This post is part of our forum on Michael Kinsley's October cover story exploring the legacy of the Baby Boomers and what they owe the country. Follow the debate here.
Many thanks to Bruce Bartlett for his civilized and interesting
response. One point of clarification: My idea was that the accumulated
assets of the Boomers' parents—the so-called "Greatest
Generation"—should be tapped to help reduce the debt that the Greatest Generation is
running up and passing on to the Boomers and their children. Maybe it's
too late for that. Bruce's notion seems to be that Boomers themselves
should put the government in their wills. That's not a bad idea either.
Our main disagreement is whether Boomer contributions to reducing the debt should be mandatory (i.e., through taxes) or voluntary. I tend to think that if there is a social need, then society should supply the means to satisfy it. Using government as an instrument has three advantages. First, we as a society can make the decision—through our democratic process—about what we choose to regard as social needs (health care for the poor? Art museums? Science research?) and then pay taxes to fund them. Second, doing it through the government is less undignified for the beneficiaries. If it's a legitimate social need, why should they have to rely on private charity? And third, as I mentioned in the piece, government is a way of saying "I will if you will." No one need feel like a sucker, if everyone's in the game.
As I also suggested in the piece, there is a middle ground between actual legal coercion and true voluntary action. That is the pressure of social norms. If leaving money to the government—or to some special fund set up for the purpose, or just to existing institutions doing good works—became routine and expected, this could be almost as effective as taxes. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are trying to establish a norm that every billionaire gives away at least half of his or her assets either while living or at death. Maybe some smaller share would work as a norm for the rest of us.
The debate continues here.