Thursday, January 10, 2008

Politics & Intergenerational Justice

Robert Samuelson has some very important observations about the young and the old in this presidential campgaign:
The big lie of campaign 2008 -- so far -- is that the presidential candidates, Democratic and Republican, will take care of our children. Listening to these politicians, you might think they will. Doing well by children has now passed Motherhood and Apple Pie as an idol that all candidates must worship.

"We will do whatever it takes to make America a better country, to give our kids a better future," says Mike Huckabee, winner of the Republican Iowa caucuses.

"We will deliver for our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren," claims Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic winner.

"We're going to reclaim the future for our children," says Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Actually, these are throwaway lines, completely disconnected from reality.

Our children face a future of rising taxes, squeezed -- and perhaps falling -- public services, and aging -- perhaps deteriorating -- public infrastructure (roads, sewers, transit systems). Today's young workers and children are about to be engulfed by a massive income transfer from young to old that will perversely make it harder for them to afford their own children.

No major candidate of either party proposes to do much about this, even though the facts are well-known.

I view this forced income transfer from young workers to retired workers as intergenerational injustice, and I've posted on this thought before, here and here for example.

Samuelson concludes his commentary with this:
A moral cloud hangs over our candidates. Just how much today's federal policies, favoring the old over the young and the past over the future, should be altered ought to be a central issue of the campaign. But knowing the unpopular political implications, our candidates have lapsed into calculated quiet.

They pay lip service to children but ignore the actual programs that will shape their future. The hypocrisy is especially striking in Obama. He courts the young, promises "straight talk," and offers himself as the agent of "change." But his conspicuous omissions constitute "crooked talk" and silently endorse the status quo.

The insidious nature of this problem is that because the spending increases for the elderly occur gradually, the pressures on taxes and other government programs will also intensify gradually. A crucial moment to clarify the stakes and compel politicians to make choices probably won't occur until it's too late.

The longer we delay -- and we've done so now for several decades, because the strains created by an aging society have been obvious that long -- the more likely that eventual "solutions" will be unfair to both young and old. To acknowledge that and to come to grips with it would constitute genuine "change."
Social security and the allied government programs seems to have always been discussed by our political leaders in terms of a big lie. It seems unlikely this will change any time soon. Both President Clinton and President Bush made efforts to reform social security in needed directions, and in both cases politics stopped the efforts.

Is it ironic that Senator Obama draws young voters in large numbers when it seems he too has little interest in reforming intergenerationally unjust programs? Or, perhaps the young voters are unconcerned about what government has promised as their very large tax burdens? Or, perhaps young voters are rationally ignorant, as we tend to assume all voters are in public choice analysis? Or perhaps young voters are merely irrational?

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