Meet the millennial deficit hawks

November 12, 2012

Deficit hawks hold up the fate of future generations to drive home their warnings about ballooning government debt. But does the next generation want cutting the deficit to be our biggest priority? 

A group of young deficit hawks is making it their mission to warn the Millennial Generation about the dangers of an out-of-control deficit through a new organization called the Can Kicks Back. "The debt is not the top of mind issue for most young people. We believe it's the most important issue," said Ryan Schoenike, president of the group. "Not addressing this issue leads to a lower situation — higher taxes, less jobs, more debt." 


(Source: The Can Kicks Back)

Schoenike, 30, said that he was first inspired to take on the issue three years ago when he was between jobs and happened to catch a "Frontline" documentary about the country's national debt. Up until then, he had been working in the utility industry on solar energy, but he soon launched his own advocacy efforts to educate younger Americans about the dangers of the rising deficit. In 2010, Schoenike and other young deficit hawks pushed for a bipartisan fiscal commission and testified before the Simpson-Bowles commission that Obama ultimately created. 

The Can Kicks Back, which officially launches today with an event at George Washington University, is joining the chorus of outside groups calling for a bipartisan "grand bargain" using Simpson-Bowles as a starting point, achieving at least $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. In fact, both Alan Simpson and Erksine Bowles are on the advisory board for the group, along with former comptroller general David Walker, a prominent deficit hawk whom some members of the group tried to recruit for a presidential run in 2012. 

The group is launching a grass-roots effort to get Millennials to call members of Congress to push for a grand bargain, pushing the message through online advertising and partnerships with groups such as Fix the Debt, which has rallied CEOs. (The name "the Can Kicks Back" is a reference to the criticism that lawmakers have simply "kicked the can down the road" on the deficit.) Led by twenty- and thirtysomethings, the effort has the potential to put a more youthful face on the anti-deficit movement, which has often been identified with octogenerians like Alan Simpson and Pete Peterson. 

But their warnings are similarly dire: If we fail to curb the long-term deficit, the Can Kicks Back says that "taxes could be as much as double current rates," that it will be "difficult to support a family" and that "future investment" in education and R&D has already been cut to pay off our current and past debts.

As Schoenike acknowledges, Millennials are less inclined to see deficit reduction as a priority as compared to other age groups, and they're more concerned about government action to fix the economy:  41 percent of Millenials think that reducing the budget deficit is more important than "spending to help the economy recover," while 55 percent think that economic stimulus is more important, according to a 2011 Pew study. That seems to reflect the ongoing struggles that younger Americans are facing in a weak economy: The unemployment rate for 18- to 34-year-olds is 10.8 percent, compared to 7.9 percent for the general population.

The Can Kicks Back claims that achieving long-term deficit reduction will create "4 million jobs" by eliminating uncertainty within the business community. But it isn't stressing short-term stimulus to achieve job growth. "We don't have a particular opinion that we need stimulus now, or that we don't need stimulus," Schoenike said. "We're not saying we can't spend money, but eventually someone's going to have to pay for this stuff."

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Ezra Klein · November 12, 2012