When it comes time to write the history of my generation of Americans, I'm afraid it will not be pretty.
Our first baby-boomer president was Bill Clinton, who will be remembered as a mediocrity and a disappointment, even to his most ardent supporters. As for George W. Bush, historians are already calling him the worst president in the history of the Republic and the full measure of his disastrous leadership will not be known for years.
Beyond pure politics, it will be written that my generation went on a consumer binge that threatens the biosphere and enslaved America to foreign despots who control the world's petroleum reserves. We allowed our democratic institutions to be corrupted by corporate wealth and power. And we did it all as prophets cried from the temple wall that we were headed down the road to perdition. Indeed, we are still in denial.
But perhaps the greatest sin my generation has committed against the next generation of Americans is the national debt, which stands at nearly $8 trillion.
The trend lines have been clear for years. My generation's coming retirement will usher in a permanent shift to an older population -- and a permanent rise in the cost of programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which already comprise 40 percent of the federal budget. There is no plan to pay for it other than running up the national debt.
We have known for decades that these trains were converging on the same track; we have had every opportunity to start braking their momentum before the collision. The first and most obvious thing that we should have done in preparation for that day was to start paying down the national debt. In fact, that's exactly what the federal government was doing in the last two years of the Clinton Administration. In those two fiscal years, the government ran in the black for the first time in decades, and the projection was that if we held to that program the national debt could be paid off in 20 years.
Then came George W. Bush, who entered the White House promising the greatest tax cuts in history, then launched an unnecessary war which has cost the country an additional $100 billion a year. Never before in all of human history has a government slashed taxes while waging war, but such was the Republican program -- an ideological fantasy which has resulted in the near doubling of the national debt in six years.
Today the trains are building speed and closing the gap. It may seem there is no immediate crisis, yet according to a broad bipartisan consensus our current fiscal policy is unsustainable. A train wreck is inevitable. Its impact on our economy cannot be gauged, but as Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke has observed, "the aging of the population is likely to lead to lower average living standards than those that would have been experienced without this demographic change."
Fortunately, some patriotic and hopeful people have taken it upon themselves to play Paul Revere in this hour of crisis.
The Concord Coalition is a grassroots organization dedicated to educating the public about the causes and consequences of federal budget deficits, the long-term challenges facing America's unsustainable entitlement programs, and how to build a sound economy for future generations. The Coalition is offering America some tough choices: scaling back future health care and retirement benefit promises; raising taxes to pay for them; or -- most likely -- some combination of the two.
Unlike your humble scribe, the Concord Coalition is nonpartisan, claiming such disparate members as the very liberal Brookings Institution and the very conservative Heritage Foundation. You can learn more about the Concord Coalition by going to www.concordcoalition.org, but next week the Coalition will come to you in the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour, a nationwide road trip of Coalition members speaking to the public about the looming crisis.
The Fiscal Wake-Up Tour will come to the Holliday Alumni Center, 68 Hagood St., on The Citadel campus, across the street from Johnson-Hagood Stadium, at 6 p.m. on Tues. March 6. Coalition panelists will include David Walker, Comptroller General of the United States; Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition; and representatives of the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution. The event is sponsored by the Charleston Area League of Women Voters and The Citadel School of Business Administration.
It's altogether fitting that this event should take place on a college campus, the focal point for the generation of young Americans who will have to suffer the consequences of my generation's arrogance and irresponsibility. Nothing can undo the damage that has been done, but perhaps it's not too late to change course and avoid a national train wreck.