Last evening’s State of the Union address was a major opportunity for President Bush to push his plans for some form of Social Security privatization. In response to the speech, there will certainly be quibbles over whether the cap on the amount of taxable income under the payroll tax should be raised or whether the retirement age should be increased beyond currently planned increases. Amid protests from Democrats that there is no crisis for the program and debates among Republicans about how best to finance the inevitable transition costs of the Bush plan, a debate of much greater significance is not taking place. This is a debate that pits two adversaries — the young, including future generations as of yet unborn, versus the current and near-term beneficiaries of the federal government’s old-age insurance mechanism — against one another and where those that have the most to lose don’t have a chance to express their opinions.
This battle plays itself out time and time again in American politics, and the results are almost uniformly identical: The young lose. Baby boomers make up a sizable and influential chunk of the electorate, and they wield even greater political power through their positions in the government. The political underrepresentation of the young will always promote the tendency to overlook them, but you would think that voters would have more concern for their future descendants than they currently display. Young people’s low level of political participation is the simplest explanation for their lack of influence, but the problem is more fundamental in the sense that the interests of future generations will always be heavily discounted when compared to today’s. And if the belief in reincarnation were ever to become more widespread in the United States, maybe we would observe a more even distribution of government resources among young and old.
In his four years in office, Bush has created a mess of long-lasting problems with his take-no-prisoners approach to Medicare. Bush’s positions on Medicare are particularly outlandish for a self-styled fiscal conservative. While some type of supplement to Medicare that allowed seniors to get needed preventative care was certainly necessary, Bush’s desire for a budget-busting partial solution, which will cost about $8 trillion over the next 75 years, was misplaced. Bush didn’t merely lend lukewarm support to this boondoggle; he touted the bill as a signature accomplishment of his first four years in office. It’s also worth remembering that Bush’s lieutenants in Congress used the extraordinary maneuver of holding up voting on the floor of the U.S. House for three hours to ensure that the prescription drug benefit would pass. Bush poses as a champion of primary and secondary education, but these efforts are trivial when compared to the torrents of government money he has poured into programs for the elderly.
At every level of government, this battle plays out to similar effect. Take the California ballot initiative last year that approved a $3 billion bond issue to finance stem-cell research in the state. For the most part, any medical advances that emerge from this project will be tools to alleviate the suffering of the aged. Sure, some children with chronic maladies are likely to benefit from these research investments at some point in the future. But in a state suffering from a disastrous long-term fiscal outlook, the profligacy of borrowing $3 billion for a stem-cell program is stunning. Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has unveiled a proposal to scale down the amount of funding going to the state’s K-12 educational system. The unrealized benefits of this research will help future generations, but in a time when the education of today’s youth is endangered, these cumbersome expenditures are nonsensical.
Public policy entails a series of tradeoffs. These are usually hard tradeoffs where the costs and benefits of a certain action are uncertain. The cost of promises made to our parents and grandparents have to be weighted against the needs of future generations. Over and over again we have made the expedient choices, repeatedly ignoring the trouble these choices will create in the future.
Peskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org