“How can you get politicians to enact policies that solve long-term issues when they can’t even pass an annual budget?”
“How can you get voters to care if they are focused on the latest tweet-storms out of Washington?”
Friends asked me questions like these when I started my blog–I would shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know yet, but I am going to try and find out.”
Beth Sawin of the Climate Interactive company may have provided a partial answer to these questions. She has been struggling with them in relation to climate change. After an unsuccessful climate conference in Copenhagen, she realized that all feasible political action is limited by the need of leaders to win the next election. They cannot win if they enact policies in which all costs are carried by current voters and the benefits will only be gained by future voters. Her solution is “multi-solving.”
Multi-solving involves breaking through the walls we build around our problems to find interconnections with other people’s problems. It means that we have to talk to people in different disciplines, departments or lines of work and ask, “How can solving my problem help solve yours?”
Her application of multi-solving was connecting solutions for climate change to other fields, primarily problems of public health and economics. She found tremendous, quantifiable health and economic benefits from measures that would also limit global warming.
Multi-solving sounds like a strategy that could have broad application for creating policies that would please voters and still make progress on our long-term issues. It is probably an approach that seasoned politicians use intuitively if they want to create a long-term legacy. I recommend spending 17 minutes to watch Beth Sawin’s presentation.
Pew Research has done it again. If we want to take the views of the next generation of voters into consideration as we are making policy, their survey data on the attitudes of teenagers indicates “Generation Z” is looking for a more activist, problem-solving government. One that is more tolerant of gender and ethnic differences. An interesting sidelight is that young people identifying as Republicans are much closer to Democratic positions on these issues than older generations. Does that foretell some moderation of views?
Federal budget deficits are set to increase rapidly this year and over the next four years….
Congressional Budget Office
The partial government shutdown over border wall funding is just one more distraction from the real issues that will worry the next generation of American voters. After the 2017 tax cuts and spending increases, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the 2019 budget deficit will be $981 billion–$5 billion for the wall is only 0.5% of the deficit and only 0.1% of the total budget.
CBO estimates that if we do nothing different with taxes and expenditures, federal debt will balloon from $21 trillion today to $34 trillion by 2028. At their projected 3.4% interest rate, U.S. tax payers will have to come up with $1.2 trillion in interest each year–money that might better be spent on education or infrastructure. That is the real issue we should be worried about.
Issues like the wall dominate our attention like a barking dog at the door while the house is burning down. If we really cared about the long-term health of the country, Democrats might say, “Sure we’ll give you $5 billion for the wall in exchange for tax and budget legislation that gets our deficits under control.” Having a Congress split between Republicans and Democrats is the best time to get the right balance between spending cuts and tax increases.
We are suffering through the 21st federal government shut down since the administration of Gerald Ford.* Key agencies of our federal government are shut down for any but essential services. Need a passport? Sorry. Need a permit? Sorry. Need some information? Sorry. Need the trash picked up at a national park? Sorry. And, for essential services, federal workers are being forced to work without pay. How is that not involuntary servitude?
Are there some lessons from these test of wills between presidents and Congress? Commentators focus on short term issues: Who gets the blame? What compromise will reopen these agencies? Will President Trump get something he can call wall funding? Will his supporters be satisfied? If he does, what will the Democrats get in return?
How would these questions change if we focused on the next generation, especially those old enough to follow the news? We might ask: Does shutting down the government over a policy argument strengthen or weaken the institutions we will be passing on to the next generation? Does it strengthen or weaken the next generation’s faith in democracy? Does it discourage them from choosing a career in public service?
Many kids follow in the footsteps of their parents—I doubt the children of furloughed park rangers are hearing what a great career they could make in the park system.
Taking a next generation view changes the issues and the questions in any political discussion. Could it help settle stubborn disputes before they escalate to a crisis? Maybe. Most of our political leaders are parents and grandparents. Some may tone down their demands and rhetoric if we remind them the kids are listening and taking this all in. Second, when parties seem irreconcilable, a well-known negotiation tactic is to bring additional issues to the table. Bringing the interests of the next generation into the discussion automatically does that. Suddenly, there are more things to bargain about and trade off.
The next time we are headed for a shut down, let’s ask everyone, “Have you thought about the next generation?”
Our political leaders have known about the looming financial crisis for Social Security for decades, but never get it fixed. With the ratio of workers to retired people getting smaller and smaller as the Baby Boomers retire, it is only going to get worse. Should we just leave the problem for the next generation of voters? The Congressional Budget Office just estimated that the cost of our shortfall will be 4.4% on taxable wages–for the next 75 years (report). Wonder how our kids and grandkids will feel about that?
Being a conditional optimist, I think a window is opening up to fix this because we are entering a period of divided government with the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives. Most members of Congress, most of the time, are motivated to claim credit and avoid blame. The realistic fixes for Social Security–raising payroll taxes, limiting benefits, raising the age of retirement, shifting to another funding mechanism–all involve being blamed for making some people unhappy. The neat thing about divided government is that you can divide the blame. We have a president who wants to do big things and a Congress that can neutralize the blame by dividing it–if not now, when is the next time we can save Social Security?
The next generation of Americans will turn its focus to politics in the 2020s and 2030s, and what will they find? A garbage can overflowing with social and governmental problems our generation could not resolve–
…and the garbage can will keep filling up with problems that none of us can foresee.
Every issue listed above is known today, so the voters of the future will have a right to ask why we didn’t do something about them? Like a hole in the roof, these things do not fix themselves–if unattended, they just get bigger over time. What holds us back?
On the big issues of the day, we live in a time of 51% government. Whichever party has the last 1% of votes in Congress works to create policy that conforms to its vision of good government and tries to get it passed. The Affordable Care Act passed with no Republican votes and the 2017 Republican tax cut passed with no Democratic votes. This style of governing wasn’t always the case—President Reagan’s 1986 tax cut bill passed with support of 70% of Democrats in the House of Representatives and 65% of the Republicans. The leaders of both parties were willing to take risks for a bipartisan deal, in spite of opposition from a good share of their own members.
The art of the 1986 tax bill is that both sides could support the same measure for different reasons. Republicans saw their vision of government realized in significant, across-the-board reductions in tax rates while Democrats were happy with the elimination of deductions (loopholes) they considered unfair. Opposing partisans supported the same package based on different values and goals.
I have personal experience with another federal policy that received strong bipartisan support–employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs). The ESOP laws enabled me to sell a family business to our employees and keep it intact. Republicans liked ESOPs because they encourage the “ownership society” (Mitch McConnell is a big fan) and Democrats liked them because they help “spread the wealth.” Different values for the same policy.
To tackle the big problems of today, we don’t need more people of vision—each party has a strong vision of what government should be. Instead, we need creative people who can find common policies that partisans with different visions can support for different reasons. This is not so different from other parts of society. A salesperson on the job to support a family can work with a customer who is shopping to find the right item at a reasonable price. Together they create a successful transaction, even with starkly different goals. They do not need to share each other‘s vision to make things work. We should expect no less from our elected officials.
Gallup has been polling Americans monthly on what they believe is the most important problem facing the country since the 1930s. Here are the top ten issues in their most recent poll:
29% Dissatisfaction with government/Poor leadership
12% Immigration/illegal aliens
10% Economy/Unemployment/Wages/Other econ.
9% Race relations/Racism
7% Unifying the country
4% Lack of respect for each other
2% Ethics/moral/religious/family decline
2% Judicial system/Courts/Laws
These responses zoom up and down–86% mentioned economic issues at the height of the last recession in 2009. People responding to the polls focus on the present, but what will the top issues be in 2036 when those born this year can first vote?
“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” Yogi Berra once said. One way we can think about possible futures in 2036 is to look at 18 year trends and project them 18 years into the future. That should spark conversation about how the trend drivers could change, and if government intervention could help turn around a negative trend. With positive trends, the conversation might be more about how to keep governments out of it!
If the new voters of 2036 could travel back in time, what would they say we should have done to give them a fighting chance? What will their top ten issues be if we do nothing? Issues that only a small number of people mention to Gallup today may be at the top of their agenda: the federal budget deficit is only mentioned by 2%, the gap between rich and poor 1%, education 2%, guns/gun control 2%, care for the elderly/Medicare 1%, and so on. Global warming and Social Security do not even show up on Gallup’s current list.
I will be blogging on the top ten issues for 2036 over the next couple months and invite you to contribute ideas and information. Is it worth the effort? The advantage of an 18 year glide path is that a tiny change in a trend trajectory can power up a great difference. Take the federal government deficit: The Congressional Budget Office projects next year’s federal tax receipts at $3.3 trillion against expenditures of $4.1 trillion for an $800 billion deficit—we will hand the next generation a bill for the interest payments. However, just a 1% increase in revenues and a 1% decrease in expenditures per year would turn that the deficit into a $400 billion per year surplus in 2036. Rip up the bill! The surpluses will start paying down the national debt. Like the proverbial hole in the roof that can be easily fixed, but if left alone only gets worse, some trends deserve our attention, thinking and action right now.