A recent ad for a Swiss watch shows a well-groomed father getting out of a first-class Pullman car and putting his arm around his 8-year-old son, also nattily attired in khakis, Docksiders and a sport coat. “You never actually own a Patek Philippe,” the ad said. “You merely look after it for the next generation.”
It was a little rich for my taste. But there were some things I liked about the ad. It showed a father in a positive light — something one rarely sees on Madison Avenue or in Hollywood. The fathers there are typically absent, unconcerned or inept.
The ad also invoked a laudable concern for the next generation. Edmund Burke, in his “Reflections on the French Revolution,” wrote that society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.”
It was incongruous to see Burke’s sentiment used to sell watches. But at least it showed we haven’t forgotten about it entirely. So does the environmental movement, a political effort you might not associate with an instinctive conservative like Burke. In his 2013 inaugural address, President Barack Obama made a typical appeal for sustainable energy, saying, “Our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.”
How is it that we can invoke this intergenerational covenant to sell watches and to prevent possibly ruinous climate change over the next few centuries but ignore it in the face of certain fiscal ruin over the next two or three decades?
Detroit’s bankruptcy is a social tragedy that resulted in part from unrealistic promises made to present workers at the expense of future city taxpayers. As the city’s economy and population declined, it failed to trim back its government workforce, maintaining one of the nation’s largest for cities its size.
The city kept promising larger and larger retirement benefits for employees. It even paid bonuses out of the retirement fund in years when it made good money in the market, even as it ratcheted up the tax burden on its ever-shrinking population. When the market turned south, the fund became incapable of paying out what it had promised.
As a result, more than half of the Motor City’s $18 billion in debt is unfunded retirement benefits for public employees, who now stand to lose everything in the city’s bankruptcy. To put it in Burke’s terms, the retiring generation took on a debt their children could not pay.
Federal entitlement spending is, sadly, going in the same direction. Never mind the new health care law. Even without that, entitlement spending accounts for nearly two-thirds of the federal budget (twice what it was in 1960).
Most of this is for Social Security and Medicare — programs whose beneficiaries are defined by age, not need. We call them insurance programs, but they’re not. Today’s workers pay for today’s retirees and ask the next generation to support them.
But we’re asking too much of the next generation, because people are living longer, costs are rising and birthrates are falling. We aren’t leaving our children fancy watches. We’re leaving them debts they cannot pay.
Both of our major political parties have been equally guilty of making promises our children are being asked to keep, but probably cannot. Both are equally afraid to acknowledge the problem.
Unrealistic and false promises do not fulfill our duties of social justice. Surely our noble desire to care for the old and the sick can take a better form. But these false promises persist as politicians keep putting the next election ahead of the next generation.
Garvey is president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.
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