Walter E. Williams bio photo

Walter E. Williams

Professor of Economics.
(703) 993-1148
D158 Mason Hall
Department of Economics
George Mason University

Related Sites:
The homepage of George Mason University.
Homepage of the Department of Economics at GMU.

How often do we hear politicians, labor bosses, business leaders and other Americans expressing concern about the nation’s children and their children? I generally dismiss such concern as disgusting hypocrisy because their actions don’t begin to match their words.

If people really cared about the well-being of future generations, what kind of behavior might we expect? To answer, let’s use a simple example that can be made as complex as we want it to be.

Pretend there are two farmers who express concern about future prosperity of their children. How might we test their sincerity? Let’s say that as winter arrives, both Farmer A and Farmer B have 50 pounds of corn seed. Farmer A uses 40 out his 50 pounds to make popcorn to consume over the winter, leaving him with 10 pounds of seed for spring planting. Farmer B uses only 10 of his 50 pounds for winter popcorn, leaving him with 40 pounds for spring planting. It’s a no-brainer to conclude that Farmer B is more serious about the future; he is more willing to make greater sacrifices of current consumption. He has a much higher saving and investment rate.

The nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) stands at $10 trillion. The federal government consumes one-fifth, or $2 trillion, of it. State and local governments consume about $1.5 trillion. Some government spending does benefit future generations, such as those spent for national defense, highway construction and public health. Most government spending is for current consumption. The major items are Social Security ($460 billion) and Medicare ($226 billion). Plus, there’s pressure for increased current consumption in the form of a massive prescription drug program for senior citizens.

What’s the impact of government spending on future generations? More government spending means higher taxes. In turn, higher taxes means less money left in the private sector to be used in many ways, including investment. Less investment means that we bequeath fewer resources to future generations. As a result, future generations will have less wealth.

It’s easy for people to feign concern for future generations and at the same time rip them off. Why? Future generations have no representation in Congress, and today’s young people who’ll face the 2030s Social Security disaster have very little. It’s a matter of political expediency.

Imagine the fate of a congressman who says, out of concern for future generations, “I refuse to vote for a massive prescription drug handout for senior citizens.” He’ll get no support from the beneficiaries of his actions because future generations don’t vote and young people don’t vote very much. Selfish senior citizens, who vote in large numbers, will trounce him. Plus, what congressman or senior citizen has a stake in what’s going to happen in 2030 or 2050? They’ll all be dead.

I’m one of today’s senior citizens, and what I can’t figure out is where the notion came from that just because one is 65 years old one is entitled to use the coercive powers of government to live at the expense of younger people. It surely wasn’t a value instilled by our parents.

You say, “Williams, today’s seniors are part of the great generation that won World War II, and we owe them something.” Yes, they did save the nation from the evil forces of Nazism, but the nation’s history is one of great generations since 1776. If anything, today’s seniors might be called the nation’s most morally corrupt generation, for they have made the greatest contribution toward undermining the founding principles of our nation as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.