this .45 tucked in the belt and I’ve got this little .22 pistol in a desk drawer and the desk kind of faces the front door.

So we’re guarding the office. We guard the office all night. It never occurred to us to guard the office in the daytime, because we didn’t know anybody who got up before noon, [laughter]—so we figured nothing was going to happen before that. So we’re guarding the office and it’s Glenn and I are guarding the office and we’ve been kind of guarding the office through about two six-packs and we had just come back from checking the refrigerator to make sure the six-packs were all gone, which unfortunately they were, and so we’re just kind of standing around in the office and back come the Balto Cong. The door flies open. We hadn’t locked it, because we’d had two six-packs. And in they all come. “Oh Jesus Christ, they’re back.” And Glenn reaches for his gun and he shoves it down the front of his pants, pushes it right down the front of his pants.

So Glenn is standing there like fishing around inside his orange bell-bottoms. I meanwhile—my gun’s in the desk drawer—I go pull the desk drawers open, reach in and grab the gun, and I am so nervous that I don’t—my thigh is against the drawer and I can’t get my hand out of the drawer. My hand’s around the gun, but I cannot get it out of the drawer because my thigh is in the way and it does not occur to me to move my thigh, so I’m rattling around with this pistol and Glenn is fishing around in the front of his pants, and the Balto Cong are looking like “What?”

And finally I decide, okay, it’s a wooden desk. I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to flip the safety off and I’m going to fire through the back of the desk, because I can’t get the gun out [laughter]. And just as that thought had crossed my mind, the Balto Cong kind of parted, and there’s my girlfriend. And she says “I came back to get my ironing board.” [Laughter] This was a girl who wore nothing, and I mean nothing, but a tie-dyed muumuu. What on Earth she would need an ironing board for, I cannot possibly imagine, but sure enough all the Balto Cong stood on the doorway. She marched upstairs and she came back down with an ironing board under one arm and a little Sunbeam steam iron in the other and marched back out, leaving Glenn finally fishing his gun out of the bottom of his bell-bottom pants. [Laughter] And me, like completely shaken, still can’t get my hand out of the drawer. [Laughter] And that is the only time I have ever pointed a gun at anybody, and it looks a lot better in the movies, I’ve got to say. [Laughter]

So that’s the story of the—and that probably about brings us to the end. [Applause] I hand over the podium to you.

Mr. Theroux

Well thank you, P.J. Your next book. Maybe, who knows. Those of you who have not gotten a copy, there are copies in the room next door. P.J. would be pleased to autograph copies.

Mr. O’Rourke

More than happy.

Mr. Theroux

More than happy. And you can tell him—ask him questions again about why he’s responsible for all these things that the baby boom has been doing. Two things also I want to mention. One is in your packets that you got, there should be a copy of the article by P.J. in the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday, which I recommend. Second thing is also there’s a flier in there about our summer seminar program for high school and college students which we hold one week for each here in the East Bay and also in Colorado, so we encourage you to—encourage students to apply for that.

The last thing I’m going to mention is one of our research fellows who is in the next room—some of you may know him—is Anthony Gregory, and we just got word yesterday from the Association of American Publishers that our book by Anthony on the writ of habeas corpus, called The Power of Habeas Corpus: From the King’s Prerogative to the War on Terror, just won the first place in the PROSE awards for law and legal studies, which is quite an exceptional accomplishment. [Applause] So our congratulations to Anthony for that, and I want to thank you all for joining with us to make this such a great evening. We hope to see you again soon. Good night. [Applause]

  • Catalyst
  • Beyond Homeless