Saturday, July 23, 2011

Our Intergenerational Credit Card

The current debate in Congress over raising the debt ceiling plays into one of thorniest issues in all of moral philosophy: the problem of future generations. Although it lurks most often in the context of environmental issues (usually pollution and resource depletion) it is readily applicable to the debt crisis.

Imagine the following scenario: Congress is issued an intergenerational credit card, and thereby can access a never-endling line of credit. Now, if you are a Congressman who would like to get re-elected, how would you use that credit card? There are multiple possibilities. First of all, whose interest would you serve? A.) Present generation that can either benefit or be harmed by your spending habits, or B.) Future generations. Would you pay off the balance on that credit card every month, or would you just pay the minimum balance and accumulate debt and pass the deby onto those vulnerable future generations? Of course, the The beauty of the intergenerational credit card is that future generations do not yet exist, and therefore it's relatively easy to pass the credit card balance onto them. And of course, since future generations cannot vote, there is no reason to fear them as a voting block. There is no lobbying group to represent them. Thus, all of the political rhetoric tends to focus on what would happen to the present generation if Congress decides to either default on that credit card or begin to pay down the debt without buying more stuff to benefit the present generation. Of course, Congress might decide to "invest in the future" by asking the present generation to pay for projects that might benefit future generations at the expense of the present generation. For example, we could embark on a long-term railroad building project that would take 20 years to complete. Unfortunately, our efforts to benefit the future might be thwarted by some new transportation technology (personal aircraft?) that would decrease the value of that investment. Now as long the present generation pays the cost of providing this benefit to future generations, we're at least acting responsibly. However, if we decide to benefit the future generations and pass on the cost of providing that benefit to future generations we're on shaky moral ground. Why? Who is really benefitting from these intergenerational projects? The workers in the present generation that land those jobs. If those costs can be paid for with that intergenerational credit card,  then Congress can get re-elected by the present generation and future generations can pay their salaries. If that's not a Ponzi Scheme, I don't what what to call it. But clearly, the idea of an intergenerational credit card is a prescription for taking unfair advantage of future generations.                     

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