Mortgaging kids’ futures is wrong

Published 10:21 am Thursday, August 16, 2012

Time and again we hear politicians say they don’t want our actions today to leave our children and grandchildren

worse off in the future. The concern has become cliché, and it’s meaningless when you look at the actual facts: We’re leaving our kids with a mountain of debt, and our actions today are doing nothing to stop or reverse current trends.

Some of us know about our federal mess. Americans are facing

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$16 trillion in debt and another $84 trillion in unfunded liabilities. $100 trillion is a tough number to comprehend,

but it translates into an IOU of $300,000 for every American man, woman, and child. Someone, some day will have to pay or a promise will have to be broken. Like the federal government, states and localities have also been compromising our children for the sake of spending more today. In Illinois, for example, the state will soon spend

more on its unfunded public pension liabilities than it will spend on public education; by over-compensating the current generation of public employees, state lawmakers are compromising the education system and kids throughout the state. In Jacksonville, Fla., pension funds for police officers and firemen are in bad shape. For every $1 of police and fire salary earned, taxpayers in Jacksonville pay another 82 cents in retirement benefits to help cover the

funding. More retirement payments for current participants means there is less money available to employ police and keep Jacksonville streets safe.

Illinois and Jacksonville are not the exceptions, but rather the norm. Even Alabama, for example, has gotten into the habit of hurting our children: the Retirement System of Alabama (RSA) takes in about $1 billion from taxpayers per year to shore up its underfunded pension plans; $1 billion

to RSA means $1 billion less to spend on other pressing problems. Federal, state, and municipal governments

have been engaged in a long, drawn out game of “kick the

can down the road.” The game of financial trickery they are playing with us is fun if you stand to benefit

from the present system. But, if you’re a taxpayer, someone unborn, or a child, the costs of our current actions are enormous now and will get worse in the future. Responsible budgeting at the local, state, and federal level, therefore,

matters a lot for today’s children and tomorrow’s. When government’s run up massive deficits and debts to protect

one group of people, they are harming groups with no voice in the political process –children and future generations. Attacks on the young and future generations are what some

call “intergenerational warfare.” They are unfair and guarantee the unborn will start from a worse starting point

than many of us. The intergenerational war needs to stop, and we need to fix the way we pay for things in the public sector without sacrificing some of the key objectives of public sector services. If we are going to ask younger

generations to pay for broken pension programs and take a serious hit for us by enduring sub-par public services, let’s at least figure out sensible solutions for them long-term. Budgetary rules, such as balanced budget amendments, are a start. Entitlement reform that individualizes

benefits and reduces distortions also makes sense. But, a deeper change in our attitudes is also needed: We should no longer be living well at the expense of our children, and our children’s future should be treated as off limits from a policy standpoint and moral one as well. Politicians are right when they say we shouldn’t be leaving our children and grandchildren worse off through our actions, and it’s high time the rhetoric of their words mesh with reality. Simple rules and a good dose of morality – something like a Hippocratic Oath when it comes to the way policies treat our children – would help signal a cease-fire in the intergenerational war they have started, and it would mark the beginning of sound budgeting for a free and responsible citizenry.

Scott Beaulier is Executive

Director of the Manuel H. Johnson

Center for Political Economy at Troy