Future Generations, Taxes, and Spending

A few weeks ago, I posted a blog entry describing the symposium hosted on Oct. 23-24 by The George Washington Law Review: "What Does Our Legal System Owe Future Generations? New Analyses of Intergenerational Justice for a New Century." Now that a few minor events like a presidential election have passed, I wanted to return to the subject matter of the symposium. I'll begin with a description of the panel on fiscal policy, on which I presented my article, "What Do We Owe Future Generations?" In one or more future posts, I hope to do some justice to a number of the other papers presented at the symposium.

My interest in the fundamental question of intergenerational justice arose from being a macroeconomist who studies fiscal policy (deficits, debt, taxes, spending, etc.). We always talk about fiscal policy as being good if it makes future generations better off and bad if it leaves them worse off. A few economists, especially the late (great) Robert Eisner, raised but did not aggressively pursue the question of whether this is a sensible normative baseline, given that we have very good reason to believe that future generations of Americans (and some others) will enjoy much higher material living standards than we do. Advocating policies that require us to sacrifice today for the benefit of "our children and grandchildren," therefore, actually means (on average) advocating a transfer from the relatively poor to the relatively rich.

My paper explores this and many related issues, concluding that concerns about generational justice do NOT support a general policy of fiscal restraint (raising taxes and cutting spending) in the pursuit of raising the incomes of future generations above the levels that they would otherwise be likely to enjoy. I leave open, of course, the possibility -- indeed, the likelihood -- that there are other good reasons to change our policies based on concerns for future generations. The most obvious of these concerns, but by no means the only one, is the environment. Still, it was rather surprising even to me when I found myself concluding that we don't owe future generations a fiscal policy that is less present-oriented. (I should add that my larger normative argument in the article is that the proper analytical framework is not generational at all but rather is a matter of vertical equity. Whenever they live, people at the extremes of wealth and poverty deserve special attention from policymakers.)

Dan Shaviro offered a paper that was partly a response to mine but was mostly devoted to articulating his own interesting related argument. He argued that the problem with current fiscal policy (specifically the large budget deficits forecast into the long-term future) is that they can cause, at worst, a "doomsday scenario" (his words) in which the financial markets melt down and U.S. government debt becomes non-marketable, a la Argentina not too long ago. If those long-term budgetary forecasts are correct, we will need to run fiscal surpluses at some point (requiring tax increases and/or benefit and spending cuts); and Shaviro argued that the time to begin doing so is now.

Nancy Altman offered a comment on my paper that (gently) took me to task for not also asking, "What Do We Owe Previous Generations?" Drawing on her expertise in social insurance, especially the U.S. Social Security program, Altman pointed out that the specter of "greedy seniors" voting in droves to steal their grandchildren's birthrights by inflating retirement benefits is a dangerous myth. She demonstrated that too little is currently being provided to retirees, and she argued that we can afford to do much better by our parents and grandparents. She also pointed out that any long-term fiscal challenge that we face is not a problem with Social Security but a consequence of chronic health care inflation. She noted further that the health care problem is not really about Medicare but about the entire health care system, because even if Medicare were fully funded, the economy cannot survive if health care costs continue to rise at the rates that have been forecast.

Finally, Larry Zelenak responded to my paper by one-upping me a bit. First, he pointed out quite correctly that I had identified another area in which there is no uncontroversial baseline, i.e., that we do not even know whether we owe future generations a standard of living that is higher than ours, equal to ours, or lower than ours. He then raised the possibility that we should affirmatively attempt to decrease future living standards so that they will be equal to our own. This would actually be quite tricky, he said, given that technological progress would otherwise raise living standards over time. (Zelenak also noted that my article undersold the possibility that my normative conclusions about vertical equity could be supported by a standard Rawlsian analysis, which I took to be a very friendly amendment.)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this panel was that Shaviro and I at long last found common ground. He and I have been at odds
for many years over questions of fiscal policy. He looks at the forecasts of large "fiscal gaps" and concludes that we should adopt a policy of fiscal restraint as soon as we can. I am skeptical of those forecasts, as I have argued here, and I focus on the good that deficits can do (e.g., here). At this symposium, both Shaviro and I agreed that concerns about future living standards are not relevant to our continuing debate. Scholarly agreement between long-term combatants is a rare thing, and it is worth noting/celebrating such agreement when it happens -- even if, as here, we continue to disagree on other grounds about the best policies going forward. Shaviro still sincerely believes the our fiscal policy must become more contractionary, and I disagree (or, at least, I am profoundly skeptical of the case for such a policy change); but we both agree that "we must do it for the kids and grandkids" is simply not an argument that those who favor fiscal contraction can continue to rely upon.

There is obviously much more to be said about this panel. I am writing a short response piece for the symposium volume (due out next summer). In addition, the symposium included four other panels. Sherry Colb and Mike Dorf wrote the principal papers for two of those panels, so they might want to write here about their experiences at the symposium and the responses that they received. I will offer at least one more post in which I'll discuss issues raised in the other panels.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan