A boomer with a view
Treasurer Wayne Swan was born in 1954. He's a typical baby boomer with typical baby boomer memories. In his John Button Lecture in Melbourne on Wednesday evening Swan reminisced about university parties, Bob Dylan and Gough Whitlam.
Some would call Swan's generation lucky. Others would call it spoilt. For many baby boomers, the biggest decision they ever had to make was whether to go backpacking in Europe or Asia. Swan and his generation got the welfare state, free tertiary education, and defined benefit superannuation schemes.
The baby boomers didn't earn these things - they were given to them. Baby boomers have a sense of entitlement unequalled in generations that went before them or since.
Baby boomer thinking about the respective roles of the private sector and government was neatly summed up a fortnight ago by United States President Barack Obama. "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." That "somebody else" is of course government.
Swan boasted on Wednesday night how the Labor government had expanded the economy by almost 10 per cent since the global financial crisis. The role of the private sector didn't rate a mention.
Swan and Obama grew up believing government is the source of all wisdom and more government spending is the solution to any problem. It's hardly surprising they think that way. At university, Swan and Obama would have learned all about the failures of the capitalist system.
The fact that it was capitalism that gave the baby boomers all the benefits they enjoyed in the first place would have been an uncomfortable reality ignored by their lecturers.
The central question of politics and public policy in both Australia and the US from the 1960s to the mid-'70s was how government should spend the proceeds of post-war prosperity. This is the prism through which Swan and Obama regard economic policy. For them, wealth redistribution is always more important than wealth creation.
The sentiment revealed in his lecture demonstrates just how narrow Swan's life experience is. According to his biography, he's never worked in the private sector (unless the Labor Party is classified as the private sector). He's been a university lecturer, a staffer to politicians, and an ALP official. There's nothing wrong with any of these jobs, but they're all jobs paid for by the wealth someone else has created. They're not the jobs that create the wealth that Swan wants to redistribute.
In his lecture, the Treasurer talked about his adoration for singer Bruce Springsteen and his hatred of Clive Palmer, Andrew Forrest and Gina Rinehart. He revealed many of the prejudices of his generation.
The lines from Swan's speech were straight out of the 1970s. "We have to stand up and be heard, because when the massively wealthy buy the loudest megaphones, the voices of the people are drowned out." The voices of the people against the carbon tax are pretty loud, but they're voices Swan and his colleagues don't want to listen to.
Swan railed against "vested interests". He didn't mention the biggest vested interest of them all: government.
Clearly, Swan is not opposed to all vested interests. He singled out Forrest's legal challenge to the mining tax as the power of a vested interest but he didn't talk about the vested interests of the ACTU campaigning against the Coalition's industrial relations policy.
Swan's double-standards abound. He accused Palmer of using his wealth to buy political influence. Yet Tony Sheldon from the Transport Workers Union threatened to withdraw $200,000 of donations to the Labor Party if Kevin Rudd replaced Julia Gillard.
Born to Run is the name of a song by Bruce Springsteen that Swan waxed lyrical about. If one song encapsulates the baby boomers' attitude to life, Born to Run is it. As Swan explained "It's about trying to stay young when the carefree days of youth were coming to an end . . . It's a song about realising that big and daunting responsibilities are just around the corner." Exactly. For baby boomers, those big and daunting responsibilities will always be just around the corner.
A budget surplus is just around the corner. And paying off the government debt is just around the corner.
The problem is that it will be the children of baby boomers who will have to face the future - it won't be the baby boomers themselves.