Future Generations of Europeans and Americans

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

My latest FindLaw column (available here later today) revisits one of my favorite policy issues: public investments in infrastructure, education, and so on. I used my recent travels in Europe and the U.K. as an anecdotal complement to some publicly-available research that demonstrates the extremely precarious state of the public capital stock in the United States. My own academic work also has covered this topic, including this law review article from 2006 and this work-in-progress that I am developing for publication (I hope) next year.

It is one thing to experience the effects of the decaying U.S. infrastructure (as all Americans do on a daily basis), but it is quite another to see how much better it could be. I therefore describe in my column just how different an experience it is to travel in Europe, compared to traveling in the U.S. What I found especially interesting was that Bilbao, Spain's small airport was quite modern and was connected to the city via an efficient and simple bus system. To an American, noticing that the airports in Germany and Austria are modern and efficient is perhaps unsurprising, since we generally accept the stereotype of Germanic efficiency. But when Spain -- which is only one generation removed from a corrupt fascist regime, which has never been thought of as an economic powerhouse, and which currently has even higher unemployment than the U.S. -- is able to maintain a decent public sector even in one of its poorer regions, we have a long way to go.

The academic purpose of the trip, however, was to develop my work on intergenerational justice. In presenting my work to academic workshops in each of the countries that I visited, after describing the basic issues that I address, I asked my audiences to tell me whether the standard U.S. political move to justify all policy initiatives as being good for "our grandchildren" was common in other countries. Scholars and students from all over Europe and South America indicated that the "future generations" meme was simply not part of the political conversation in their countries. Even acknowledging the non-systematic nature of the evidence that I gathered, it was truly surprising that none of my listeners indicated that there was any political currency to appeals to intergenerational obligations in their countries.

(This was particularly interesting in the environmental context, because the commitment to policies that sacrifice current comfort for long-future payoffs is manifest throughout Europe. One scholar from Portugal (who had attended a university in Spain) told me that it was actually rather difficult to figure out why Iberian policies were so environmentally friendly, when the typical citizens of Portugal and Spain were quite skeptical of, for example, the usefulness of separating trash into recyclables and non-recyclables.)

By contrast, consider the op-ed by Bob Herbert from Tuesday's New York Times, which was my hook for the FindLaw column. Even though Herbert was really talking about policies that will have immediate benefits as well as benefits that will begin to show up long before even the Baby Boomers have died, he framed the entire column around the idea of what kind of world today's toddlers will inherit when they enter the work force twenty years from now. Similarly, Sen. Joe Lieberman's justification for opposing the health care bill relies on the idea that deficits (which, of course, would not go up under that bill) must be avoided in the name of future generations. This rhetorical move by both liberals and conservatives is, I now have reason to believe, uniquely American.

This means, of course, that we have an especially odd juxtaposition between rhetoric and policy in the U.S. and Europe. In the U.S., we talk incessantly about our obligations to the future; yet we consistently fail to enact policies that would clearly benefit us in the immediate-term, medium-term, and long-term future. In Europe, they apparently do not obsess about their children and grandchildren; but they enact policies that are much more oriented toward the future. Actions really do speak louder than words.