Put a handful of smart millennials in a room and ask them to deconstruct the U.S. budget, and what you might get is 90 pages of level-headed analysis that doesn't fit neatly inside a partisan box.
They wouldn't dictate ideological solutions, because this generation of young Americans is less partisan and more open-minded than any other. They would, however, chastise their parents' generation for accepting stasis and status quo, saying something like, "Our future hinges just as greatly on the budgetary decisions our leaders refuse to make."
I've seen this room — it's at the Harvard Institute of Politics — and I've met the millennials, most notably junior Daniel Backman. He is the lead author of the IOP's "Annual Report of the United States of America: What Every Citizen Should Know about the Real State of the Nation," an examination of the nation's fiscal health that will tantalize both Republicans and Democrats.
For instance, the report says annual growth in Medicare costs has fallen from 7.1 percent between 2000 and 2005, to 3.8 percent between 2007 and 2010. Though experts disagree on why health costs have slowed, the report says, federal health care spending at the current rate will be $770 billion lower over 10 years than current projections.
You can almost hear the White House yell, "Eureka!" This is a tailor-made talking point for advocates of the embattled Affordable Care Act, good-as-gold proof for Democrats that Obamacare is already a success. No need to tame the U.S. debt!
At the same time, the report says the average monthly participation in the food-stamp program grew nearly 77 percent. The cost of the program climbed to $71.8 billion in 2011 from $30.4 billion four years earlier.
Grab your racial dog whistles, folks, and cue the right-wing outrage. This is the Obama welfare state gone wild!
Yawn. Backman said his generation is disconnected from such debates, which too often revolve around tired talking points that distill complex issues into slogans. He dismisses "debt alarmists" (I think he was talking about me), who he says overstate the threat of red ink to the nation's fiscal health, and he has no stomach for Republican efforts to turn Obamacare into a budgetary bogeyman.
"There are solutions, but our leaders don't present them in a way to point to solutions," Backman said. "They just point fingers at the other side and say, 'Look, the other guy's worse than me.'"
A Democrat, Backman supported Obama but now has his doubts about the president's leadership, and he no longer thinks Obama will be a transformational figure like Ronald Reagan. "He had a chance to be great," Backman sighed.
For those who might not be satisfied with a clear-eyed analysis of the budget, who want a list of solutions and sound bites, Backman says, cool your jets. Read his report. Learn the issues. Form conclusions and policies based on a common set of facts, then seek consensus. That's how millennials roll. That's why this country, if not its current president, still has a chance to be great.
Disclosure: In two weeks, I join the Harvard IOP board of advisers, an unpaid position.
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This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.