Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Funding Opinion

Miller’s Right: Young Americans Get the Shaft

By Rick Hess — June 18, 2012 1 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Over the weekend, CAP’s Matt Miller penned a terrific Washington Post column (“Young Americans Get the Shaft”) in the same vein. It’s a must-read for anyone who fancies that they’re an education advocate. Miller writes:

How are [Americans under 35] being swindled today?... There's no cash for such investments [in research and development] in the future because pension and health-care programs for seniors (plus a bloated Pentagon) take up so much of the budget. At the federal level, seven dollars go to programs supporting elderly consumption for every dollar invested in people under 18. Nationally (after taking account of the fact that most education is paid for at the state and local level), the ratio is still 2 1/2 to one. And that's just today's elderly tilt. We have trillions in unfunded liabilities in these programs coming due as more and more boomers retire. Yet amazingly, both parties would exempt every current senior from participating in the inevitable adjustments in these programs. Paul Ryan and Barack Obama lock arms in agreeing that everyone over 55 must be spared such changes, even though most of these Americans are getting back far more than they paid into the system. And millions are well-off.

He continues:

Add it up, and what's it all mean? Younger Americans don't realize they're coming of age in an era in which both parties have pre-committed virtually all public resources to seniors. They'll inherit a government without the cash or flexibility to address emerging non-elderly needs--choices that should be every generation's birthright. Want to help a poor child or fix a bridge? Sorry, kids, the till is empty.

He closes:

In 1995, when I was a (younger) generational equity worrywart, I asked then-Sen. Alan Simpson how to fix what was clearly coming. Simpson told me nothing would change until someone like me could walk into his office and say, "I'm from the American Association of Young People. We have 30 million members, and we're watching you, Simpson. You [mess with] us and we'll take you out." Simpson was right then. He's still right now.

Today, would-be edu-advocates and self-proclaimed children’s champions have been reluctant to call out today’s seniors on this score. Instead, they seem content to give impassioned speeches while placidly accepting--or even defending--every unsustainable expenditure and program for a complacent and entitled adult populace.

The thing is, even if one presumes the end of the Bush tax cuts or other hefty tax increases (a not-too-likely scenario), failing to tackle entitlements ensures that we won’t have much available for schools, colleges, or anything else. If youth advocates want to do more than give fancy speeches, they need to demand that retirees and aging Boomers step up. After all, it was those Boomers--and not today’s kids--who elected the leaders that delivered expansive social programs, generous Social Security and Medicare benefits, unfunded foreign conflicts, and hefty tax cuts... and paid for it all with borrowed funds.

As I wrote last fall in “It’s Generational Warfare, Now Deal With It:"

Shared sacrifice involves asking Baby Boomers and retirees to step up and, you know, sacrifice. It doesn't mean holding harmless the generations who voted themselves free stuff through the good times while hammering today's youth. I keep waiting to hear the edu-advocates make this point, loudly and forcefully. So, edu-advocates, how about it? I hear your impassioned calls to do the right thing "for the kids." So, are you ready to start wrenching bucks away from a generation of indulged Baby Boomers and affluent retirees to make that happen? Or is your advocacy more of a self-congratulatory hobby? Just asking...

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.