October 28, 2005
The Coming Generational Storm

By Froma Harrop

America should prepare for a big fat war between the generations. It's going to be ugly. On one side is the baby boom generation, which retires and claims a ton of government benefits. On the other are younger workers, forced to fund those benefits plus pay the bills their elders left them.

When the war comes, the Federal Reserve chairman will have to be general. That person will likely be Bush nominee Ben Bernanke. The question is, for which side will he fight?

Outgoing Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan tried to represent both sides. He supported the Bush tax cuts. This gave comfort to today's taxpayers, who chose not to charge themselves for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the new Medicare drug benefit and the quarter-billion-dollar bridge to nowhere.

Last spring, Greenspan did service for the other side. "I fear that we may have already committed more physical resources to the baby boom generation in its retirement years than our economy has the capacity to deliver," he said. One solution would be to ramp-up means-testing for Medicare, the health insurance plan for the elderly. Greenspan would reconfigure the program "to be relatively generous to the poor and stingy to the rich."

The political reality is that the baby boom generation expects to see the nice government handouts its retired parents enjoyed, and then some. Younger workers expect to be taxed at today's lower rates. One group will be very disappointed -- or perhaps both groups -- because there is no way the Candyland economics of today can go on.

The whole alarming future is nicely mapped out in a book, "The Coming Generational Storm," by Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff and Scott Burns, a personal-finance columnist at The Dallas Morning News.

Kotlikoff and Burns clearly sympathize with younger Americans and Americans not yet born, who will be paying both our bills and their own. "Does it feel better," the authors write, "if those unknown victims of our rapacity are someone else's children and the children of those children and the children of those children of those children?"

Sounds like war to me. Kotlikoff and Burns try to be meticulously nonpartisan, but I won't. Though the irresponsible policymaking spanned decades, today's mad deficits rush us closer to disaster. Democrats are not shy about pushing for retiree benefits, but at least they consider raising taxes to pay for them. Not the current crowd, whose spend-and-borrow strategy is the 1919 Versailles Treaty of this-century America: an unstable setup that guarantees future conflict.

The scam is that the tax cuts are not really wiping the nation's slate clean of tax obligations. When spending exceeds tax revenues, the difference must be borrowed. That debt does not disappear. It gets paid for, with interest, by someone's taxes. So the Bush cuts simply move the taxes from one generation of shoulders to another.

Ben Bernanke would certainly come to the Fed job with good credentials. Head of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, he formerly chaired the Princeton economics department. Bernanke seems OK, but other candidates were more upfront about deficits.

One was Martin Feldstein, Reagan's top economic adviser. Feldstein drew flak for criticizing the Reagan deficits. The Bush White House wouldn't want to hear that kind of thing. Anyway, there's no need to worry about making ends meet when you can use the next generation's credit card.

Another Republican contender for the Fed job was Larry Lindsey. He was fired as a Bush adviser in 2002, after predicting that the war in Iraq would cost up to $200 billion, a figure already passed. Lindsey did not understand: One simply does not talk price in the Bush administration.

Given the president's tendency to give top jobs to those closest, we can give thanks that he did not nominate his banker brother. Neil Bush played a major role in the Silverado Savings & Loan fiasco of the 1980s, which cost taxpayers $1 billion.

Or perhaps the president was doing the big-brotherly thing in protecting Neil from a job sure to be filled with strife. The person who heads the Fed in the next decade will be trying to steer the nation through the perfect economic storm. Good luck to the new chairman, and to all the generations.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Froma Harrop

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