by Scott Burns
Some columns bring more responses than others. My recent column on the $2 trillion difference between the stated federal deficits and the actual increase in total federal debt since 2000 brought mail from readers of all ages. But this email from Burlington, Mass., tells us a lot about how frustrated the young are with the obfuscation and corruption of contemporary politics.
Q. I'm 24 years old. I’m employed in sales at a consulting company just outside of Boston. I have been watching our national debt increase for years. I am really angry about what seems to be our impending economic doom. I work hard. I try to do my part. But I am floored by an ugly reality. No matter how good a citizen I am--- pay taxes, contribute to social programs, volunteer, etc. --- it will come to nothing.
This country is so sloppy and wasteful. We seem to be that way across every sector and every government organization. Add that we all live beyond our means, and we are in for a roller-coaster ride to the ground floor. I get overwhelmed sometimes. I don't know what to do. It is great that you have written about this--- but what can we do? What steps can we take to solve this?
---D. L., by email from Burlington, MA
A. Welcome to the Crazy-Maker Society. That’s the society where we applaud one set of actions while doing the exact opposite. That’s the world you and millions of young people have tried to grow up in.
It’s a world you will have to change.
It’s your generational mission.
Fortunately, some of the problem will be self-curing, albeit with great pain. And some may be solved by political action. Here are the basics:
The Big Crazy-Maker. It’s the disconnect between declining employment security and our debt-driven consumer society. In the disintegrating world of old corporate America, your employment was secure, you had the promise of a lifetime pension, and you had medical insurance. That security made it reasonable to borrow. We also created institutions to make it easy to borrow to buy a house, to buy a car, and to borrow for other consumption.
It was safe to do this because our society worked to mutualize risk, an idea that is one of the great advances of modern society. You didn’t need to save much because your future was secured by your government (Social Security, Medicare), your employer, and easy access to homeownership. In that environment it made sense to encourage spending over saving. You also learned, via home appreciation, that consuming and saving could be the same thing.
Today, the mutualization of risk is being repealed. Employment is insecure, health benefits are crumbling, and pensions are passé. The home-appreciation game has been canceled. Today, we’re all charged with saving on our own and investing on our own, whatever our income, education, or interests.
In a world with less shared risk, logic demands that we should all save much more than we are. Not less. Unfortunately, neither consumers nor corporations nor government has picked up on this reality.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Start living lite. Teach by example.
The Coming Debt Society Makeover. Decades of moralizing about the evils of debt are nothing compared to the power of gigantic sudden losses at banks, investment companies and mortgage lenders. Consumer borrowing excesses are going to disappear as the power of advertising is trumped by a world of limited credit. Why? Simple. Nitwit financial institutions are being crippled by losses.
A new political unity will grow on the shared need to reduce debt. Your role: Be competitive--- take your debt down as fast as possible. Financial liquidity is freedom. If you don’t believe that, watch illiquid corporations go to the wall over the next 18 months.
The Political Follow-up. Consumers who have been forced to stop borrowing and start saving will have no sympathy for political parties that continue to make debt-ridden promises. That reality will eviscerate both of our traditional political parties.
You can help to make this show up in the 2008 election. Both parties have a candidate who favors junking our entirely corrupted, wasteful, and inefficient tax system. That candidate wants to replace the unfair, irrational, lobby-driven system we have with a national sales tax. Back that candidate, whatever your party preference. The Democratic candidate is Mike Gravel.
The Republican candidate is Ron Paul.
Work on dumping the front-running status quo. Make a special effort to vote out any of the Congressmen and Senators still in office who voted for the comprehensive
Social Security amendments of 1983. It was these amendments that made decades of overspending and lies possible. One of the Democratic presidential candidates, Joseph Biden, voted for these amendments.
Send a message: Ordinary Democrats and garden-variety Republicans are simply unacceptable.
That will be a good start.
On the web: