The most glaring example of this growth in regulation and control is also the easiest one to pin on Baby Boomers: the incredible rise in incarceration rates. Even though murder rates are today at the same levels they were in the 1950s, the imprisoned share of the population is higher in America than in any country other than North Korea. We imprison a larger share of the population than authoritarian countries such as Turkmenistan and China.
That huge spike has a very clear origin in the crime wave of the 1960s and 1970s. Academic research has shown that incarcerating more criminals does reduce crime somewhat, so, as with all the other examples I’ve given, this response was understandable.
But many countries experienced a similar crime wave. Most of them experienced similar crime declines in the 1990s, even without so much imprisonment. Furthermore, research has also shown that imprisonment patterns in America were heavily biased by race, with incarceration rates not always reflecting actual rates of criminality.
Today, while incarceration rates are edging lower, they remain astonishingly high. Even as younger Americans are locked out of jobs and housing by strict rules set by previous generations, a startlingly large share of them, especially in minority communities, are literally behind bars. Those who remain free are nonetheless bereft of family, friends, and potential co-workers—and whole communities are, as a matter of law, stripped of potential workers.
It’s understandable that, faced with a wave of crime, Baby Boomers might want to respond with a law-enforcement crackdown. But the scale of the response was disproportionate. The rush to respond to a social ill with control, with extra rules and procedures, with the commanding power of the state, has been typical of American policy making in the postwar period, and especially since the 1970s. And whatever specific arguments may have justified a command-and-control response to crime, this kind of response reared its head for every major political problem encountered by Baby Boomers: housing, jobs, education, crime, and, of course, debt.
Even young Americans today who are free from prison are nonetheless in bondage to debt—sometimes their own debt, in the form of rapidly growing student loans or personal and credit-card loans. But on a larger scale, the problems of entitlements, pensions, Social Security, Medicare, and federal, state, and local debt are becoming more severe all the time. Already, in places such as Detroit, Illinois, and Puerto Rico, where political rules make flexible solutions hard and the population is aging very quickly, massive debt restructurings loom large. But around the country, the pressures of long-term obligations will grow.