Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Our debt to the future: Will our children pay for the negative consequences of our current choices

By Judy Nadler

Everything we have now is the result of those who came before us, and those who follow us will need the same things we have found here. They would like the earth to be as it is now, or a little better.

This Native American philosophy is often called the Seventh Generation, as it cautions that all decisions should be made based on whether or not that decision would be helpful or hurtful for the seven generations who will follow. All Americans might do well to study this philosophy as we weigh the short-term benefits versus the long-term impacts of local, state, and federal budget decisions.

When is it appropriate to ask the next generation to pay bills we incur today? The federal debt currently stands at more than $7 trillion. The deficit according to the Congressional Budget Office is projected to be in the neighborhood of $422 billion. With spending amounting to $2.3 trillion, this would require the government to borrow one of every five dollars it spends.

In California alone, the budget deficit has risen to $6.7 billion, and the state's legislative analyst Elizabeth Hill has projected that as the deadline for debt payments approaches and the one-time fixes crafted last year expire, the gap between revenue and spending will balloon to $10 million. "We still have a lot of hard work to do," Hill said, predicting that even with the economy turning around, "the state could not grow its way out of the problem." She is urging the legislature to resist the temptation to borrow even more money, as the cost for current borrowing is upwards of $4 billion annually.

The problem is not confined to our legislators. In California, the voters themselves frequently mandate, through the initiative process, programs that must be paid for by the next generation. In the most recent election for example, initiatives on children's hospitals and mental health services—undoubtedly worthy projects—lock the state into spending for many years to come.

These initiatives, especially those pertaining to public education and transportation infrastructure, are often couched in terms of "investing in the future." But too often, our commitments dictate how many tax dollars will be left for future generations to respond to changing needs. One example is the BART extension, a 30-year project that looked essential during boom times but is now threatening to drain public coffers of funds that might better be spent on bus lines or other forms of transportation.

In general, the recent downturn in the economy has not been met with commensurate cuts in services. The public has grown accustomed to the best in police and fire protection, library services, and parks, without paying the actual costs of such services. And few legislators are willing to suggest either a reduction in services or increased taxes or fees.

Optimism may be the driving force in this practice of spending and developing—optimism that in the future, the economy will turn around, that we'll develop new, better, cheaper ways to provide necessary services.

But along with that optimism, we should be engaging in serious discussions about our decisions, and how they will impact the next generation, or two, or seven.

This article originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on December 26, 2004.

Judy Nadler is a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. This is one of six subjects the Ethics Center suggests should be on the national ethics agenda.

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