Paul Krugman, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist and lightning-rod liberal columnist for The New York Times, wrote this week that America is heading down a path that mirrors not the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but rather the dissolution of 18th century Poland.
At the crux of his argument is that America, like Poland, is becoming essentially ungovernable because of a belligerent legislative body that has nearly ceased to function. In Poland, the culprit was called the Sejm. In America, it’s called the Senate.
The headline to Krugman’s piece, "America Is Not Yet Lost," sounds almost hopeful, until you reach the end and realize that “yet” is more ominous than optimistic.
What he and other members of the intelligentsia are expressing is “a sense of real dysfunction in the body politic, and a sense that we no longer have a group of political people that are willing to work together,” says James Roumell, founder and president of Roumell Asset Management in Chevy Chase, Md.
In fact, Roumell wrote in an email last week that “the younger boomers seem to be losing confidence in a myriad of institutions, not just financial ones.”
Born in 1961, Roumell is himself a late-era boomer. (Or, his birth date would also designate him as a member of Jonathan Pontell’s Generation Jones.) Although he was just a kid during one of the most tumultuous decades in America’s history, Roumell still recognizes a sea change between the country’s leadership then and now.
“I recently read an interesting analysis that said even during the '60s when there was a lot of tension in the streets, there were in fact brokers in government who still worked together,” he said. “There were great political leaders in government who took their jobs as stewards of policy [more seriously] than they do today.”
For Roumell, no other recent political act underscores the government dysfunction more than when the Obama administration put forth the bipartisan budget commission idea two weeks ago. Seven Republican Senators who had actually co-sponsored the bill, including John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Mitch McConnell, (R-Kent.), would eventually vote against it.
“So they already endorsed the idea that because of the acrimony in Congress right now the best way out of our budget morass is to form a bipartisan commission that comes up with a set of solutions put together by the best and the brightest on both sides of the aisle and let Congress vote up and down,” Roumell said. “The fact that those seven senators [then] decided to go against it for purely political reasons I think tells you that we’re in deep [expletive], frankly.”
The exasperation Roumell feels with the country’s leadership (or lack thereof) is fascinating to ponder. The baby boomers, regardless of what year they were born, are always going to be associated with the cultural movement when young Americans began to question the country’s mores, policies, leadership, and yes, institutions. Now, the extent to which this generation rebelled has probably grown through a period of revisionist history, but there is little doubt that a cultural upheaval of some magnitude took place as the baby boomers came of age.
And now as the youngest members of this generation approach 50, a sense of discontent is once again stirring among them.
The disintegration of leadership in Congress points to a larger leadership gap in the country. It can be seen on Capitol Hill and Wall Street and inside the board rooms of once venerable American companies. Many boomers have lost money during the economic downturn and have now lost confidence in the people entrusted with their retirement assets.
“I don’t think people believe anyone,” Roumell said. “I think the system looks gamed.”
The generation that once vowed never to trust anyone over the age of 30, is once again losing trust, but this time the stakes may be greater. Institutions are a reflection of people, Roumell said, and if the people can no longer be trusted, the institutions can no longer be counted on.
The leaders need to restore this trust, or they will forever lose whatever faith boomers still had in the old institutions. In other words, America is not lost…yet.