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The Coming Generational War

Posted by Steve Markowitz on August 14, 2013

Modern intellects, politicians and philosophers often frame the American political scene as battles between special interests that include Left and Right, gender and/or race.  While these divisions exist, they will be overshadowed by a division that is rarely discussed; the generational division.

Since World War II there have been dynamic macroeconomic pressures that have at first delayed the generational divide, but more recently stoked its flames.  For two decades after the War the United States had a near monopoly on industrial production.  In addition, much of the world was rebuilding from the devastation of World War II.  Finally, there was a baby-boom in the United States and other Western countries that increased demand for all sorts of goods and services.  The result was significant growth in much of the West and a dramatic increase in overall prosperity.

During the prosperous decades, the West squandered much of the newly acquired wealth.  With the aid of bogus figures indicating unsustainable economic and population growth, politicians hungry for power gave out benefits to special interests.  These benefits initially cost taxpayers little due to the future growth projections used in estimating their long-term costs.  However, two major legs of the projections failed.  First, population growth slowed significantly in many Western countries as narcissistic Baby Boomers focused on personal consumption.  This helped increase the extent of the second false projection, unsustainable economic growth as the Boomers grew older.

With decreasing population and economic growth, the initial low-costs of benefits turned into astronomical costs that must be divided over and paid for by a shrinking tax base.  Two major drivers of this cost include medical care and Social Security, most of which benefit the older generation; i.e. Baby Boomers.

While the potential economic Armageddon of 2007 may have been forestalled by massive governmental interventions, the cost to the younger generation has been staggering and will continue long into the future.  The unemployment rate for the under 25-year-old age group in some European countries exceeds 50%.  In the United States adult children are moving back in with their parents for lack of jobs.  While various factors contributed to this sorry economic state, a significant portion of the blame can be laid at the increasing dollars being sucked out of the economy by the Baby Boomer generation.  The Boomers are unwilling to give up any of these benefits and strong political power.

vanityThe problems relating to “generational theft” can be seen throughout the economy.  Brian Majeski, Editor of Music Trades Magazine, published an op-ed posted below showing one example.  Majeski writes about the problems of Buffalo, New York’s school system that is in the process of eliminating the availability of all music programs for its 42,000 students in order to save $2.2 million annually.  At the same time Buffalo’s teachers have a plastic surgery benefit that few private workers have access to costing nearly $5.5 million per year.  This is but one example of the older generation taking assets, in this case music education, from the next generation even though the parents of these children pay 28% more in taxes over the national average.

While Buffalo’s example is tragic, it would be wrong to be too harsh on their teachers give the rest of our society’s similar greed.  Buffalo’s teachers are merely emulating so many others in America that place their personal needs over the overall good.  Certainly the senior citizens, i.e. the Baby Boomers, who are unwilling to discuss any cuts to their Social Security and Medicare benefits, have paved the way for other Americans to look out for their own.

Music Education or Botox … Make a Choice, Brian T. Majeski 

What provides a greater social good, music education or unlimited Botox treatments and liposuction?  Given the debate currently underway at the Buffalo, New York school system, this question isn’t as silly as it might seem, and it also has some serious implications for how best to advocate for school music programs nationwide.

 Here’s the back-story.  By any measure, Buffalo is a metropolis that has seen better times.  Citizens have fled the Empire State’s second largest city, causing a 22% population decline over the past two decades, and the median income level is only a tad higher than Detroit’s.  With a current population of 261,000, Buffalo actually has fewer residents than it did in 1900.  The exodus has resulted in a declining economy, high unemployment, and sagging school enrollments.  Against this doleful backdrop, the city recently announced that it would eliminate all music programs in the coming year to trim about $2.2 million from its budget.  Yet, while music programs are coming under the budgetary scalpel, the Buffalo News reported that a plastic surgery benefit in the teachers’ employment contract has been left untouched.  Giving Buffalo’s 3,200 teachers’ unlimited access to dermabrasions, breast augmentations, and any other cosmetic procedure, with no co-payment, costs the district about $5.4 million a year.

The benefit has been a bonanza for plastic surgeons.  Local physicians interviewed by the Buffalo News said that teachers represented four out of ten of their patients. Not surprisingly, they also asserted that unlimited plastic surgery was a well-deserved perk. Dr. Kulwant Bhangoo, a plastic surgeon in Buffalo for almost four decades, told a local CBS affiliate, “I feel the teachers have paid their dues and it would be wrong to take it away from them.” Dr. Bhangoo and several of his colleagues regularly advertise their services in publications aimed at Buffalo educators.  Left unsaid is that these funds could be spent on other, perhaps more worthwhile activities, including offering Buffalo’s 42,000 students exposure to music making. 

The template for most music advocacy efforts has been a straightforward call for more money, as if additional funding will solve all problems.  However, as the situation in Buffalo forcefully illustrates, how money is spent is every bit as important as how much is spent.  Which brings us to the issue of how best to craft a persuasive argument for school music programs.

Buffalo residents are among the highest taxed in the nation, paying lofty income, sales, and property tax levies.  The school district’s $14,800 per-student expenditures are also about 28% higher than the national average.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that residents are getting much bang for their buck.  Local civic and news websites are filled with anecdotes of feather-bedding municipal labor practices, funds squandered on poorly thought out capital projects, and rampant cronyism.  This well-documented mismanagement makes it doubtful that a simple plea to increase school funding would gain much traction with voters.  Yet these same voters are highly receptive to arguments for the better allocation of existing funds.  The plastic surgery/music program trade-off has sparked a torrent of commentary from the citizenry.  And with the exception of a few plastic surgeons and school teachers, opinion seems unanimous in favor of keeping music and ditching plastic surgery.  Union officials, obviously embarrassed by the situation, are back-pedaling in the face of public ridicule, and administrators have seized the high ground.  As of this writing, Buffalo’s Mayor, Byron Brown has managed to come up with $400,000 to partially restore music programs.  Whether music programs will regain full funding is still under debate.

Union officials are now saying that they will scale back the plastic surgery benefit if the administrators come back to the bargaining table and renegotiate a contract.  School administrators counter that the union isn’t prepared to bargain in good faith because a failure to reach a new agreement leaves the current contract, with its guaranteed annual wage increases, in place.  Hopefully, mounting public pressure will break the stalemate.

Regardless of the outcome, the Buffalo case suggests illustrating how existing funds might better be directed towards music programs is a more effective way to motivate the citizenry than a simplistic call for “more money.”  Not every school district offers such a clear-cut choice between music and plastic surgery, but some careful budget analysis could uncover some misplaced fiscal priorities.  The New York City schools, for example, spend close to $100 million a year on “rubber rooms,” holding pens where demonstrably incompetent teachers sit idly all day and collect their salaries because union contracts make it too costly to fire them.  In our fair state of New Jersey, stories about graft in school procurement policies regularly make the headlines.  

Management in a world of finite resources involves making choices, some of which are difficult.  Music advocates would better advance the cause by highlighting the misplaced priorities that limit access to music education rather than issuing a blanket plea for more money.

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