Boomers planting a debt bomb

April 30, 2008|By JAY HANCOCK

The biggest U.S. financial crisis isn't the housing crunch. It's the government debt bomb being planted by baby boomers to explode in the faces of their children and grandchildren

But presidential candidates and their media interlocutors (both groups largely populated by boomers) have said almost nothing about it. The country is headed toward terrible inflation, huge taxes and economic decline? Pfft. Let's talk about flag pins.

So it's up to you, young people. The only hope is that you realize how badly you're getting ripped off and decide to do something about it. Two new dispatches - a book and a movie, both with Baltimore connections - are your manifestoes.

"It's younger people who are going to inherit the debt," says Andrew L. Yarrow, author of Forgive Us Our Debts: The Intergenerational Dangers of Fiscal Irresponsibility. "It's an issue for twenty-somethings. It's an issue for thirty-somethings. And it's an issue for children as well."

The country already owes $9 trillion, a record, and almost half of it to foreigners, also a record. It pays more in interest than the annual cost of the Iraq war.

By the middle of this century, 20 percent of the national income - not just a fifth of the budget but a fifth of the whole economy! - will have to be diverted to pay interest on the debt, Yarrow says. Another 20 percent will be needed to finance health care and pensions for boomer geezers.

That'll leave virtually nothing for education, roads, basic research and other investments that make the country great.

On the present course, there are three possible outcomes. Taxes will have to double or quintuple. Runaway inflation will let Washington pay creditors with debased dollars. Or the government will go bankrupt.

Any option would ruin the country economically and probably politically, too.

The answer is an immediate combination of tax increases and spending cuts. Because of interest on the debt compounding year by year, the sooner we act, the less painful it will be.

"We're a rich country, and we can fix this problem," said Patrick Creadon, director of the new film I.O.U.S.A., in a video interview at the Sundance Film Festival. "But we'd better get on it right away."

Nobody's getting on it.

Republicans who pride themselves on responsibility are ruining the country's balance sheet and spouting fairy tales about how tax cuts pay for themselves. Democrats who pride themselves on compassion are causing generational inequity and creating a historic class of victims - Generation Y and beyond.

Why young people haven't figured this out in a big way is beyond me. We need an American Association of Future Generations to counteract AARP and the other boomer lobbies.

Yarrow, Washington director for Public Agenda, a nonpartisan think tank, is doing his part. A boomer demographically but sympathetically Generation Y, he sometimes unleashes fiscal truth on the history students he teaches at American University. It comes as a shock.

"As a 20-year old citizen, it troubles me that I may be faced with the burden of paying for my government's mistakes," one student wrote in a composition in response. "It's a terrible thought knowing that my government isn't planning for my future."

Well, it's time to vote now. And raise hell. And read Yarrow's book, which was based on an op-ed piece he wrote for The Sun a few years go. And go see I.O.U.S.A. at the Maryland Film Festival this weekend at the Charles Theater.

Produced by Agora Inc., the Baltimore-based publisher of financial newsletters and other materials, I.O.U.S.A. aims to do for federal budget deficits what An Inconvenient Truth did for global warming. It focuses on David M. Walker, the former comptroller general of the United States, and his effort to grab the nation by the collar and make it smell the reek of red ink.

Almost alone in government, Walker spoke the whole truth about where America is headed. (His 15-year term as comptroller general allowed frankness rarely seen in other positions.) For years, he rode across the country like Paul Revere on a bipartisan "Fiscal Wake-Up Tour."

"You're supposed to leave the country not just the way you found it but better prepared for the future," he told students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County last year. "The baby boom generation is failing on that."

He recently quit government to head up the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, whose mission is to warn about looming fiscal disaster.

It's a tough job, but it'll be easier if those with the most to lose get on his side. Read Yarrow's book if you're under 30. Go see the film. The baby boomers will be dead when the debt comes due. You won't.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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