Politicians are not known for originality. In their public speech, most cling to the security of clichéd stock phrases the way toddlers hold fast to threadbare blankets. Thus Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney posed before an enormous national debt clock and intoned that the nation’s “debts get passed on to our kids.” Speaker of the House John Boehner addressed the opening session of the 113th Congress by professing: “In our hearts, we know it is wrong to pass on this debt to our kids and grandkids.” On the eve of President Obama’s second inauguration, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell warned that no problem America faces “is more urgent than the massive federal debt that is hanging over the heads of our children and grandchildren.” Late last month, House majority leader Eric Cantor celebrated a budget bill that will help “mak[e] sure we can begin to reduce the mountain of debt that is facing our children.”
But while “our children” are the favorite—and often the only—reason offered to whip debt now, this rhetorical standard seems stubbornly ineffective. Our debts are still here, still growing, with no solution in sight.
Why does this ubiquitous line fail to spur Americans to demand fiscal reform? In part because it is poorly suited to those who most need convincing: younger Americans. This group was essential to reelecting Barack Obama, who has overseen an expansion in publicly held federal debt greater than all his predecessors combined. Indeed, younger voters preferred Obama to Mitt Romney by a 23-point margin. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of national exit-polling data, younger voters also strongly prefer more expansive government: 59 percent of voters aged 18-29 said “government should do more to solve problems,” compared to 35 percent among the 65-and-older group. And while Pew has found that younger adults are more likely than older Americans to say that providing Social Security and Medicare benefits at current levels will place too great a financial burden on younger generations, even the 18-29 cohort still believes that preserving Social Security and Medicare is more important than reducing deficits, 48 to 41 percent.
Republicans have clearly got some explaining to do. But simply lamenting that a failure to curb spending today will unfairly burden our “children and grandchildren” isn’t likely to cut it. A great many of these younger voters don’t have children, and convincing them to forgo the benefits of government spending now for the sake of someone else’s kids is a hard sell. Some may, for the moment, want to preserve generous Medicare and Social Security benefits for the sake of their own aging parents and grandparents. And many of them may not even want children of their own: Demographic trends suggest that today’s younger Americans are relatively unconcerned about producing children and grandchildren, let alone their fiscal situation. The young women who supported Obama because he forced employers to fund their preferred methods for not having children seem particularly unlikely to be persuaded by calls for generational forward-thinking.
Moreover, because the argument that the debt will bring ruin upon future generations is so overused, Americans may tune out debt warnings completely. Some version of the line has been around forever: In his farewell address, George Washington urged Americans to avoid “the accumulation of debt” rather than “ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” Though Dwight Eisenhower presided over an impressive decline in the national debt, he nonetheless declared in 1960 “that it is absolutely necessary that we have savings to put on this debt that we are passing on to someone else.” The Reagan-Bush years saw endless handwringing (mostly from Democrats) about the immorality of passing deficits on to future generations. Even Senator Obama fretted in 2006 that “Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren.”
But as Obama’s outgoing secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, said in 1988—when he was a California congressman reflecting on Reagan’s borrowing—the longer people warn of debt “doom and gloom” without the onset of crisis, “the harder it is to convince others that something needs to be done.” This may be the greatest danger of the continued argument that federal debt will harm “our children and grandchildren”: It gives younger voters the sense that a debt crisis is no nearer now than it was during all those past warnings.
Unfortunately, that sense is false. Our staggering debt will start causing serious problems well within the next 20 years—this generational window. And it will hit today’s younger Americans—not their offspring—hardest.