Posts tagged with: Intergenerationality

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Not Quite Alone in the Wilderness,” I examine the intergenerational infrastructure of innovation and civilization through the lens of Richard “Dick” Proenneke, whose efforts to build a cabin in the Alaskan wild, alone and by hand, are recorded in the popular documentary, often featured on PBS.

Here’s a clip that gives an extended introduction into the project:

As Proenneke says, “I was alone, just me and the animals.” In his recent book Redeeming Economics, John Mueller relates how classical economists would often use the fictional example of Robinson Crusoe, who was shipwrecked on an island and left to survive alone, to get at the anthropological knowledge necessary for a coherent political economy. In this week’s piece, I do something like this with Proenneke, whose experiment has the advantage of being something that actually happened.
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Over at National Review Online, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at a new study which shows a growing wealth gap between the senior set and those under the age of 35. The boomer generation also has the political clout to protect that security:

… another factor that makes older Americans’ economic position even more secure than that of younger generations is the disproportionate sway exerted by older folks on politics, much of which is directed to maintaining the entitlement status quo. From the narrow standpoint of their own economic self-interest, why should older people vote for the type of entitlement reform that is indispensible if America is to get its public-debt problem under control? Many of this quite numerous demographic will ask, why should they have to scrimp after having paid into Social Security all their working lives?

Members of the supercommittee charged with finding $1.2 trillion to cut from the deficit surely know that proposals such as raising the retirement age are bound to encounter enormous opposition from AARP-like groups — especially the ones dominated by those baby boomers who are now retiring and whose entire lives have reflected an après moi, le déluge mentality. Supercommittee members are also no doubt conscious that older people — many of whom are already very unhappy about Obamacare’s forthcoming changes to Medicare — have an alarming habit of turning out to vote in far greater numbers than their children and grandchildren.

Read Samuel Gregg’s “America’s Gerontocracy” on NRO.

Also see PowerBlog postings on “intergenerational justice” by Jordan Ballor, executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality.

Urban prairie Detroit 2I wrote a bit about my short essay describing some of the principles and concepts at play concerning intergenerational ethics and economics. There are also important intergenerational cultural consequences following the Great Recession. A decade ago there was much concern about the rootlessness of current generations and the transience of the workforce. But that ability for workers to move quickly to new jobs in other cities and states has been undermined by the housing crash. Most anyone who bought a home in the last decade will not be moving anywhere anytime soon.

As Robert Bridges contends in a WSJ op-ed, “Coming generations need to realize that while houses are possessions and part of a good life, they are not always good investments on the road to financial independence.” The “ownership society” means something far different today than it did even a decade ago.

In her book How the West was Lost, Dambisa Moyo describes well some of the background leading up to the housing crash. One of the contributing factors was this cultural ideal of a “homeownership” society and resulting government policy to promote homeownership. She contends,

The direct consequence of the subsidized homeownership culture was the emergence of a society of leverage, one where citizen and country were mortgaged up to the hilt; promoting a way of life where people grew comfortable with the idea of living beyond one’s means.

She also judges that there are significant intergenerational implications:

Under the government guarantee system which propels the rapid appreciation of house prices, the only winners are those who can downsize (downgrade) their housing, or move to a different area, and buy a smaller (cheaper) place. Everyone else loses…. This ‘escalator’ effect continues until the time that the kids go to college. It’s a wealth transfer from the younger generation to the older generation as house prices become more expensive.

One of the effects of what Moyo calls “government guarantee system” is that resources (capital) was increasingly invested in homes that might have been invested in other, more productive, sectors.

An incisive piece by Roben Farzad explores why the aftereffects of the housing bubble are not likely to go away anytime soon. He quotes Doug Ramsey of Minneapolis investment firm Leuthold Group, “a student of asset bubbles,” who says, “The housing decline will be a long, multiyear process, and the multiplier effect across the economy will be enormous.”

Jonathan Smoke, head of research for Hanley Wood, a housing data company, argues, “We’ve gone through a period when we should have been tearing down houses. The supply of total housing stock is beyond what is necessary.”

Why then are we still celebrating “new housing starts” as signs of a rebounding economy rather than a continuation of misplaced investment and cultural priorities?

My editorial, “Intergenerational Ethics and Economics,” appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (more details about that issue here). In this short piece I explore some of the implications and intergenerational consequences of public debt. For this I take my point of departure with the much-discussed “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” but I also point out the importance of considering opportunity cost and how that concept has been applied in an analogous conversation about climate change. Focusing particularly on the current generations of workers, however, I observe:

Younger workers have not had as much time in the workplace to earn wages, collect benefits, and save, as those who have been working for decades and are nearing or have already entered retirement. As we learn from what has been called the “miracle of compounding interest,” small deductions of available capital at earlier points in time have major consequences for long-term growth.

In a recent piece for City Journal, Nicole Gelinas reflects on the federal government’s move to take on troubled securities from private firms. She writes,

The politicians we elect have three choices—the same choices they had four years ago. They can admit that this debt isn’t worth much and allow the financial sector to bear the consequences. They can hope that the Fed tries to use inflation to raise the price of everything else, making the debt seem a lighter burden in comparison. Or they can maintain their silence, letting the financial sector take another half-decade or more to make enough money on new ventures so that it can finally admit what it should have admitted back in the fall of 2007: bad debt is never good. At least the Fed acknowledges this strategy: it says that it’s using “time” to manage toxic securities and “minimize disruption to the financial markets.” But prolonging government control of financial markets just prolongs investors’ uncertainty.

Her conclusion underscores what I contend in the editorial about the importance of opportunity cost and the intergenerational effects of (in)action: “As the Fed notes, the cost of this policy isn’t measured in dollars but in something more precious: time. Washington’s refusal to confront the debt problem is costing millions the most productive years of their lives.”

Also in the current issue of the journal, James Alvey explores “James M. Buchanan on the Ethics of Public Debt and Default.” Buchanan has a good deal of interest to say on these questions, and Alvey concludes that “Buchanan’s favorite policy agenda, constitutional/legal limitations on public spending, deficits, and debt, needs to be revisited.”

The Roman philosopher Cicero once said to his son, “You are the only man of all men whom I would wish to surpass me in all things.” The form this sentiment takes collectively is a good summation of the universal hope for humankind. We want our children in particular, but also the next generation and the world more generally, to be better off than we are.

We want them to surpass us “in all things,” not simply in terms of material wealth, but also with respect to their development as whole human persons, body and soul.

Earlier this week I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion hosted by Common Sense Concept at AEI on the current debt crisis facing America, focusing particularly on applying the concept of “intergenerational justice” to the problem. You can view the entire event at the AEI page. A highlight of my comments appears below:


One of the things we talked about during the discussion was the idea of “opportunity” and how it relates to intergenerational justice. Cicero’s sentiment assumes this idea: his son needs to have the opportunity to surpass him, to be better than him “in all things.”

I think of how this applies to the hopes and dreams of so many Americans, not particularly for themselves, but for their children. Consider the people you know or stories you’ve heard about parents who work extra shifts and second, sometimes third, jobs to put away money so that their child can have the opportunity they have never had: to go to college, to get a well-paying, rewarding, and fulfilling job, and to see flourishing on an intergenerational scale.

It reminds me of the film “The Pursuit of Happyness” that came out a few years ago. This is a story based on the real-life experiences of Chris Gardner. One of the takeaways from the film version is that so much of what drives Gardner to work harder, to never give up, to continually seek a better life, is that he is doing all this for his son. Lending the portrayal special poignancy, in the film Gardner and his son are played by Will Smith and his own son, Jaden.

A great deal of what we are talking about in this ongoing conversation about the public debt crisis and intergenerational justice centers on this idea of opportunity. Ryan Streeter mentioned it explicitly in our discussion, and Ron Sider’s explication of what the biblical picture of “economic justice” is like could be summed up as focusing on guaranteeing opportunity across generations. In his essay, “General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Mosaic Law for the Social Question Today,” (appearing in the latest issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality) the theologian Herman Bavinck describes the Old Testament polity as one in which “the basic necessities for a life of human dignity were made possible for most Israelites.”

The fiscal reality today, however, is that we are rapidly facing a situation in which the coming generations will be constrained from having the opportunity to surpass us because of the profligacy of federal spending, the deleterious commitments to transfer wealth from younger and poorer workers to older and wealthier Americans, and the simply unsustainable levels of spending pursued for decades by politicians.

This is why in the key economic factor to consider in the debates about the ethics of intergenerational justice is that of opportunity cost. As David Henderson writes, the concept’s “virtue is to remind us that the cost of using a resource arises from the value of what it could be used for instead.”

The Social Security system is perhaps the most obvious example in this regard. It is the single largest piece of the federal budget ($695 billion in FY 2010), taking large sections of income out of the checks of working Americans every pay period, that could otherwise be put to a variety of other uses. Depending on the situation, some of these uses might be more immediate and temporary (like food and rent) and others might have longer-term implications (such as investment and savings).

When we ignore opportunity cost and its intergenerational implications, we are constricting the range of options available to current and future generations. We are, in fact, infringing on their rights to liberty and “the pursuit of happiness.”

In today’s Grand Rapids Press I respond to a previous piece by religion columnist Charley Honey, “Religious voices have a place in the state’s budget cut discussions.”

I Hope I Die Before I Get OldI argue in “Christ’s kingdom is bigger than the federal government” that there is a basic confusion from many religious voices in the budget debate about the primary role of the federal government, and make the point that Abraham Kuyper’s “famous quotation attributes the claims of lordship over ‘every square inch’ of the world to Christ, not to the government. To miss this critical distinction is to undermine the very basis of Kuyper’s comprehensive and variegated social thought. For Kuyper, there are important differences among the responsibilities of the government, the church, the family, schools and a host of other social realities.”

I also refer to last month’s conversation with Gideon Strauss of the Center for Public Justice on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” (audio here). Be sure to check out the event later this month where I’ll be a panelist to discuss these issues along with Strauss, Jennifer Marshall, Ron Sider, Jonathan Merritt, and Ryan Streeter, “I Hope I Die Before I Get Old,” hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (the event will be streamed online for those fortunate enough not to live in or near the Beltway).

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, March 14, 2011

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a summary post of this kind, but there’s been a fair number of things of interest over the last week or so that are worthy of a quick highlight. So here’s an edition of the aptly named “Five Things” (HT):

  • Carl Trueman reflects on his visit to the Acton Institute. Concerned about how his Republocrat credentials might come across, Trueman says, “Despite my fears that I might be heavily outgunned at Acton, the seminar actually turned out to be great fun. I had, after all, never before lectured in the back room of a pub, with a pint of Pale Ale in one hand and a notebook in the other. And I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity of arguing that Mrs Thatcher, and not the trendy Left, was the real radical of the eighties and had actually done much to shatter the class ossification that had gripped Britain for generations.” You can listen to Trueman’s Acton on Tap visit here.

  • John H. Armstrong discusses his relationship with the Acton Institute. Fresh off a visit to Rome, where among other things he spoke at an event for Istituto Acton, our Rome office, John Armstrong writes of his first impressions of the institute: “I felt like I had wandered in from the cold. As I listened to Catholic and Protestant scholars explain the freedom of markets and governments, all rooted in virtue, I felt as if I was drinking from a fountain that I had been searching for over the course of my whole life. I was frankly tired of political partisanship as a way to change culture. I wanted to connect with people who saw a better way to make a real difference in society without overtly linking their vision and efforts to raw party politics. I also wanted a different paradigm for understanding principles of economic freedom that was not rooted in the modern ideas of socialism, captialism, etc.”

  • Napp Nazworth chides me for putting principle above prudence. After starting a blog to stop feeling “the need to be somewhat secretive with what I say about my religious and political views, particularly, in my easily found online writings,” Napp Nazworth opens with a series of posts on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” in which he writes, “The time for action on our federal budget crisis is now, and Congress can only accomplish this task by working in a bipartisan manner. Solutions to the crisis will be painful to many voters. Neither political party, therefore, will tackle the problem by itself because to do so would be disastrous for that party at the next election.”

  • Greg Forster has some questions about “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” In his inaugural post at the First Things blog “First Thoughts,” Greg Forster wonders about “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” asking, “Will democratic debate be well served if people who admit that they don’t know the difficult details behind the policymaking get up on a high horse and proclaim what the reform agenda must include – with the (barely) implicit suggestion that anyone who disagrees is an enemy of the public good – or of God?”

  • David Mills rebukes the “Evangelical Left” for coming late to the debt-denouncement party. Sticking with First Things for a “A Call for Intergenerational Justice” trifecta, in a piece “On the Square” today at First Things, David Mills notes the Acton Institute engagement of the Call, but contends in particular that the signers of the document, the “Evangelical Left” in his view, “are very late to the party, and they ought to apologize for being late before they start talking about it as if they’d helped plan it.”

I’m not sure I have ever really encountered the term intergenerational justice before this discussion over “A Call for Intergenerational Justice,” at least in any substantive way. This unfamiliarity is what lay behind my initial caveat regarding the term, my concern that it not be understood as “code for something else.”

The Call itself provides a decent definition of the concept, or at least of its implications: “…that one generation must not benefit or suffer unfairly at the cost of another.”

One of the commenters here at the PowerBlog is Peter Vander Meulen, who runs the Office of Social Justice at the Christian Reformed Church (the denomination to which I belong). Vander Meulen rightly reiterates that much of the disagreement has to do with our differing views of the primary responsibilities of government.

Much of my concern with the Call is that is does not display enough in terms of substantive commitment to principles. I think our debates about the budget crisis need to lead us back to consider from first principles what the role of government in society ought to be relative to other social institutions. (I hope to provide more on that positively later this week.)

It is on this point that my concern about the invocation of intergenerational justice in this context, and social justice more broadly, is not being construed in a vigorous enough manner.

To put it bluntly: How can a call for intergenerational justice in particular, or social justice more broadly, have any plausibility without addressing the fundamental social problem of abortion? If intergenerational justice is about the duties and responsibilities from one generation to another, it seems obvious that the starting point of the discussion, from a particularly evangelical and even more broadly Christian perspective, should be on the question of whether that next generation has a right to come into existence in the first place.

It is an unfortunate reality that social justice and abortion are oftentimes not viewed as related in this way. Acton Institute research fellow Anthony Bradley wrote last week at WORLD’s site about how abortion is often not considered a priority justice issue. In the context of the abortion rate in New York City, he writes,

I’ve been browsing the mercy and justice websites of several of New York’s well-known churches and Christian non-profit groups for discussion of New York’s abortion crisis. Outside of the crisis pregnancy centers themselves, I have not found much of anything. What one will find are very good discussions on subjects like fighting homelessness, improving inner-city education, opening women’s shelters, and dealing with sex trafficking and juvenile delinquency. I raise this issue because I am concerned that perhaps the missional pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

Closer to the context of this discussion, Mr. Vander Meulen’s agency, the Office of Social Justice (OSJ), was instructed by the denominational synod last year to “boldly advocate for the church’s position against abortion.” This instruction was deemed necessary because the OSJ did “not currently offer many resources to advocate for the unborn,” despite the fact that there is an official denominational position on the question of abortion (while there is not one on so many of the issues that the OSJ does “boldly advocate” for). You can judge for yourself whether that situation has changed substantively in the intervening time (e.g. “Advocacy…Coming Soon!”).

One of the signers of the Call, Jim Wallis, perhaps illustrates this illegitimate dichotomy between social justice and abortion in his judgments about the moral status of the abortion question. In a 2008 interview with Christianity Today. When pressed on this point, Wallis spoke candidly:

“I don’t think that abortion is the moral equivalent issue to slavery that Wilberforce dealt with. I think that poverty is the new slavery. Poverty and global inequality are the fundamental moral issues of our time. That’s my judgment.”

By contrast I do think the “Guideline on Human Life” offered by CPJ is rather more helpful and substantive than the current efforts of the OSJ to “boldly advocate” against abortion.

But shouldn’t consideration of abortion be a critical consideration in any discussion of “intergenerational justice”? The Call itself invokes the context of “generations yet unborn” and the relationship between “grandparents” and “grandchildren.”

If the connection of abortion to the budget debate remains unclear to some in the context of intergenerational justice, we might raise the following considerations:

Does the Call adequately address government provision for funding of abortions, whether through entitlement coverage or through funding for organizations that provide abortion services, such as Planned Parenthood? There are clauses advocating that “Effective programs that prevent hunger and suffering and empower poorer members of society must continue and be adequately funded,” and that “We must control healthcare expenses.”

Is funding for Planned Parenthood support for “an effective program” that prevents suffering or something that should be cut?

And there are also clear demographic and population implications for questions of future funding of entitlements, including Social Security. As I noted above, I hope to make the link more clear later this week when I talk about the need to get back to basics in the budget crisis.

Last week’s issuance of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis” has occasioned a good bit of discussion on the topic, both here at the PowerBlog and around various other blogs and social media sites.

It has been interesting to see the reaction that my comments about the Call have generated. Many have said that I simply misunderstood or misread the document. I have taken the time to reread the document and do some reassessment of the entire debate. Unfortunately this has raised more questions than answers for me thus far.

Gideon Strauss, CEO of the Center for Public Justice, has kindly offered to help us sort out some of these concerns. He’s in Grand Rapids later this week and has generously agreed to a public discussion in an open mic, informal setting we’re calling, “Opposing Views: America’s Debt Crisis and ‘A Call for Intergenerational Justice.’”

Details are below and at the Facebook event page. We plan to record the event and make it available for those who aren’t able to join us. But if you are, come along and bring your questions.
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I posted some initial thoughts on “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis,” which was released by the Center for Public Justice and Evangelicals for Social Action yesterday.

I’ve been engaged in what I think are largely helpful conversations on this document in a number of venues in the meantime. Gideon Strauss challenged me to look at the document again, and reconsider my criticisms, and I have been happy to do so.

For instance, I voiced the concern that the core budgetary problem that must be addressed concerns entitlement spending, and I judged that the Call does not sufficiently address that concern. Gideon pointed me to a piece by Michael Gerson, a signer of the Call, that makes precisely this point: “Debates on discretionary spending are important. Our government should not waste money on ineffective programs. But discretionary spending is a sideshow, even a distraction, from the main governing task: getting entitlement spending under control so it does not crowd out all other government spending.”

I also made a related point that we should not be juxtaposing cuts in, for instance, defense spending with those on other discretionary areas, including social programs. As Gerson writes, these debates are largely a “sideshow.” And so Gideon also pointed me to today’s editorial about the Call, which makes a number of important points, not least of which is that “It would be simplistic to portray the present challenge as a simple matter of ‘guns vs. butter’ and to overemphasize the contribution that prudent reductions in defense spending, however necessary, would make to the current debt crisis.”

One further point of concern I voiced is that “what we’re missing here is a really principled and vigorous view of what the government’s legitimate role is in the world and in relationship to a variety of concerns: defense, social welfare, international development, and so on.” Gideon pointed me appropriately to the CPJ “Guideline on Government.”

These are all good and necessary documents for understanding the proper interpretive context for the Call, and I’ll admit, they weren’t the first things I thought of when attempting to understand the petition. I still wonder, though, why some of these things couldn’t be made more explicit in the document itself? If Gerson is right, that debates over discretionary cuts of whatever programs are really a distraction, why not make the focal point of the Call entitlement reform in a more central and explicit way?

And I do think there are other relevant interpretive contexts for understanding the Call. Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and a host of others have been involved over the last days and weeks in a “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign that bears many similarities to “A Call for Intergenerational Justice.” Much of the material surrounding that campaign does seem to focus on fights over discretionary cuts, even to the point of contrasting military and social spending.

Jim Wallis said, for instance, “On a television program yesterday evening, I said that I want those who now propose major cuts to critical low-income family support programs to say, out loud, that every item of Pentagon spending is more important to our well-being and security than school lunches, child health, and early education programs.” He goes on to highlight particular social spending programs that should be immune to potential cuts.

I don’t think that kind of rhetoric is helpful at all, and is more of what Gerson might call a “sideshow.” But it is important because there is so much continuity between the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign and the “Call for Intergenerational Justice.” A significant number of signers of the Call, including Wallis and Claiborne, also are behind WWJC. And even the language about cutting budgets “on the backs of the poor” is reiterated with respect to the Call. Signer Jonathan Merritt writes that the Call means “we cannot balance the budget on the backs of the poor.”

So while the CPJ documents Strauss points to are certainly relevant to understanding the Call, I submit that the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign is also relevant. And here we might have a hint at why some of the more substantive theoretical questions regarding the role of the state in the provision of various social goods is not examined in more detail in the Call itself: the signers don’t have a unified view on this principled point. The CPJ Guideline on Government is a good starting point, but I find it highly doubtful that it would be assented to by all of the signers of the Call.

So perhaps there really is more than one way to read this document, and it can be put to various uses by various constituencies. This ambiguity, combined with my own doubts about what it actually does substantively say, are enough for me to refrain from signing it, even while I most certainly do agree with the sentiment that the current debt burden is unsustainable, both fiscally as well as morally, and continue to respect the work of many of those who have signed it.