Three Threats to Future Generations: Should COVID-19 Change Our Thinking About Climate Disaster or the End of Democracy?


“We must change our ways, for the good of our children and grandchildren!”

“My policies will benefit future generations!!”

One of the most reliable—and frequently vapid—rhetorical moves by politicians is to assert a moral claim that current generations must adopt new policies because of a moral obligation to younger and future generations. Call it the “kids-and-grandkids trope,” in which politicians and public policy advocates invoke the almost mystical pull of intergenerational responsibility to strengthen their arguments.

I describe this move as “frequently vapid” even though it is indeed important for policymakers to consider the interests of future generations. For that matter, we should always take into account the effects of our decisions on anyone—old, young, or not yet born—who might not be in the room when decisions are being made. Selflessness is to be encouraged, especially when so many policy debates are driven by the greedy immediate interests of those who want to keep their money and their power, forgetting about everyone else.

The problem is that those greedy people and entities can play this rhetorical game, too. If talking about the kids and grandkids sells politically, then anyone—even, or especially, those who in fact are selling out future generations—will learn to be savvy and pay someone to wrap their self-interest in the words of selflessness and intergenerational concern.

Just as a former president and his enablers can shamelessly attempt a coup while accusing everyone else of attempting a coup, it is always possible for those who harm future generations to claim that it is their opponents who would sell out the young and the innocent.

As I will discuss below, there truly are threats to the interests of our children and grandchildren, and we have been ignoring them for decades. In addition, my further purpose in this column is to possibly complicate the analysis by asking whether a new, third crisis—the COVID-19 pandemic—changes how we should think about the ongoing crises of climate catastrophe and the escalating threats to the rule of law.

Perhaps counterintuitively, my conclusion is that the current pandemic and the threat of future pandemics in fact changes nothing about how we should think about our obligations to future generations. Unexpected public health threats surely will continue to change many of our specific policy choices, but there is nothing about even a once-in-a-century pandemic that should cause us to lose focus on the two threats that were already threatening the future world that we will hand down to our progeny.

The Surprising Intergenerational Implications of Deficit Spending

When I first began to study questions of intergenerational justice, I did so in the context of debates about the U.S. Social Security system and, more broadly, about fiscal deficits and the national debt. Smarmy references to our children and grandchildren are ubiquitous when rightwing politicians decry any kind of government spending, all the more so when there is a specific generational angle, as there must be when we are talking about retirement. Even an early episode of “The Simpsons” went for the easy laugh, with the grandfather saying: “I’m old. Gimme gimme gimme!!”

As it turns out, however, despite some politicians’ attempts to convince younger people that “greedy geezers” are stealing their birthright, the Social Security system is, if anything, insufficiently generous to retirees. It is not insolvent, and it will be there for today’s young people when they need it—so long as they do not fall for conservative politicians’ campaign to convince them to abandon the system.

Moreover, claims that public debt is somehow reducing the living standards of future generations do not hold up to scrutiny, with the world’s economy overflowing with investable savings because of a dearth of private investment opportunities. In fact, the better argument is (as it has long been) that the most productive investments that would benefit future generations can only be made by governments, because the problems are too large and the benefits are too diffuse for private companies to finance and turn a profit in addressing them.

On the purely fiscal side, then, the kids-and-grandkids story in fact supports increased public borrowing to finance important public investments.

In the U.S., the argument over President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” proposal has become sidetracked by some conservative Democrats’ claims that “this will cost too much.” Although Biden accurately responds that his proposal is largely self-financed, mostly through progressive tax changes that would be a good idea on their own merits, the spending in his proposal is the bare minimum amount that we should be doing for the benefit of future generations—even if it were entirely financed by borrowing.

Why? Because at least in the United States, we radically underinvest in children—or more accurately, we allow extreme inequality in one generation to lead to radical underinvestment in most children, even while we cosset the lucky few. Is a child lucky enough to be born into a home where there is no food insecurity? Whose parents can afford to pay for high-quality childcare (or, even more rarely, to stay out of the paid work force entirely)? Whose schools are well-financed and can focus on teaching rather than discipline? Whose home lives are stable enough to allow the children to grow up healthfully?

The answer for some children is, fortunately for them, yes to all of the above. For far too many, however, the answer is no. And when we underinvest in those children—either directly by starving their schools, or indirectly by making their parents’ lives nearly impossible to manage—we doom the unlucky majority to increasingly bleak futures. Research has shown again and again that the policies included in Biden’s plan more than pay off in terms not only of better lives but in pure dollars and cents. Healthier, better-educated children grow up to be pro-social, productive adults.

The bottom line, then, is that those who would say that we cannot afford to invest in the lives of future generations have it exactly wrong. I often recall the time when I heard a politician insist that we had to remove a provision from a spending bill “because I’m worried about what all this debt will do when we pile it on the backs of our grandkids.” The provision in question, however, would have funded improvements in education. Yes, that politician argued that we had no choice but to underfund education for the benefit of the young. And he did not even see the irony.

The Two Existing Crises

Even though the conventional wisdom regarding fiscal policy is wrong, especially in the way it misunderstands the interests of the very people—future generations—that it purports to protect, that does not mean that there are not serious concerns about what we are doing to future generations on other fronts.

Until about five years ago, it seemed that there was exactly one policy area in which current generations were being grotesquely selfish. Growing evidence of environmental disaster has not led to anything close to the changes needed in global policies that continue to make matters worse. Just in the last ten or fifteen years, we have gone from wondering whether climate change would lead to disasters within the next few decades to seeing everything accelerate into the current grim reality. What were once the worst-case scenarios from climate projections into the 2030s and 2040s are happening in the early 2020s.

What makes this especially sad is that the cost of mitigation would have been quite modest on its own terms. Worse, some governments perversely prop up the industries doing the most damage, while underfunding superior alternatives. And because most relatively rich countries were going to see increases in average incomes in any case, if we had slightly reduced those incomes in the service of preventing and mitigating climate disasters, people still could have had rising incomes even as the environmental damage was being reduced. No one’s living standards had to fall, meaning that we did not even have to make the difficult choice between income growth and environmental stewardship.

Again, this crisis has been festering for decades, but until about five years ago, it was not yet obvious that a second crisis had been metastasizing. Certainly in the United States, but also in many other countries around the world, we suddenly face the very real prospect that our various experiments in constitutional democracy could end in failure. The threat of authoritarian takeovers in the U.S. and elsewhere is now all too real.

Indeed, I have referred to my country as a “Dead Democracy Walking,” because it now seems that we have passed the point of no return and will soon become a one-party state, a democracy in name only. The Republican Party’s changes in election rules and other laws will guarantee them permanent power, no matter that the majority of people in my country do not support Republicans or their policies. In fact, most of what the Republicans are doing is designed not to achieve any specific policy goals (although they certainly are pushing hard against abortion rights, ending remaining controls on guns, and so on) but to consolidate political power and make it impossible for the people to stop them at the ballot box. When elections no longer matter, the rule of law ends.

Both of these crises—the death of the planet, and the death of the rule of law—have unique valence for future generations. Baby Boomers might have once thought that we could limp through our last few decades on the planet without being too badly affected by living under dictatorships and an increasingly dangerous natural environment, but that illusion is no longer tenable.

Even if that had been true, we would still have been obligated to take into account the interests of our children and grandchildren (and their children and grandchildren), rather than thinking, “Well, that’s someone else’s problem.” But the reality is that the future is now, and all generations have both an immediate and a future stake in stanching the bleeding.

We need to deploy everything we have, both tax policies and direct spending to deal with climate issues and constitutional reforms to save constitutional democracy. If we do not, the world that we will hand off to our children and grandchildren will be a betrayal of what we have long claimed to believe.

So How Does COVID-19 Enter the Picture?

The sudden onset of a third crisis, arising from COVID-19 and the threat of future pandemics, forces us to think about whether our reactions to the first two crises—the environment and democracy—should change or need to be adapted considering the disruptions to society over the past two years.

When faced with multiple crises, we necessarily divide our time and attention, lacking the luxury of being able to throw everything at one problem at a time. Although it is possible to imagine extreme situations in which we must do only one thing—fight climate change, even if it means losing the rule of law, or vice versa—the reality is that much of what must be done can happen simultaneously.

In some ways, solving the democracy crisis can help solve the environmental crisis, because the same people and entities who want to turn our polities into sham democracies are simultaneously undermining efforts to save the environment. Even so, one could imagine an either/or extreme situation, in which we truly had to adopt a triage-like decision-making process, reducing efforts to deal with one crisis in order to deal with the other.

Does COVID-19 constitute a third crisis that could supersede the other two? That is, if we were already possibly facing agonizing choices of how to allocate our efforts to save the environment and the political system, could we be so unlucky that COVID-19 would force us to abandon both of those other efforts in order to deal with current and future pandemics?

Because we are still in the midst of this pandemic, we naturally devote our efforts to survival, and we imagine that because of this new reality, everything has changed. I believe, however, that the emergence of COVID-19 in fact strengthens the arguments in favor of aggressive environmental protection and in favor of preserving democracy. Rather than being a third, separate crisis, we can handle this public health emergency in fairly straightforward ways.

For comparison, consider the public and political reaction to the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Terrorism had been an unfortunate fact of life for decades, with the Oklahoma City bombing having happened only six years before, to say nothing of examples of foreign terrorism in Europe and elsewhere. Even so, many people immediately said, “This changes everything!!” And in obvious ways, the 9/11 attacks were so different in degree that they felt like they were different in kind.

Even so, we have learned in the ensuing twenty years that not much has fundamentally changed—at least, not for the people who are lucky enough not to be deemed to “look like” terrorists. The infusion of racism and religious bigotry into our responses to that crisis is no less tragic for its utter predictability. In general, however, non-targeted Americans have adapted our lives to a tightened security environment, and the government spends a lot more resources than before to minimize the frequency and severity of any terrorist activity, domestic or foreign.

That, however, is not an ongoing crisis in the sense that the loss of the environment or the loss of democracy would be. COVID-19 is an example of a continuing challenge—one that we wish we did not have to face, but that can be essentially normalized, at some expense.

And looking at things from an intergenerational perspective, we would not say, “Well, terrorism wouldn’t have been a big deal for us older people, but it would be irresponsible of us not to deal with it for the benefit of future generations.” Terrorism needs to be addressed for the same reason that other murders need to be addressed. Yes, if we can minimize these problems, future generations will benefit; but we would not think about the problem fundamentally differently even if older generations cared not a whit about the young.

This is, I think, the path that public health crises like COVID-19 will follow. They are serious, deadly, and must be handled as well as possible. If our future is unfortunately fated to include more such public health calamities, we will have to divert some of our resources to deal with a new set of problems. But that is not meaningfully different from, for example, when we learned that we had to remove asbestos from millions of buildings and invent alternatives to that toxic substance. We wish it had not happened, but that kind of problem becomes part of a new normal, not threatening to do irreparable damage to the world.

As I noted above, COVID-19 in fact strengthens the case for dealing with the two genuine existential crises that face us, both of which are causing harm that is either literally irreparable or is at least extremely difficult to undo. That Spain, for example, was eventually able to emerge from Franco’s fascist dictatorship is heartening. But telling younger people today not to worry about threats to democracy because sometimes democracies can be reborn decades later is hardly going to calm anyone’s worries.

It will be easier to deal with COVID-19 and any other such unexpected challenges if we have functioning political systems and a livable environment. We do not need to view the current pandemic as a third intergenerational crisis, calling for tradeoffs in dealing with the two crises that already existed. Instead, we should continue to do what we can to get the pandemic behind us, understanding that our success in ensuring the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren will ultimately be measured by our ability to bequeath to them air to breathe and equality under the law.

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