Dan Sehlhorst | Thursday, October 9, 2014
Have you seen “The West Wing?” I believe the show is one of the greatest television series ever created. In the second season, creator Aaron Sorkin wrote a flashback to the beginning of the first presidential campaign of President Jed Bartlet. Played by Martin Sheen, Bartlet declares a beautiful sentiment “If fidelity to freedom of democracy is the code of our civic religion, then surely the code of our humanity is faithful service to that unwritten commandment that says we shall give our children better than we ourselves received.”
Intergenerational injustice is not a topic that is often discussed in American politics, primarily because counteracting such temporal wrongs requires sacrifice in the present, which doesn’t make for rosy campaign promises. As a result, our leaders are strongly incentivized to operate in the short-term, viewing relatively uncertain, long-term risks as a problem to be tackled at a later date. This self-indulgent mode of operation, however, is not worthy of a great nation, and it violates some of the very principles that make this nation great.
The first threat to the future of American ideals is a lack of investment in our children. The United States experiences one of the highest rates of child poverty among developed nations. Regrettably, spending on children as a percentage of the federal budget is falling across the board, according to a report from the Urban Institute. Of the many programs that benefit children, none are more important than education. Education is the great equalizer, holding the potential to break poverty cycles and ensure the long-term viability of our nation. The least we can do is ensure that the education system is fully funded, wholeheartedly supported and staffed with the most qualified educators. We must invest in the best practices and make the development of our children’s passions and skills an objective of highest priority.
The second threat to our future is a crushing national debt, which threatens our posterity in many ways. Rising debt can cause rapid inflation if the government chooses to monetize debt or print currency at high rates. Tax burdens and higher interest rates can slow economic growth and even destabilize economies enough to spark financial crises.
For decades, politicians have refused to recognize our fiscal limitations, pulling funding from the pockets of our grandchildren. While each sector of government spending has a clear and valid purpose, there will always be goals outside of our immediate fiscal reach.
Much government spending can be viewed as investment in our future, whether by stimulating economic growth, building infrastructure, developing health care capacity, improving education or protecting our national security interests, all of which benefit future generations. In these situations, a case can be made that short-term deficits lead to future growth and prosperity, but this certainly cannot be a sustainable long-term strategy.
Besides investments in the future, some government spending is simply wasteful or structured to benefit current voters at the expense of tomorrow’s citizens. Reducing waste requires strong leadership from members of Congress but also personal accountability on the part of the American people.
Mandatory federal spending — primarily Social Security, Medicare and means-tested entitlement programs — has risen dramatically from five percent of the federal budget in 1947 to over 56 percent in Fiscal Year 2012. Not designed to support seniors for more than a few years, these programs are approaching bankruptcy. As Americans live longer, our social welfare programs must adjust accordingly. Otherwise, we are looking at both exorbitant debt and bankrupt programs that cannot serve future generations.
As a final example, to care for future generations, we must develop and commit to sustainable environmental practices. With rising global carbon levels, air pollution, water pollution, habitat degradation and changing climates, we must bear the burden of knowing that our choices affect the safety and livability of the world in the future. Rising sea levels, disappearing aquifers, droughts and reduced air quality all pose great risk to our future citizens. We must engage the world on this issue because climate change is not bounded by borders. To the extent that humanity can reduce its negative impact on the environment, we are all partners in a global project for our children’s health and wellness.
Children cannot vote in our republic, yet their concerns are of paramount importance. The irony is that political pandering for short-term electoral gain is childishness in its worst form, abandoning the wisdom that our leaders are expected to display. Our politicians cannot be simpleton ideologues who place the value of a strong, uncompromising dogma above fiscal and social responsibility. Our elected representatives are not simply pawns in a game to secure a slice of a multi-trillion dollar pie.
In grand federal buildings and statehouses across the country, elected men and women are not just leaders, but stewards of our future. We cannot leave this responsibility to them alone, however. As citizens of a nation built on the ideas of freedom, equality, liberty and fair representation, we cannot stand idly by while policy directly threatens each of those ideas for future generations. In order to secure better opportunities for our grandchildren, I hope my generation will have the political will power to make cuts in the interest of our posterity. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous maxim could be adjusted to fashion a new battle cry for conscientious policy, as we could say, “Injustice today is a threat to justice forever.”
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.