Our God is a God of justice; of this, there can be no doubt. As Christians, we know the familiar refrain of Amos 5:24: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” There is much dialogue today about how to pursue and achieve justice on various issues, and that is a good thing because justice is what our Lord requires. For all our conversations, however, we have yet to fully develop our discussion of pursuing justice between generations. What is the responsibility of one generation to the next? The main place such a conversation is currently considered is in reference to climate change (i.e., what kind of planet do we want to leave for our children?). Another relevant topic that receives very little attention is the notion of fiscal justice between generations. It is time for Christians to weigh in more deliberately on this issue, regardless of our political leanings.
What do I mean by fiscal justice between generations? Fiscal justice involves the level of government spending that one generation engages in and its implications for generations to come. It means valuing future generations as much as, if not more than, that of our own. I believe true fiscal justice between generations requires that one generation leaves financial possibilities for the next generation, and not just bills and debt.
The last forty years of government spending have resulted in record levels of government debt. The ratio of total federal public debt to GDP is now around 130 percent; in 1980, it was 30 percent.1 Our political leaders, and yes, we citizens ourselves, have been unwilling to pay for the projects and programs that we have instituted. What has happened over the last forty years has been irresponsible, but what is happening now is unprecedented.
In the last year, there were two spending bills passed by Congress and signed by the President that cost more than a trillion dollars each. While there has been unparalleled spending over the last year, there has been little discussion of how to pay for it. It is almost like we think we do not have to pay for our spending anymore. Yes, there has been a pandemic, and one could make a case that the spending was justified. However, the unemployment rate in the U.S. economy has now returned to around six percent, which is right around than the long-term average of the last 50 years. There is no longer any justification for extraordinary amounts of spending and debt.
President Biden is now proposing trillions of dollars of new spending,2 and much of the public is on board. After all, who doesn’t want free stuff? The spending is scheduled to be paid for by additional taxes and additional taxpayer compliance enforced by the Internal Revenue Service. How confident can we be that the revenue collected through these methods will match the spending? Or will the result be—once again—increased borrowing and even higher levels of debt? Concerns about the impact of these current spending proposals on any notion of generational justice do not even begin to address the problems with unsustainable long-term programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Some of the programs proposed may be “good ideas,” while others may not. The fact remains, regardless of our political views, we cannot escape the reality that we have to pay for good ideas. Economics is sometimes known as the dismal science for its habit of asking tough questions about the real costs of actions. The question of fiscal generational justice is no doubt a difficult one and one that almost all of us are happy to ignore. However, just because a person is young or not even born yet does not mean that they do not deserve justice. I have four grandsons, and I often think about them and their future. What is the legacy that we will leave? At our current pace of spending, future generations are more likely to curse us than complement us.
Historically, fiscal injustice has been perpetuated by both political parties. Democrats have typically advocated for more spending and the number of their new proposals is greater than ever. Republicans usually have focused on keeping taxes low while looking the other way on increased government spending. This situation is not a good mix if we want to bring fiscal justice between generations. Sometimes spending is framed as an investment, and on occasion, there can be truth to this suggestion. However, someone still must pay the bills, and it seems like we are very willing to hand them off to the next generation.
Today, there are some economists who suggest that there are not as many limits anymore, such as the proponents of modern monetary theory. They suggest that we can create additional money for the government to spend with very few adverse consequences. If you have not heard about this idea, it is worth your time to explore the dangerous assumptions that underlie it. Some politicians are saying this is a great time to borrow money and spend because interest rates are so low. Try that argument out with your kids someday. Hey, I borrowed a lot of money for some things that I wanted, and by the way, you will have to pay it back, but it was such a good deal. In addition, interest rates may not be so low in the future if our increased spending generates inflation. A quick look around (as well as recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) suggests that inflation may already be starting to develop in our economy. Those who are a bit older like me can tell you that once inflation gets going, it is very hard to remove. This is another legacy that we do not want to leave to our children.
One thing that we have learned from discussions concerning the ethics of climate change is the presence of scarcity and limits. We know that we do not want to leave the earth worse off for our children. In this realm, some have used an analogy of what is called a “campground ethic,” which states that we should always leave the campground better than we found it, in order to serve the next person who stays there. This campground ethic could also apply to our fiscal practices.
I believe there are real questions about whether increased involvement in the U.S. economy by the government is a good thing. I have expressed some concerns about universal basic income programs here in an earlier blog post. However, if our society decides to go in the direction of increased government involvement, we should at least be willing to pay for it. The next time you think about justice, think about what the next generation will say about our spending levels and the amount of debt that we have left for them. A good parent would never go on a spending spree and then hand the bill to their children and grandchildren. If we want to be responsible citizens, we should not do this in the political realm.
Thanks, Todd, for raising this issue. One category of spending I don’t think you mentioned is for “defense.” How much spending in recent years has gone to the military? How much of a debt are we passing on to the next generation by defining our own sense of security in a way that requires military dominance? I recognize there are differences of opinion about how to make the world safer for our own and the world’s children, but I would like to see real discussion of less military approaches that would include the issue of fiscal justice and (why not?) fiscal peace.