Spending and the Future

[On Wednesday], millions of Americans mailed in their tax returns to the federal government. And millions more stood in tea party protests across the country, including one in Lafayette Park across from the White House where the crowd stood in drenching rain.

The protests are against the biggest increase in public spending in American history. Even as the President and Congress tell us their committed to deficit reduction, we know better! It’s absurd on its face.

In order to understand my concerns – and the protestors – a little historical perspective is in order: When I left the White House in 1973, the National Debt was approximately $466 billion. That was about $2,200 for every man, woman and child.

As of last December, it was approximately $10.7 trillion, a 23-fold increase. And the per capita national debt had risen to nearly $35,000. This year’s budget deficit will raise the debt to approximately $12 trillion .

What’s even more troubling are so-called “unfunded liabilities.” These are the promises that the country has made to future retirees, like Social Security and Medicare. These total an estimated $52 trillion and the bill will begin to come due in 2011, when the first of the “Baby Boomers” reaches 65.

Sixty-four trillion – about $200,000 per man, woman, and child – and still climbing. Who is going to pay for this? Certainly not those of us over the age of fifty. No, it will be our children, grandchildren and probably our great-grandchildren.

That’s unconscionable. Parents are supposed to leave their children better off, not saddled with debt.

Among my earliest memories are the things my parents did to help me succeed. I didn’t see a lot of my dad then because he was working days during the Depression, trying to keep food on the table, and also going to night school for 12 years.

My father told me “I’ve had to work hard to keep our family together, but you’re going to get a great education and do greater things than I’ve done.” My family wasn’t unique: This idea of making the world better for your kids was an essential part of the American dream and our Christian heritage. And I’ve tried to do that for my kids as well.

But now, not only are we, as the bumper sticker says, spending our children’s inheritance, we have helped ourselves to a chunk of their future earnings.

While governments can and arguably should run deficits during times of emergency, the 23-fold increase in the national debt wasn’t the product of emergencies – it was more the result of what passes for religion in American life.

In this false “religion,” called “Moral Therapeutic Deism,” the “central goal of life,” as sociologist Christian Smith writes, “is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”

A belief system that exalts “being happy” and “feeling good about oneself” doesn’t lend itself to sacrifice and postponement of gratification. On the contrary, it leads to the kind of excess, binges, both in the home and in public life, that got us into the present mess – a mess our descendants will be cleaning up for a long time.

Imagine what our children’s memories of us will be. I shudder to think.

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