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What Do We Really Owe to Future Generations? The Devastation of Hurricane Sandy Exposes the Fallacy of Focusing on the Federal Government’s Deficit and Debt

In the waning weeks of his doomed Presidential campaign, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney decided that he needed to appeal to undecided young female voters.  His hard-right rhetoric in the Republican primaries seemed to have painted him into a corner, as he had taken extreme positions on abortion, access to contraception, and related matters.  With the election slipping away, he began to try to appeal to the voters who had been turned off by his earlier, emphatic statements that had aligned him with the cultural conservatives at the core of his party.

The advertisement that the Romney/Ryan campaign produced in that effort was, in some respects, unremarkable.  The candidate tried to moderate his position, suggesting that he had never really been the extremist on reproductive issues that he had seemed to be.  The advertisement tried to accomplish this transition by showing an attractive (but not too attractive), earnest young actress portraying a middle-class mother of young children.  She informed listeners that Romney’s views on various issues of interest to women had been exaggerated or fabricated, and she declared herself to be satisfied that he was not the extremist whom his opponents were depicting him to be.

The record is clear that Romney really had, in fact, taken extreme positions in the past with respect to issues that many women care about.  Thus, this advertisement represented (at best) yet another change in Romney’s positions.  Again, however, the advertisement, up to that point, was unremarkable. It employed standard political spin, emotional appeals, and more contortions from the Etch-a-Sketch candidate.  What made the advertisement remarkable, however, was the logical move that the actress then made.

What worried her as a woman, she said, was not whether Governor Romney would protect her rights in the reproductive arena. No, she was worried as a mother about her children’s future, living in a world with ever-growing federal debt.  She was most worried that President Obama was impoverishing their future by spending too much money.

As cynical as the Romney campaign was from beginning to end, this attempt to redirect women from worrying about “women’s issues” to worrying about “mothers’ issues” was notable.  It started with a completely false defense of Romney’s views on reproductive rights, and then changed the subject to federal debt.  A viewer could have been forgiven for asking, “Wait, what were we talking about, again?”

Even so, the latter half of that advertisement embodied a consistent theme of the Romney/Ryan campaign, which is that there is something deeply immoral about “saddling our children and grandchildren with debt.”  This theme, of course, was hardly new when the Republicans seized upon it after President Obama won the 2008 election.  The notion that deficit spending by governments harms future generations has been a constant attack on “big government” for decades.  This notion has been used by politicians and pundits to suggest that anything a government does is wasteful and harms those who will inherit the country from us.

This notion is simply incorrect, and it always has been.  In fact, the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy has exposed precisely what is at stake when we talk about building a prosperous world for current and future generations.  The government is not only capable of making the future more prosperous, but it has a moral obligation do so.

The Continuing Attempt by Anti-Government Ideologues to Pretend that There is No Difference Between Investing and Consuming

As I discussed as recently as two months ago, in a Verdict column exploring the Romney/Ryan proposals to reduce benefits to seniors in the name of reducing taxes on younger people, the attempt to invoke the interests of children and grandchildren is a favorite tactic of anti-government politicians and pundits.  The simplistic idea is based on little more than Shakespeare’s famous line: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”  How could any responsible adult overspend today, Romney asked, knowing that today’s innocent children will someday foot the bill?

In “The Simpsons,” a minor character has one simple catch-phrase: “What about the children?  Won’t someone think of the children?!”  In real life, the Republicans prominently featured the “national debt clock” during their August convention, hoping to drive home the idea that at least they were finally thinking about the children.  Would we continue to leave our children with the bill for our profligacy?  Not on their watch, they assured us (even though, of course, they had increased debt massively under the Reagan and both Bush Administrations).

But why is the Shakespearean dictum so wrong?  Certainly, I would not be happy if my parents had borrowed money, spent it, and left me with the bill (plus interest).  Or would I?  If my parents had borrowed the money to pay for my college education, and then expected me to pay down the debt, I would not only have considered that to be a completely reasonable expectation on their part, but I would have thanked them for it.

The problem, as has been pointed out over and over again, is that anti-government ideologues assert without proof that all government spending is either wasted or consumed by the current generation.  The fact, however, is that much government spending is, by its very nature, designed to benefit both current and future generations.  It is investment, not consumption, and it therefore benefits the people who will live in the future.  Put another way, it benefits our children.

It is thus reasonable to finance such spending by borrowing, because it allows us to spread the costs of such spending among all of the people (current and future) who will enjoy the benefits of such spending.

Making the Notion of “Infrastructure” Salient: What Governments Do to Make Modern Living Possible

When I have tried to explain the concept of government investment in the past, I have often focused on education, as I did in a Verdict column earlier this year.  Because education is directly provided to the next generation, it is intuitively obvious that its benefits are felt by the children who would otherwise grow up not being able to read, write, or function in society.

However, the benefits of an educated population are enjoyed even by those who do not rear children, because we are able to enter retirement, safe in the knowledge that the next generation is there to produce the goods and services that we will need as we enter our final stages of life.

Beyond the benefit of creating an educated populace, another fundamental argument for government involvement in the economy is the familiar need to spend to create the infrastructure that a modern capitalist economy requires to allow it to thrive.  Going at least as far back as Adam Smith, we have known that governments are uniquely positioned to make the long-term investments in roads, dams, ports, railroads, and so on that we need, but that no private entity would ever find sufficiently profitable.

Even so, making that argument in the abstract is often a challenge.  Once, I was giving a speech in which I pointed out that highways are “productive.”  My audience looked puzzled.  Roads do not produce goods or services, so how could they be called productive?  I then asked them to imagine what would happen to the local and national economies if every road on which they drove suddenly was reduced by one lane in each direction.  By imagining that disastrous scenario, the audience instantly understood the essence of infrastructure spending.  Because it is so fundamental, however, our infrastructure is all too easy to take for granted.

Hurricane Sandy and the Case for Modern Government: President Obama, Governor Christie, and Others Show Why Infrastructure and Good Governance Matters

Asking people to use their imaginations is often helpful, but at times, sufficiently extreme reality can truly make people understand what is at stake.  We saw during Hurricane Sandy last week the importance of having the physical infrastructure in place to make modern living possible (and how miserable life can be when people suddenly lose access to that infrastructure).  That is why responsible politicians are now thinking seriously about whether to build floodgates to protect New York City, as well as investing in other infrastructure improvements to allow us to continue to thrive, in a climate that will surely produce an increasingly severe series of storms over the next few decades.

The relative difference between the devastation from Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, however, is also in part built on the idea that the federal government is the only sensible entity that can prepare for future emergencies, and that can step in when disaster strikes.  It is not just the physical items like roads, bridges, sewage systems, and the like that we need.  It is also the human organizations that must be in place to allow us to respond to extreme situations.

The myopia of Governor Romney’s attacks earlier this year on spending for federal disaster preparedness were thus exposed by Sandy’s wrath, making him look foolish for suggesting that individual states or private corporations could have responded effectively to last week’s destruction.  We saw that a rejuvenated Federal Emergency Management Agency (as well as other federal agencies, coordinating with state and local responders) was truly necessary, and that—because of a commitment by the Obama Administration to make FEMA an effective agency once again—it was up to the job.

What made people admire the response of New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie, after all, was that he saw clearly that this was not a moment for anti-government demagoguery.  The Obama-led response to Hurricane Sandy had made it impossible to pretend any longer that “the federal government can never do anything right.”

The Responsible Approach to Inter-Generational Obligations: Stop Cutting Government for the Sake of Cutting Spending

Some anti-government pundits have long insisted on putting scare-quotes around the word “investment” when it is applied to government spending, mocking the very idea that a government can do anything right.  The only responsible form of investment, they have loudly proclaimed, is effected by “job creators,” the private businesses that are supposedly being hampered by the oppressive hand of government.

As we now see all too clearly, the efforts to cut federal spending have not only been cruel in the immediate sense—cutting off poor people from assistance to heat their homes in winter, for example, or reducing the already-minimal health care that they receive—but they have also harmed the interests of future generations.  Disaster-relief funds had been reduced by Republican-led efforts to require “fiscal prudence” by the federal government—only to have us all learn that it is entirely imprudent to pretend that we do not need to invest in protecting ourselves and the world that our children will inherit.

Last Tuesday, as I watched the television coverage of the immediate impact of Hurricane Sandy, I realized that we were witnessing a perfect example of what one generation truly owes to the next.  I have been writing on these subjects for many years, and the point was now being made all too clearly by the realities of the storm.

Much to my delight and amazement, my thoughts were almost immediately given voice by an elected politician on the very television program that I was watching.  In an interview, Connecticut’s Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy said: “We need to rebuild our infrastructure, we need to harden our infrastructure, we need to protect that infrastructure, and we need to do that not for ourselves, but for coming generations.”  He added that our ability to do so would determine “whether our children and grandchildren are going to be able to compete with the rest of the world.”

Mr. Malloy thus captured the essence of what is at stake in our ongoing debate over the role of government in society.  The argument from the anti-government forces—as exemplified in that political advertisement from the Romney/Ryan campaign that I described at the beginning of this column—has always been that government steals from the future.  The reality has always been the opposite: Without an active government, run by people who understand what government must do, the future would be grim indeed.

President Obama’s victory in this week’s elections, therefore, represents an opportunity for him and for Congress finally to enact policies that will promote the real interests of current and future generations.  We must insist that the president take that opportunity, to allow us to do our best to provide a bright future for our children and grandchildren.

Neil H. BuchananNeil H. Buchanan, a Justia columnist, is an economist and legal scholar, a Professor of Law at The George Washington University, and a Senior Fellow at the Taxation Law and Policy Research Institute, Monash University (Melbourne, Australia). He blogs at DorfonLaw.org, and he is the author of The Debt Ceiling Disasters: How the Republicans Created an Unnecessary Constitutional Crisis and How the Democrats Can Fight Back.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.manske.9 Lee Manske

    That is one of the dumbest arguments for government fiscal recklessness that I have ever heard. Sounds good on paper, but your factual analysis is wrong. In addition, the arguments you made for deficit spending are for those items that responsible people believe should be included in responsible non-deficit spending. We believe that if the waste were eliminated, the items you are talking about would be purchased in the black, not in the red. Additionally, how can our society stay afloat if we spend 1.2 trillion dollars more per year than we take in? Deficit spending is not an unlimited pool of money.

 

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