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?”