Monday, December 22, 2014

Mirror on the Wall, Window on Posterity

A guaranteed future condemns it

In his Financial Times column today, Edward Luce explores the "rise of miserablism" – that is, pessimism about our economic future even as we experience greater personal freedom and longevity.

A plausible theory for this irony, Mr. Luce writes, "is to blame our angst on the rise of others." As our nation looks at our economic future, it seems we glance in the rear-view mirror a bit more frequently only to see developing nations' economies growing more rapidly than our own. We fear that we'll be overtaken.

At the same time, we look in our bathroom mirror and see ourselves growing older, increasingly worried about our personal well-being and mortality. We tend to clutch politically conferred benefits – no matter what hardships they may inflict on posterity. "The better the 'grey lobby' does", says Mr. Luce, "the more it shortchanges our future."

In a related way, political parties shortchange our democratic future when they gerrymander districts, hinder change through legislative tactics, disenfranchise qualified voters, and guarantee their continued existence through statute.

It's only natural to yearn for certainty and be jealous of our possessions. But it seems that we're sacrificing our long-term future – albeit one that we'll not live to see – for immediate and near-term gratification.

We believe that because we paid into Social Security and Medicare we are owed reimbursement with interest. Generations of politicians have set these expectations but it's a lie: there is no "into" – only "through". What I pay in FICA taxes today is not set aside for my tomorrow; instead it's paid to today's beneficiaries. As benefits and taxes have increased, the proportion of wage earners to beneficiaries has fallen as longevity has increased and the fertility rate drops. Compounding the issue is that nonwage income is exempt from FICA with the wealthy deriving more and more income from investments rather than labor.

In The Rise and Decline of Nations, Mancur Olson describes how special interest groups form over time to lobby and seek government favor to protect their interests. Our live-for-now attitude manifests itself in protectionist trade policies, guaranteed-for-life benefits, and resource depletion (both fiscal and natural). I'm 53, so I get it: I better get mine now because I won't be around much longer.

The rise of American conservatism should have checked this plunder and sworn off the raiding of the future; it has not. The risk is that as we grow older and wealthier as a nation, our population shrinks. As the wealthy have fewer children, they may become less concerned about posterity than the present. 

But pessimism, cynicism, and selfishness must not win the day or they will take our tomorrows with them. Fear of the future is surrender. I have two kids. I refuse to quit on them or on their childrens' children.