washingtonpost.com
What We Owe Our Young

By Sandra Day O'Connor and James R. Jones
Monday, June 16, 2008

Idealistic young voters have turned out in record numbers this year -- and not a moment too soon. How our next president represents the interests of young Americans will define not only his legacy but that of an entire generation of political leaders.

The standard Washington model for rewarding influential constituencies is an agenda of targeted spending, tax breaks or regulatory measures. Traditional patronage, however, will not suffice when it comes to preparing for the approaching tsunami of retirement and health-care spending.

The Government Accountability Office and many, many others have documented the magnitude of the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid bills that will come due over the next several decades. Even if every dollar of wealth of every millionaire in the United States were magically diverted to pay these costs, 80 percent of the unfunded liabilities forecast for these three programs would remain on the books.

Social Security Advisory Board Chairman Sylvester J. Schieber has found that honoring today's promises to tomorrow's retirees could put the living standards of working households on a path of decline by the mid-2020s, according to a groundbreaking study in the Milken Institute Review. Under this scenario, today's high school students might never experience a year in the workforce when their tax rates would not rise.

Far more troubling outcomes are at least as plausible. Rather than raise taxes or modify benefits, our leaders could continue to follow the path of least resistance, shifting even greater burdens onto the young and endangering the living standards of everyone else in the process. Brookings Institution senior scholar Isabel Sawhill, writing in this month's Democracy Journal, warns of "realistic" budget deficits so large that by 2017, annual interest payments on the national debt would total $500 billion -- three times the amount of annual war spending in Iraq.

Among the likely casualties of such recklessness would be the very financial markets whose stability underpins the soundness of our private retirement system. And given the growing interdependence of the developed and developing worlds, and the advancing fiscal fragility of our aging allies in Asia and Europe, an American financial crisis could produce aftershocks that would rock the foundations of global prosperity.

Our government was founded on the principle that the legitimacy of law derives from the consent of the governed. Today's youths and future generations have not been consulted in the writing of our current social contract. Yet they soon may face financial burdens that most voters would find intolerable.

As we approach this vast expansion of spending, precipitated by a combination of aging baby boomers and abnormally high health costs, it is time to consult our young. That is exactly what we hope to do through the Youth Entitlement Summit taking place today and tomorrow on Capitol Hill.

The youth activists assembling for this meeting know that although 41 percent of Americans are younger than 30, their political clout is inherently limited. Despite turning out in record numbers this year, voters ages 18 to 29 have accounted for only 13 percent of the presidential primary electorate. In the future, demographics will relegate youths to an ever-shrinking electoral minority.

Far from being a classic struggle of special interests, the representation of younger and future generations depends on the informed selflessness of their elders. Older generations must allow Congress to fix Social Security. Much can be achieved through practical changes that need not affect those in or near retirement.

The larger and more urgent task is health reform. In the interests of effective cost control, Medicare beneficiaries in particular must be prepared to embrace sensible limits on the way their health care is provided. Halting runaway medical inflation represents a potential victory for all generations.

Our country must recognize that an overreliance on taxation poses real economic risks. We cannot grow our way out of this budget challenge. Yet its magnitude is such that we cannot hope to meet it without creating new wealth.

The impressive involvement of young Americans in this presidential election provides a golden opportunity for our next president to face this dilemma -- and to cast aside political orthodoxy in fashioning a bipartisan agenda of reform. Anything less risks undermining the noble experiment that began 232 years ago.

Sandra Day O'Connor served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1981 to 2006. James R. Jones was ambassador to Mexico from 1993 to 1997. They are honorary co-chairs of the Youth Entitlement Summit.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company