The Obama, Romney dance on debt in the debates

Lost in the dueling economic figures of the presidential debate was a shared moral concern by Mitt Romney and President Obama about the giant debt being left behind by baby boomers. Young Americans – and future generations – need more of that political unity.

AP Photo
Under a painting of Thomas Jefferson, President Franklin Roosevelt signs the Social Security Bill in 1935. The retirement system could run out of money by 2036.

Viewers of Wednesday night’s presidential debate could be excused for feeling lost in a thicket of numbers. Yet both Mitt Romney and President Obama had clarity on one economic topic: a duty to bring down the $16 trillion national debt.

Mr. Romney framed it as a moral issue. The baby-boomer generation, he said, keeps “spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation.” With Mr. Obama in agreement, the two then split over how to cut the debt – by entitlement cuts or higher taxes? – while trying to end conflict between generations over financial obligations.

They shouldn’t lose that moment of shared concern as they barrel toward the election finish line. A joint moral purpose on behalf of future Americans can help overcome political differences.

Baby boomers are leaving behind far more than a huge bill. For the first time in decades, those in the next generation may be worse off than their parents in many ways, from average income to student debt to climate change.

Yet any society relies on a compact between generations, even with those yet unborn. Each generation has its own shared idea of what is good and then puts those ideas in place for those to come as well as for itself. Families do this naturally, but modern societies have also come to transcend their temporal self-interests in order to pass on a better way of life to their descendents.

Democracies do this much better than dictatorships as they are based on a wider sharing of values. But democracy also entails the messy politics of making choices about what is valued and, more important, which generation should pay for the big projects.

New retirees in the United States, for example, are promised benefits in their old age that will be worth far more than they paid in taxes and will require a giant transfer of payments from younger workers.

The moral compact is out of whack, not just in the US but in Europe and Japan, too. And politics hasn’t been able to solve it.

In some countries, there is a special office or committee set up on behalf of “future generations” to keep politicians honest. The 2010 bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission reform is one example. In Europe, several states have an ombudsman to track the impact of government decisions on future generations.

Ever since the French Constitution of 1793, various democratic constitutions have had wording to the effect of “bearing in mind the responsibility for future generations.” Thomas Jefferson suggested that each generation should re-create its own governing compact rather than merely accept that of its forebears. “By the law of nature, one generation is to another as one independent nation to another,” he wrote.

The fact that moral ties can transcend each person’s human existence points to a spiritual view of life. Phrases like “we the people” imply that life extends beyond time. They are based on the hope of a common future rooted in shared and eternal ideals.

Such notions often peek into view during an election campaign. When they do, both voters and candidates should grab them.

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