I have a son. He's 26. Lately,
he's been in the news.
By this I don't mean that
you've seen his name or face. He's no Charlie Sheen, thank God. And he hasn't
come up with some new social networking app. My son's in the news because he's
on the leading edge of all those nameless, faceless people politicians and
pundits refer to when they talk about the country our kids are going to
It doesn't matter how you
get your news, if you tune in on any given day, you're bound to hear somebody
wearing a dark suit and a scarlet tie muttering about how this country's debt
is going to crush the living daylight out of my son's future. Governor Mitch
Daniels, who has based his political career on catering to Baby Boomer
nostalgia, riding motorcycles and building highways, has gone so far as to call
the national debt the next "Red menace."
The future these deficit
hawks portray looks grim. It's a country where families have to scrimp to get
by, where services are shoddy and people have to pay more and more for basic
necessities like food, shelter and health care. All this because the government
will be forced to dedicate an overwhelming portion of its annual budget to
paying off interest on the money we've borrowed from other countries.
That's the future we're
being warned about. The trouble is, there are a lot of us, my son included, who
could say that future is now.
Like so many of his peers,
my son has a college degree. So far this degree has netted him a job working as
a clerk in a high-end retail store where he sells a lot of slick utensils he
himself can't afford to buy. He gets no health benefits — that would wreck
his boss's bottom line. Besides, she knows that there are plenty more young
people where my son came from.
But never mind the way
things are today. The deficit hawks want us to think about tomorrow.
It seems getting debt-free
is going to cost us. First we're going to have to cut health care costs. The
way to do that, apparently, is by not using health care. As we've recently
learned, insurers can't afford to charge any less and doctors certainly
shouldn't take a cut in pay. Hospitals need to have the latest super
technologies. And drugs: everybody wants more of those — the stronger the
Then there's Social
Security. Given how bad we Americans are at saving money, you could say that
Social Security is a last resort savings account. That should be a good thing.
It's something we all pay into and should be able to count on.
But wait. It seems that to
make Social Security solvent past 2026, people like my son will have to put off
receiving benefits until they're in their 70s. Maybe not using any health care
will take care of that, too.
What about the military?
We spend billions a day on various wars. Some say we should be on our way to
Libya, that nobody else is going to do it. But unlike health care, we can't
just say no to warfare. Besides, the armed forces have become our country's
most effective jobs program.
What about all those other
public employees? You know, like teachers and firefighters and cops and, yes,
clerks in the state department of transportation who read maps all day and directcrews to
go out and fix those gaping potholes in the middle of our governor's beloved
highways. We need to pay them less. And as far as offering them pensions,
As for welfare and the
environment, building bridges and the arts... we'll have to learn to rely on the
market to take care of these things. That is, if people can make a profit doing
or fixing or making them. Otherwise, get ready for some shared sacrifice.
It's funny, in a way. It
used to be that the same folks who want us to think so much about the future were
all for running up huge government debts. Ronald Reagan did it. So did George
W. Bush. The idea then was to put the government in hock so that they could cut
programs they didn't like. Now that the government's over a trillion dollars in
debt, they want to cut everything.
There's another way to
think about this. Since taxes are the lowest they've been since the 1950s, we
could ask those making over $250,000 a year to chip in a little more. We could
charge banks we bailed out in 2008 for the money they owe us. Even better, we could
decide that this country depends more on people than multinational corporations
and base our budgetary policies on that basic premise.
If we acted as if people
really mattered, I don't think my son would have to worry about his future. His
life — all our lives, really — would be better off right now.