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A nation of greed: Shackling the unborn with our debt

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Charles McElwee Charles McElwee
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McElwee is a Charleston lawyer with the firm Robinson & McElwee PLLC. The views expressed are his own. 

The Sunday, Jan. issue of the New York Times is remarkable for the convergence of a column by Thomas L. Friedman and one of the Times' editorials. 

Friedman severely criticized President Barack Obama for taking to the country following his election a singular plan to increase taxes on "millionaires and billionaires." "There was nothing comprehensive, nothing bold, no great journey for America and no risks for (the president)" in his "easy" tax plan, which Friedman described as being "really disappointing." 

Calling upon the president "to stop acting as a party leader and start acting like the president of the whole country," Friedman said it is time for the president to face up to the hard part by offering proposals for "comprehensive tax reform, entitlement cuts, radical cost-saving approaches to health care and new investments in our growth engines." Friedman concluded that while "we need to tax more millionaires … we also need more millionaires and middle classes to tax. The president was elected to grow our national pie, not just re-divide it."

The Times editorial criticized French President Francois Hollande for focusing on increasing taxes on millionaires, a "mostly symbolic tax increase" that would raise little revenue, rather than offering "a well-thought-out package of fiscal and economic reforms that (would) put France on the path of recovery and much more."  The Times editorial might well have substituted President Obama for President Hollande of France and been largely on target.

Writing in the January/February 2013 issue of Foreign Affairs, Fareed Zakaria addresses the question "Can America Be Fixed?" focusing on what he describes as "The New Crisis of Democracy" — "not death but sclerosis." 

After noting that the country now spends $2.2 trillion annually for entitlement programs, Zakaria describes the "great challenge" facing America today is "(r)ebalancing the budget to gain space for investment in the country's future." 

Even if the nation's budget allowed spending on infrastructure, Zakaria would not entrust the spending to Congress in that, as he put it, its decisions would be based "on politics (pork), not need or bang for the buck." 

"The U.S. government currently spends $4 on citizens over 65 for every $1 it spends on those under 18," according to Zakaria, causing him to claim  that "(a)t some level, that is a brutal reflection of democratic power politics; seniors vote; minors do not. But it is also a statement that the country values the present more than the future."

There is plenty of evidence to support Zakaria, in addition to the age difference in federal spending which he cited. 

The Washington Times reported on Dec. 7, 2012, that the United States currently borrows 46 cents for every dollar it spends.  As a consequence, the gross federal debt has soared to approximately $16.5 trillion and was recently projected by the Congressional Budget Office to reach $26.1 trillion by the end of 2023.

To a considerable extent, our staggering multitrillion dollar debt is evidence that the country indeed values the present more than it values the future and, in my view, is a manifestation of an inherent trait of human nature — the yielding to present desires. 

That trait is manifested in the political context, by members of Congress and their constituents. Examples from the recent fiscal cliff legislation:  decreasing tax receipts in excess of $300 million over 10 years from certain favored film and television producers and motorsports entertainment complexes, which will cause an increase in debt to cover the shortfall. 

The gratification of present desires, in whatever form, is a powerful influence on one's behavior and often dominates  the promise of a future richer gratification (e.g. remaining on the couch instead of exercising) or the threat posed to  future well-being, say our  health, in satisfying our present desires (e.g. smoking). The influence becomes even more powerful when the gratification is centered in one person and the threat in another. Acceding to a desire in that instance may, I submit, partake of greediness.

 It is entirely plausible to believe that greed is the best explanation of why the American public and the officials it elects are largely content on borrowing $46 for every $100 spent by the federal government, rather than taxing the present generation, the spenders, to recover the $46 in revenue needed to satisfy its needs and desires. 

Indeed, the public and its executive and legislators have become  co-conspirators in greed. The public demands entitlements and other monetary benefits from the federal treasury with hardly a thought of the vast borrowing needed to provide them.  Elected officials, heedless of the future, merrily provide them, in exchange for votes—their gratification.  

The development of a co-conspiracy to take (the public) and give (their elected officials), when coupled with the federal government's seemingly unlimited borrowing power, may well be the most significant flaw of a democracy and could lead to its demise. 

Is the current generation in its greed exercising  the tyranny of the voting majority to the detriment of the unborn to come, saying to them that our present interests come first and you who come hereafter will  not only have to take care of yourselves but pay the indebtedness we have incurred as well?

President Obama in the concluding paragraph of his second inaugural address urged the American people to answer the call of history with passion and dedication "and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom." 

Yes, Mr. President, "Together, we, with passion and dedication, must not, in our greed, extinguish a now flickering light  of  freedom, but rather look to the day when our "selfish gain no longer stain(s) the banner of the free." (A plea in "America the Beautiful.")

Although the president has exhorted "we" – the American people – to do so many things "together," he omitted a more and more likely togetherness brought on by his policies: "Together, we take to the barricades to protest cuts in our government benefits when forced upon us by lenders no longer willing to lend."