Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Politics of Now

Immediate, self-serving policies shortchange our kids

Recently in the Washington Post, columnist Ezra Klein noted that "some forms of government spending rise automatically and rapidly, and are very politically difficult to cut, while other forms of government spending need congressional approval every single year and have few constituencies to protect them."

Gene Sperling, director of the White House's National Economic Council, got a bit more specific: "When you invest in your future growth, you’re often investing in a group of people who are children and, by definition lack political power. Or you’re investing in things that are precisely what you want government to do because no particular person captures the benefit but it instead benefits everyone."

Mr. Klein concluded: "By contrast, when you try to raise taxes or cut back on health or retirement spending at a moment when health-care costs are rising and the population is aging, very specific people with very powerful lobbies feel the loss, and fight it."

An Urban Institute report found that
  • "Looking solely at the federal budget, an elderly person receives close to seven federal dollars for every dollar received by a child."
  • "The 10 percent spent on children compares to 41 percent spent on the elderly and disabled portions of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid."
  • And here's the kicker: "In fact, under current policies, the federal government is projected to spend more on interest payments than on children, beginning in 2017." 
In 1844, John Stuart Mill proposed an "arbitrary definition of man, as a being who invariably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial". Mill's proposal has us at the polls voting for the here and now. And since the kids can't vote now, they'll have to vote for themselves when they're old enough.

Years of profligate spending and impudent revenue cuts now have us investing in debt holders rather than our children. Our Constitution was established, in part, to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity". By catering only to the politics of now, our elected officials feed our fiscal indiscretion and shackle posterity.

This isn't about senior bashing; this is about making conscious, forward-looking decisions now. If our kids aren't better off, it's our own fault; we've been selfish. The politics of now redistributes wealth from young to old. And not just to poor old but also to wealthy old. Americans often bemoan our politics as rife with money. Older voters have used their political clout and wealth to skew the system in their favor. In discussing this dynamic a friend of my age said, "I paid in and I want what's mine out." Sorry, my friend, it's not there any longer.

A lot of people wonder if the next generation will have it better than we do. Perhaps – if we get it right – now.