Indentured Youth

By , Jon Cowan works in Washington for Rep. Mel Levine (D) of California.

AS a young congressional staffer, I yearn to ask the elder statesmen around me if they really want to bequeath their children crumbling roads, dirty air, a mountain of debt, uncontrollable hazardous waste, and a hollowed-out industrial base. For in these days of deficits and tax tinkering, it seems that, tragically, America's political leaders have relinquished all semblances of governing - trading their children's future prosperity for reelection. Daily we are sacrificing our long-term health for our short-term wealth.

Though leveled before, my criticisms are today painfully relevant. Unheeded, they have brought us to the brink of decline, with the '80s debt draining our economy through military consumption and imports, rather then capital investment.

We can no longer hide from the fact that those of us born in the mid-'60s or later are fast becoming economically indentured by the reigning generation.

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The signs of servanthood are frightening: the United States as the world's largest debtor; attempting to mask our real problems with accounting gimmickry such as the recent Bush capital-gains proposal, which will cost $21 billion over the next decade; $30 billion of the S&L bailout hidden from the deficit by taking it ``off-budget;'' and a severely weakened industrial base that jeopardizes our ability to respark a rise in stagnating living standards.

As Sen. Ernest Hollings and Charles Bowsher, head of the General Accounting Office, have pointed out, ``cooking the books'' by financing our budget deficit with Social Security surpluses can only mean one of three things when it comes time to provide for the baby-boomer retirees: dramatically slashing benefits, defaulting on a huge stack of IOUs, or sharply increasing taxes on tomorrow's workers.

Even more shocking are the GAO's estimated costs of meeting America's human and capital-investment needs over roughly the next decade: for example, $150 billion to modernize our nuclear-weapons complexes; $350 billion to repair and maintain our infrastructure; and $20 billion to rebuild America's deteriorating stock of public housing.

America is today unwilling to pay the price of prosperity, in a large part because of the economic myopia of our elected leadership. When the bill comes due, it will tighten today's middle-class squeeze like a vise - as second-rate industrial strength leads to second-rate living standards.

My generation must listen to the drumbeats of debt and decline and demand better from our leaders.

It is incredible to hear our political leaders calling for ``national education goals'' when they are failing to match the standards being set by our top competitors on almost every front. Recently, for example, Japan, a nation with 60 percent our GNP, began out-investing us in absolute numbers in plant and equipment for the first time in the postwar era. They are also out-saving, out-training, and out-trading us.

Perhaps it is my political inexperience that makes me believe there is a way out, that we want and can deliver more than economic mediocrity for the generations to come. President Reagan first put our childrens' future on the auction block, insisting on putting money into the hands of the wealthy and weapons into the arsenals of generals - instead of research funds into our civilian economy and food into the lunch boxes of our kids. If President Bush and Congress wish to reverse this trend, they have no choice but to resheath their partisan daggers and put a halt to such a disgraceful public giveaway.

Of course the election-for-children swap is the ideal Faustian bargain: all gain, no pain. Watching today's political stalemate, I am left wondering if reelection isn't worse than crack cocaine; certainly the addictive properties are equally demonstrated and destructive.

The irony of all this is that such a tradeoff is not even necessary. All across the country, state and local leaders are running, winning, and governing on platforms that emphasize investment over consumption, and a sound economic future over immediate economic reward.

America's political leaders must consider making a fiscal New Year's resolution. It could go something like this: The well-being of my children is so important that I will campaign and govern for the long term. I will wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and remind myself of this simple truth.

One doesn't want to underestimate the challenge of making this shift from short- to long-term politics. The politicians who take the trouble, though, may take greater satisfaction at what they see in the mirror.

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