Groucho Marx’s quip is funny, but not what most of us believe. Those who are parents or grandparents—and many who aren’t—believe we should balance the welfare of the next generation with our own. For a prospective democracy, it is a matter of equity that we should not take advantage of children simply because they are too young to vote.
How should we balance the interests of children, who are politically powerless, with those of us who can vote, lobby and hold office? Many parents make extreme sacrifices for their own children, but it would be unrealistic to think that most people would do the same for all children. Is there a middle path between an “everything for the kids” stance and Groucho Marx?
One possible model for prospective democracy is a legal standard that has developed over hundreds of years for trustees who manage the affairs of minor children: the prudent person rule. When legal disputes arose about the management of trust funds, judges had to find a middle way to determine if a trustee was being reasonable. Sometimes, trust funds had losses on investments—was the trustee being reckless in their investment decisions or doing the best they could with the information they had at the time? Did they take reasonable steps to check on potential investments? Judges realized that trustees did not have god-like foresight, so they would ask if the trustee was making rational, intelligent decisions—were they acting as a prudent person would?
The prudent person rule could be a key guideline for policy-makers in a democracy that cared about the next generation of voters. If they were acting in good faith to protect the interests of those who are politically powerless, prudent policy-makers would ask about the potential eighteen year effects of a proposed policy, evaluate the evidence from history and research, and make sure that multiple voices are heard. We can’t ask that policy-makers always be right in their judgements, but a person of average intelligence should be able to review their work and conclude they made a reasonable effort to avoid harming the next generation—they did what a prudent person would have done.
The short answer is never. The current generation of senators will make their decision on his nomination and the current generation of voters will decide how they feel about that decision in the next election, but—if he is confirmed—the next generation of voters will have to live with his influence as long as he wants to serve. When citizens born this year have their first chance to vote in 2036, if Brett Kavanaugh is sitting on the Court, he will just be hitting his stride at 71. Of course, he will be sitting next to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, celebrating her 103rd birthday.
Out of the controversy surrounding the politicization of the Supreme Court, a group called Fix the Court has been calling for an 18 year term limit for justices. They propose that when the current justices retire, all new justices be appointed for an 18 year term. Eventually, each president would get to nominate two justices, one in the first year of their term and another in the third. Having an 18 year term would provide a regular rotation, insulate the court from political pressures and eliminate the practice some justices waiting for the “right” president before retiring.
Fix the Court focuses on the term limit proposal as a way of restoring balance to the court, but it dovetails nicely with democracy for the next generation of voters. When the U.S. Constitution was written, the average life expectancy was 36, so the natural passing of justices insured that each generation could have influence on the composition of the Supreme Court. That is no longer the case. By giving lifetime appointments, we are tying the hands of the next generation. It may take a constitutional amendment, but the idea of term limits for Supreme Court justices is an idea whose time has come.
You may or may not agree with the political perspective in this op-ed, but Thomas Friedman is asking many great questions about whether we are being fair with our kids in the policies we are enact. Thanks to my sister Nancy for bringing this to my attention.
Please send along articles that focus on the next generation.
From The New York Times:
‘Anonymous’ Is Hiding in Plain Sight
The G.O.P. crowd who accepted the devil’s bargain is huge.
Thank you for coming along on this journey to define what we owe to the next generation of voters. It has been said that the easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading. I hope to give you enough valuable and thought-provoking information each week in these blogs so you will want to come back, and to do it in short, easily digestible packages. To gauge whether I am on track, I will pay close attention to your feedback. Please let me know what you think and add any relevant information to the discussion. Let’s see what we can build together.
For my first post, I wanted to respond to the feedback I have gotten so far about the Democracy for Future Voters essay. Before starting the blog, I sent this around to about 20 people I knew to ask for their ideas and criticisms. Most read it and wrote back with both enthusiasm and skepticism. Here are some of the themes:
Several agreed the next generation perspective was needed in government today because of the financial burdens we are putting on them without their consent. One concern was the “intergenerational wealth transfer” caused by running deficits for current consumption. Another was the underfunded liability that is building up for public employee pensions. Borrowing for a war, for long-lasting infrastructure, or to pull ourselves out of a recession might be justified as providing benefits to the next generation as well as costs, but borrowing simply because the current generations of voters are not willing to pay for the government they want seems unfair.
Several readers focused on educational needs for the next generation. Schools and other institutions must prepare students with the knowledge and motivation to be active, responsible citizens. They will have to understand the political process and believe they can be effective. In today’s information environment, we also need to arm them with the tools to sort out fact from fiction and fact from opinion.
One reader suggested that “losing hope” was a great impediment to the next generation being ready to engage politically. He believed that this was caused by a feeling that the system is rigged, political leaders spreading fear, and growing inequality. He also cited changes in laws and regulations that have accelerated the decline of labor unions.
How would we come to a consensus on defining the interests of the next generation? One reader suggested that high school aged children could be involved in councils to discuss their interests and concerns rather than having adults simply guess at them.
One reader agreed that it is important to get more long-term thinking into government, but wondered why I just focused on children who are too young to vote. He pointed out that most current voters will still be alive in eighteen years and that we owe a duty to future generations beyond the next one. This was echoed by another reader who mentioned an idea prominent in Native American circles about thinking in terms of seven generations.
A couple of readers responded that the whole idea is unrealistic. One wrote, “How do you expect current voters to care about the next generation when they won’t even put Social Security on a sound footing for themselves?” Another thought that the influence of money in elections, lobbyists, and the polarization of our political parties will make it impossible to shift American governments in the direction of more long-term thinking.
Finally, one reader raised the issue of how difficult it is in practice to project the impact of current policies eighteen years into future. He asked questions about how we could evaluate an infrastructure bill that covered many different projects, how we could project the results of zeroing out the budget for the Department of Defense—or doubling it, how we would deal with the issue of discounting future costs and benefits. Even if there was full political support for considering the interests of the next generation in deciding policies, the technical issues would give us another mountain to climb.
Responding fully to each of these bullet points could be several years of work. I hope we can accelerate that by thinking together. I will plan to do postings on these over the next few months. Please keep sending ideas, facts and figures, or references to others who have worked in this area.