Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Worst Generation?

“To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” Franklin D. Roosevelt said this in 1936 as the primary elements of World War II were falling into place. The generation to whom FDR spoke has become known as the Greatest Generation. Sometimes I worry that we will be known as the “Worst Generation”.

If generations can be classified as givers and takers, we are clearly the biggest takers in the history of the nation. Sixty years of American prosperity taught us some ugly habits. We value “stuff”. We feel entitled to luxury. And we try to emulate the rich and famous. We fight any effort to raise taxes, yet we continually expect additional services and benefits from our governments. Rather than looking out for our neighbors, we grasp what we can for ourselves. While this is not exactly a new American trait, it has become pronounced, even respected. As the nation's financial resources become more scarce, the rhetoric becomes more hateful. We are truly a nation of us v. them. Again, not a new phenomenon, but more evident, especially from our elected leaders. The nation known for its safety net of social security and medicare has now decided that it no longer wants to afford it.

Further, we seem completely incapable of tightening our belts to weather a tough time. Like an irresponsible family, we continue to rack up debt with no thought to when, let alone how, we can pay it back. From 1980 – 2008 our deficit spending averaged more than 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product. Since 2008, 8.5%. Clearly, this trend is building. Many, including me, believe that the on-going economic stimulus is needed to help those who are hurting, but no one seems willing to pay for it.

Beyond debt, the United States has wracked up trillions in deferred maintenance. Our highway system alone, with its decaying bridges and crumbling roads, needs to be addressed in the next handful of years, but the American populace reacts with knee-jerk instincts whenever additional taxes on gas are suggested as a funding source.

We are experiencing first-hand one of the great events in American history. The financial meltdown of 2008, and the resulting economic turmoil, gave our country an opportunity to shine. This is our rendezvous with destiny. And our rendezvous, so far, has been fully squandered. Rather than soldiering through a truly difficult period, we point fingers at those less fortunate in our own society. We demonize those requiring help, and we cry 'foul' whenever we are asked to give more. 

At some point, we as a nation will need to sacrifice to pay back the debt. The trillions of dollars that we have borrowed has a steep price tag. The interest on our debt in 2012 was $360 billion. Compare this with the much publicized and universally maligned annual sequestration savings of $85 billion per year, and it is almost laughable. We continue to put off big decisions with finger-pointing rhetoric because taking action is too painful. Social Security, Medicare, and our national debt all need attention, and need that attention now. Each year we put off action on these compounding issues exacerbates the problem in the future.

Our grandparents' demons, Hirohito, Mussolini and Hitler, were despised en mass by the American public. It should have been relatively easy to generate a national response against fascism, yet even then, it took an attack on our Naval fleet to generate the necessary popular and political support to enter WWII. But once committed, the United States was unstoppable. We instituted laws that ensured the basic necessities to those in need. We raised taxes, significantly, on almost all Americans – with the highest tax rates topping 90%. Everyone rationed goods regardless of their ability to afford them, and consumerism, buying goods just to own them, was virtually non-existent.

Our national 'can-do' mood lasted decades. We built the United States into the global model of what a nation can achieve. But over time, we seemed to lose our focus. What started as a concern for the national, and even the global, good subtly shifted to concern for individual good. By the 1980s, yuppies, junk bonds and the 'me-generation' dominated the headlines.

Pre-WWII, the Greatest Generation doesn't strike me as all that different from who we are today. Although when pushed, they sprang into action and impressed the world. Today, we are being pushed from all sides. Rather than wring our hands, too fearful to take action, let's follow the example set by our grandparents and great-grandparents. It is time for collective sacrifice; time to stop the long slide we are experiencing; time for all citizens contribute what they can.

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