When the unsustainable trajectory of entitlements was explained to President Trump, he reportedly said, “Yeah, but I won’t be here.” That’s the battle cry for many of us.
I make it a habit to read good books. A very good book is Other People’s Money: The Real Business of Finance by John Kay. Kay is a professor at the London School of Economics, an Oxford Fellow, and a financial consultant. He’s also a critic of the financial world.
Kay’s book begins by citing Adam Smith’s The Wealth of the Nations (published 1776). Smith criticizes directors of joint-stock companies as managers “of other people’s money.” That’s a problem, as “it cannot well be expected that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance” as they watch over their own money.
Kay argues that managing other people’s money is why the financial sector has devolved into financialization. This describes a growing class of professional managers, investors, bankers, and government pension planners who “watch over” other people’s money. As Adam Smith warned, too many have been negligent. Financialization has brought efficiency and extraordinary opportunities to some but has contributed to inequality and economic dislocation for many. This is not shalom, or social wellbeing for all.
This isn’t a rant against financial advisors (Kay does a little himself). It’s a warning, harkening back to Adam Smith. When we’re dealing with other people’s money (for example, future generations), the battle cry is often “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.” This is the refrain repeated throughout Kay’s book. I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.
This is Trump’s battle cry. He was elected after promising not to touch Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—all drivers of the deficit. The US deficit is approaching $1 trillion with the national debt heading toward 100 percent of GDP. When warned this is unsustainable, Trump reportedly replied, “Yeah, but I won’t be here.” Not a problem.
This is often the battle cry of my tribe. I’m a white, baby boomer evangelical. It’s dismaying how many (including GenXers) show scant concern about the unsustainable trajectory of entitlements, debt, and unfunded liabilities in the US. Instead, we see a narrow focus on maximizing individual return on investments. What about the debt load being passing on to future generations? Not a problem. “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”
I hear this when asking others about climate change and rising sea levels. How this might impact future generations? No worries. “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”
Now we hear variations of this in younger tribes. Medicare for All. The Green New Deal. Free college tuition. On present course and speed, the US is on track to experience the highest deficits in its history, reaching more than $2 trillion a year by 2029. These new entitlements will add significantly to our future debt, for there aren’t enough “fat cat millionaires and billionaires” (as Barack Obama called them) to pay for them. Who pays then? Future generations. “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”
And what about the human (and financial) toll of the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history? Drugs now kill about 70,000 Americans every year—more than car crashes or guns. More than AIDS did at the height of its epidemic (42,000). More than all the American soldiers killed in the entire Vietnam War (58,000). In 2017 about 47,600 of those deaths were caused by opioid overdose—a fivefold increase since 2000.
Chart the overdose death rate in America since 1980 and a terrifying hockey stick graph emerges—an exponential curve increasing at a constant clip of 7.6 percent per year. Estimates suggest that the epidemic will rage for at least a further five to ten years, killing more than 50,000 people each year. How will we pay for the programs necessary to stem this scourge? Borrow from future generations. “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”
This seemingly cavalier attitude can be corrected by reading Adam Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, written in 1759. He describes virtuous capitalism, holding in tension economic prosperity and social wellbeing. Both/and, requiring virtuous people who don’t say I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone but rather We are in some way responsible to try to fix this. It’s our problem. We might die trying, but we must try.
William Wilberforce felt this way. He was born in 1759, the year The Theory of Moral Sentiments was published. Wilberforce grew up in a time when most people viewed the slave trade as It’s not my problem. I didn’t create it. When Wilberforce came to faith, his battle cry pricked the conscience of England. “You can look away, but never again say you did not know.” We can look away from the unsustainable trajectory of entitlements we’re passing on to future generations, but we can never say we did not know.