The Least We Can Do

Self-absorbed, self-indulged, and self-loathing, the Baby Boom generation at last has the chance to step out of the so-called Greatest Generation’s historical shadow. Boomers may not have the opportunity to save the world, as their predecessors did, but they can still redeem themselves by saving the American economy from the fiscal mess that they, and their fathers and mothers, are leaving behind.

Fair? Of course it’s not fair. That’s the point. If it was fair, the gesture would be meaningless. Boomers are not primarily responsible for America’s debt crisis. Blame goes mostly to the World War II generation, which in this regard was not so Great. They’re the ones who notoriously want to “Stop the Government from messing around with our Medicare,” and Boomers are the ones who have been paying to support the last vestige of old-fashioned fee-for-service medicine—for the old folks. The Boomers themselves and their children are more likely to go to an HMO.

But that’s okay. You won World War II, so we are going to take care of your debts, cover your extravagances, and go along with your little pretense that you paid for it and are entitled to it. And to the post-Boomer generation, now approaching middle age: we’re going to make sure the currency doesn’t collapse, or the George Washington Bridge, either, for lack of maintenance. We’re going to reduce the national debt down to a reasonable level. We’re going to invest in research, catch up with all the deferred maintenance on our physical infrastructure, fix public education. You will not have to be embarrassed by the squalor that greets foreign visitors at our nation’s airports.

You’re welcome. Just don’t let it happen again.

Speaking of squalor, I’m sitting here in a pile of reports and studies by think tanks, public-policy schools, the Office of Management and Budget, and self-appointed grandee fiscal crusaders. They all make the same, tiresomely familiar point: that this can’t go on. I don’t know how to make that tiresome point vivid and fresh, but Anne Applebaum did pretty well in a rant of a column a few months ago:

If you don’t live in this country all of the time, and I don’t, here is what you notice when you come home: Americans—with their lawsuit culture, their safety obsession and, above all, their addiction to government spending programs—demand more from their government than just about anybody else in the world. They don’t simply want the government to keep the peace and create a level playing field. They want the government to ensure that every accident and every piece of bad luck is prevented, or that they are fully compensated in the event something goes wrong. And if the price of their house drops, they will hold the government responsible for that, too.

She did not add: But they don’t want to pay for any of it. Applebaum and I probably disagree about what we want the government to do for us. I’m fine with most of the items on her “no” list. But that debate—about the proper role of government in society—has been rendered almost irrelevant by our refusal to pay for whatever we do choose to order from the menu. Americans have been utterly unrealistic about this. We may legitimately disagree about the timing of any Great Fiscal Clean-Up: do we need a second or third jolt of stimulus first to nail shut the coffin of the Great Recession, adding a trillion or more in IOUs to the pile before turning to the task of reducing the pile? Maybe so. But money well spent is still money spent. The Great Recession may have been a legitimate reason for putting off the day of reckoning—just as a cold may be a good reason to put off a necessary heart operation—but the cold doesn’t cure your heart problem or eliminate the need for the operation.

Numbers are numbing, and I’m trying to avoid them. But pick a document at random from the pile. Here’s one: the latest annual “Long-Term Budget Outlook” of the Congressional Budget Office, published in June. The future is especially hard to predict at this moment, because current law includes several things that are unlikely to happen, such as the expiration of the George W. Bush tax cuts, and major unspecified cuts in defense and other spending programs. But making reasonable assumptions about these matters, the CBO projects that the national debt—nearly 62 percent of GDP—will rise to 87 percent of GDP by 2020 (a decade away), 109 percent (its previous peak, during World War II) by 2025, and 185 percent by 2035. “After that, the growing imbalance between revenues and noninterest spending, combined with spiraling interest payments, would swiftly push debt to unsustainable levels.”

The CBO says that these estimates “understate the severity of the long-term budget problem because they do not incorporate the significant negative effects that accumulating substantial amounts of additional federal debt would have on the economy.” To wit: higher interest rates, more borrowing from abroad, less domestic investment, lower incomes, and an increasing chance of a true crisis if markets lose faith in the U.S. government’s ability to pay off its obligations.

There are a dozen ways to look at the national debt and the annual government deficit, and they all lead to varying degrees of panic. What’s especially scary about our fiscal situation is that everybody knows the facts and concedes the implication, but nobody is doing anything about it (except for grinding out books and reports and long articles in magazines like The Atlantic, complaining that everybody knows about it but nobody is doing anything about it).

And the national debt is just a fraction of the problem. State and local governments, unlike the national government in Washington, cannot print money, and many states have constitutions that forbid them to run a deficit. Nevertheless, they will be losing, together, about $140 billion this year. They’ll make up the money by “disinvesting”: firing teachers, putting off maintenance on public buildings, shutting libraries. We’ve been delaying maintenance on our public infrastructure of highways and schools and, yes, airports since at least the 1980s, and the shabbiness is really starting to show. Delaying maintenance is like borrowing against the future. Debt is everywhere you look. Here’s a short inside piece in The New York Times Magazine about state and local unfunded pension obligations for retired employees. They add up to between $1 trillion and $3 trillion. Until that article, I had given no thought whatsoever to shortfalls in state employee pension funds. You? Now we can only say, “Add it to the pile.” Then there is all that consumer debt—those underwater mortgages, those credit cards. And you can pick almost any number you wish, for what Medicare and Social Security will cost above and beyond their alleged “trust funds.”

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Michael Kinsley is an Atlantic senior editor and a columnist at the Atlantic Wire. More

Michael Kinsley is a longtime political journalist and commentator. He has an accomplished record in print, television, and online. He graduated from Harvard, went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and came back to study at Harvard Law. While in his third year of law school, Kinsley began working at The New Republic. He was named editor and wrote that magazine's famous TRB column for most of the 1980s and 1990s. He also served as editor at Harper's, managing editor of Washington Monthly, and American editor of The Economist. Kinsley was a panelist on CNN's "Crossfire" from 1989 to 1995. In the mid-1990s, Kinsley started working for Microsoft and became the founding editor of the company's online journal, Slate. He worked as a senior writer and columnist at The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire in 2010. In 1999, the Columbia Journalism Review named him Editor of the Year, and in 2010 he was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame. He is famous for defining a gaffe as the moment when a politician tells the truth.

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