This means tomorrow’s generations remain on the hook for the fiscal recklessness of today’s politicians. Absent a change in course, young Americans face a future of more debt and fewer benefits, higher taxes and a lower standard of living. Our leaders too often forget that fixing our debt problem is not just an economic imperative; it is also a moral duty.
President Obama seemed to acknowledge this reality in his inaugural address when he said, “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.”
Generational equity is not a new idea.
In a letter to James Madison in 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote that if one generation could pass its own debt to the next, “then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation.”
So, Jefferson suggested, “no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.”
Now that’s a novel idea worth putting into practice.
Three months from now, when Congress and the president debate the debt ceiling once again, they should consider replacing it with a system of generational debt collection. It might work something like this: When Americans retire, they are not only sent their first check from Social Security, but they are also sent a bill for their share of the national debt that was incurred during their voting age lifetime.
This would, on one hand, allow policymakers to focus on controlling the debt without the threat of a default-induced economic calamity, and on the other hand, not burden future generations with their inability to do so. The incentives of such a system would finally begin to work to the benefit of our country and its future. The burdens of budgetary imbalance would be shouldered by those who either wanted too much without paying something or cared too little without saying something. Thus, voters will actually begin to demand our government set priorities in order to live within its means.
The “don’t touch my Medicare” and “hands off my Social Security” crowd might think twice about sustaining these programs through increasingly large generational transfers. The folks who believe that we are stronger by spending more on our defense than the next 16 countries combined might hesitate about where that borrowed money is coming from. And the special interests that continue to carve out loopholes in the tax code that reduce government revenue might hesitate if they knew that bill will someday come due, to them.
After all, why should the burden be on the young and the unborn to ensure the politicians now in control of government don’t sink our ship of state if they choose to care more about their next election than the next generation?
By the time someone retires, they will have been eligible to vote in at least 24 congressional elections and 12 presidential elections. Shouldn’t these Americans face most of the consequences if over that period of time they fail to do the math and hold their leaders accountable?
It may seem unreasonable to levy an additional tax or withhold the Social Security benefit from a senior who might not be able to afford it. So, of course, seniors should be given the option of bequeathing their generational debt liability to their next of kin. At least, in this case, our 14-digit national debt will be more than a series of numbers that are all too easy to pretend are meaningless.
In sum, both parties should agree to do away with the debt ceiling. They should get serious about our fiscal problem by enacting a bold, balanced and bipartisan grand bargain, based on shared sacrifice, to put our debt on a downward path relative to the economy. That would be the ideal scenario.
But if leaders in Washington cannot make meaningful process this year, they should set a trigger to irrevocably begin generational debt collection in 2014 – just in time for the next elections. It could be young Americans’ only hope for a bright future.
Troiano is a co-founder and national field director for The Can Kicks Back, a non-partisan, Millennial-driven campaign to educate and mobilize young Americans on the issue of our growing national debt. The Can Kicks Back is the Millennial outreach partner of Fix the Debt.