Folks my age or a bit older have been described as the “greatest generation.” That appellation has been largely earned for winning World War II. What a time that was. America united in its determination to defeat the forces of evil. People on Wall Street, Hollywood Boulevard and on all those many main streets were filled with civic pride and a deep belief in American Exceptionalism. Patriotism drove millions of men into the military and millions of Rosie the Riveters into the factories.
We first must remember that virtually all those young service men and women who courageously signed up to save the world from brutal fascist imperialism – and who were not among the 417,000 who died in battle — are now dead. Barely three percent of the 16 million Americans who served in the War are still alive. Dying at a rate of about 350 a day, they likely will be completely gone in the next 10 years or so.
After the War, those same young men and women took the reins of business, civic life and government – and produced the baby boom that has resulted in one of the oldest and largest generations of senior citizens in history. They have been the driving force in every aspect of American life for seventy years, and THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE AMERICA WE LIVE IN TODAY.
Whoa!!! Is that a legacy that befits the title “greatest generation?”
One of the hallmarks of America is the belief in an ever-improving nation – that “more perfect union” our Founders envisioned. Each generation was committed to bequeathing to their progeny a better, richer and safer place to live – a better standard of living. This is something our ancestors did as citizens and as parents.
That is not true today. It is almost certain that we will leave to our children and grandchildren for generations to come a nation less rich, less united in a common culture of personal freedom and less safe internally and externally.
Love and respect them as we do, it must be noted that our senior citizens have consumed more natural and financial resources than any generation in the history of the world. Their accomplishments are legendary. They put a man on the moon, cured polio, connected the world with the Internet, produced driverless cars and brought forth unimaginable technological advancements in almost every field – especially medicine. But, in a very real sense, it is arguable that this greatest generation was also the most selfish and greediest generation in American history. Ouch!!
The post-War period — dubbed an era of “peace and prosperity”– made the greatest generation one of the richest in history – and not just an affluent elite, but a middle class in which many could afford two homes, two cars and a boat. We had cheap gas, good educations, great healthcare and great highways. Most of which was paid for with government debt. Nothing was out of reach as long as our government subsidized it and could borrow the money to finance it. In other words, we spent beyond our means – and we did so at an exponential rate.
Lest this picture be too rosy, it must be conceded that accomplishments and advantages produced and received by the greatest generation during those times did not extend to black America – where Democratic Party oppression was still found in the segregated southland and in the impoverished slums of the big cities. The greatest generation was not the most tolerant. And even the progress we have made in eliminating the last vestiges of institutional racism seems to be receding, with the divisiveness identity politics and political correctness replacing e Pluribus Unum.
Benjamin Franklin warned that “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” Though not one of his most famous quotes, it is one of the most relevant to the times in which we live. So many of the benefits the greatest generation enjoyed were beyond their ability to pay for them. So, they not only voted themselves money as feared by old Ben, but they voted to spend more money than the generation produced – something even Franklin could not have imagined. In other words, the greatest generation became the greatest debtors in the history of mankind – and are still borrowing the money for “entitlements” to which we are not entitled.
Maybe it started with President Wilson’s income tax, that provided seemingly limitless money with very limited accountability. Or with President Roosevelt’s New Deal tippy-toeing into the waters of socialism. Then there was President Johnson’s Great Society that gave us what became a very expensive and failed war on poverty and government provided healthcare that is squeezing out the legitimate functions of our federal government – virtually all paid for by borrowing.
Obama’s policies put the national debt in warp speed – doubling a crushing $10 trillion debt to the current unsustainable $20 trillion debt – outpacing inflation at warp speed. Overspending has become a political quicksand that even the more conservative Trump administration cannot seem to escape.
By opposing the restructuring and cutting of the unsustainable Medicare and Medicaid programs, the greatest generation is refusing to slow down an economic train that will crash – but only when we seniors are no longer aboard. We are – with malice of forethought — leaving the disaster to our kids and grandkids.
This reckless and irresponsible spending of recent years has been largely bipartisan. Although, the last years of debt reduction were the 10 Republican years of the Harding, Coolidge and Hoover (first two years) administrations. In each of those years, the debt was reduced, dropping it from $26 billion in 1920 to $16 billion in 1931. Since FDR, it has been up, up and away with little regard for those who would get stuck with the bill – which, of course, are those future generations of Americans.
The debt is directly related to the national budget. We pay for it with taxes and borrowing – piling on more debt. Today, more than 40 cents of every dollar spent by Uncle Sam is borrowed. At the close of the War, the federal budget was $92.6 billion. With the obvious reduction in military spending, the budget dropped to its modern low of $29.4 billion in 1948. The butter and guns policy of Johnson’s Great Society soared the budget over $100 billion for the first time. This was also when the gap between federal revenues and spending grew wider and wider. This was when reckless deficit spending became part of the national fabric and not coincidentally when the greatest generation was at the cusp of its greatest political power.
The greatest generation was taking more and more benefits and services from Uncle Sam despite the lack of money to pay for them. In his first year in office, President Obama and congressional Democrats passed the first ever trillion-dollar annual deficit at more than $1.4 trillion – more than doubling the deficit of $642 billion of the previous year. At current rates, the federal government borrows approximately $1 million per minute.
Of course, none of this deals with the reckless state and local spending that is placing an additional burden on those future taxpayers – you know, all those public sector retirees with those lucrative underfunded government pension plans that are bankrupting states and municipalities.
Since the end of the War for which we praise that greatest generation, the federal deficit – our legacy to our children – has grown from about $200 billion to a staggering $20.5 trillion. That is a 10,000 percent increase.
When we die, we leave an estate to our children. If that estate has more debt than assets because of our purchases, the kids get nothing – but at least they do not have to assume the debt not covered by assets. As parents, burdening our children with such debt would be offensive, unconscionable, immoral. Yet, on the much grander social scale, that is exactly what greatest generation has done – and are continuing to do. Despite Franklin’s admonition, we seniors voted ourselves the benefits of all those trillions of dollars we call the national debt – and we continue to add more every time our annual expenditures exceed our income. And yet, our demands for more government money goes unabated.
We are incurring debt that we seniors have neither the interest nor ability to pay off. One of our Founders’ definitions of tyranny was “taxation without representation.” What could be a worse example than to impose the burden of taxation on those yet unborn – who have neither voice nor representation?
To understand the cultural problem, one merely has to listen to the politicians and the interest groups. No matter the cause and no matter the economics, the constant mantra is for more money – more money for education, healthcare, highways, medical research, food stamps, the arts, military and on and on. It seems that there is no problem in America that cannot be solved by more money – no matter how many times more money has failed to solve problems.
The seniors have set a bad example for succeeding generations – making them believe that government can fulfill all their every wish and desire. As a result, half the youngest generation believes socialism is a viable option. Socialism is a Ponzi scheme in which the initial participants – we seniors – may make out pretty well. But eventually the socialist system collapses because, as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher pointed out, you eventually run out of other people’s money. That is the sad future the greatest generation has imposed on their progeny. We have not only left them with the humongous debt, but with a growing belief in an economic philosophy that will only worsen the situation.
There are enough good people and younger people in America to restore the American Dream for everyone. It will not be easy. There will be tough times as they wring out the excesses of the past. There will be sacrifices. The problem the Millennials will face in their lifetime cannot be solved even for their total benefit. It is too late. The $20 trillion-dollar debt is beyond any ability to solve the problem in one lifetime. The Millennials can only alter the trajectory for THEIR children and grandchildren even as they bear the full impact of their parent’s and grandparent’s reckless and selfish spending. If they rise to the occasion, then the Millennials will truly be the greatest generation.
So, there ‘tis.