The debates being waged between the Democratic presidential candidates and President Bush over the war in Iraq, our economic circumstances and the federal budget deficit will be in high gear as we near Election Day. Staying attentive to the details within these debates will be important to making informed decisions about the future of our nation, our quality of life and the extent to which we burden our younger generations with our obligations.
For as long as we can remember, each generation of a family has been able to enjoy a better quality of life than the prior generation. And, for a large part of the past, getting a good education and/or being willing to work hard gave many people the chance to break through barriers and buy homes, educate children, maintain health and set aside savings for retirement. Our older generation is able to retire and enjoy years of life beyond work, and to
do so independently of living with their children. Growth in the U.S. economy and the advent of government entitlement programs have made these improvements in the quality of life possible and may inadvertently have engendered an expectation that they will continue.
Sept.11 will, I think, prove to be a watershed for quality of life expectations, not just because of the tragedy of the twin towers itself, but for the series of events set in motion since that date that have substantially increased federal government expenditures beyond revenues, expenditures that are not likely to diminish. While it is true that the federal government has run budget deficits on a yearly basis for roughly the last thirty-five years (with the exception of the surplus years from 1998 to 2001), and historically, in fact, has run 70 deficits over the last century, predictions are that the projected deficit at its current rate of increase could require the doubling of our taxes or the halving of spending!
While there is some evidence that spending decisions for national security
have stimulated job growth and an economic upturn, and the war in Iraq is slowing, there is not yet confidence that increased growth will make up and keep up with our increased expenditures. Some economists think we can grow ourselves out of this debt; others are increasingly skeptical about our ability to raise revenues beyond spending.
At the time they were made, spending decisions for national security and tax cuts to stimulate our economy seemed to be more of necessity and not of choice. Two years later, we must now consider whether to continue along the same lines.
As a further complication, our aging baby-boomer population is reaching ever closer to retirement age. Soon our social security surplus will turn into a social security deficit unless certain reforms are put into place. During the last century, we grew our way out of deficits. In this century, that may not be possible. As a result, future generations may not enjoy a better quality of life.
The decline of American manufacturing jobs and the outsourcing of technology and service sector jobs do not bode well for economic growth. We may not be capable of borrowing from future generations to pay for the needs of this generation much longer without greater discipline and planning that confronts our economic dilemmas before they overwhelm us. Robbing Peter to pay Paul seemed like the right thing to do while we were being threatened and our lives were immediately at risk. I am not sure those factors have gone away, but I am increasingly concerned about the future we are leaving to the next generation.
I suspect they are concerned, too.