A Candidate Talks About Intergenerational Justice (Somewhat Coherently)

by Neil H. Buchanan

One of the longest of long shots in the Democratic presidential field is Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.  One of the reasons that he is such a long shot is that, to state the obvious, he is the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.  As resumes for presidential candidates go, this is pretty unimpressive stuff.

The mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, is apparently is thinking about running, too, but at least LA is the size of many European countries -- and even then, Garcetti seems an unlikely candidate.  On the other hand, enough people voted for a nobody named Donald Trump in 2016 for him to sneak through the Electoral College into the Oval Office.  Also, Buttigieg's name might sound odd, but we did elect a guy named Barack Hussein Obama -- twice.  Who knows whether Buttigieg might find some traction?

Because political handicapping is not part of my job description, however, I am happy to take Buttigieg's entry into the race as an opportunity to discuss his central message.  He is a policy wonk, but he has an overarching idea that motivates his campaign: intergenerational justice.  He thus offers an exciting opening to address issues of old vs. young and to think about matters that are too often overlooked.

On the other hand, Buttigieg's early statements also show the dangers of framing a vision around the notion of intergenerational conflict.

Longtime readers of Dorf on Law will recall that I have been writing about intergenerational justice for years, including multiple law review articles and columns here and on Verdict.  I developed a book proposal on the topic back in 2011, but that is the year that the debt ceiling craziness erupted, which diverted my attentions for quite some time.

I am now, at long last, returning to the project, and it is quite a pleasant surprise to see an actual presidential contender -- even an unknown one -- talk about my favorite topic.  I suspect that I will return to Buttigieg and these topics frequently in the coming months, so today's column is quite deliberately the proverbial mere dipping of the toe into the pond.

Buttigieg has received respectful -- bordering on enthusiastic -- treatment from both David Leonhardt in The New York Times and Edward Isaac-Dovere in The Atlantic.  Both pieces are interesting and offer plenty of reasons to take the 37-year-old's arguments seriously.  Here is what amounts to Buttigieg's elevator speech:
"If you’re my age or younger, you were in high school when the school shootings became widespread; you’re going to be dealing with climate change for most of your adult life in specific, noticeable ways.  You’re going to be dealing with the consequences of what they’ve done to the debt; you’re on track to be the first generation ever to make less than your parents, unless something changes; and your generation furnished most of the troops for the post-9/11 wars. It just gives you a very different relationship to political decision makers and decision making."
That is (almost, as I will explain below) all quite sensible.  Indeed, nearly every policy issue can be thought of in terms of its impact on future generations -- which is why my book project sometimes can feel overwhelming, with seemingly no limit to the policy issues that deserve to be analyzed through an intergenerational lens.

I think, however, that the biggest issue confronting future generations -- and those of us who care about what we leave for future generations -- is not any of Buttigieg's policy issues but a fundamental question of politics writ large.  Specifically, even if we older people continue to fail on all of the issues that Buttigieg identifies, I would still feel good about our chances on Judgment Day if we are able to protect constitutional democracy from the depredations of Trump and the post-1980 Republican Party and restore our political system to robust health.

Looked at it from the opposite angle, I would suggest that we should not feel proud if we were to solve many (or even all) of the problems that Buttigieg identifies if we simultaneously allow the country to slide into anti-democratic authoritarianism.  Buttigieg is talking about much more than "making the trains run on time," of course, but that is the most unflattering (but plausible) reading of his approach.  I do not claim to know anything about Singapore, but at least the thumbnail version of what we seem to know about that country is that it has traded away democratic freedoms for an extraordinarily ... shall we say ... ordered society.

I have no reason to think that Buttigieg would embrace such a model.  Indeed, I suspect that he would be mortified at the thought.  My point is merely that, if one is to take seriously both our obligations to future generations and the scarcity of political resources available to deal with multiple problems, Buttigieg really should not be privileging issues that -- while profoundly important -- are simply not in the same category as preserving a functioning U.S. political system.

And yes, I even include environmental issues in the category of second-tier issues.  One would hope that the political bandwidth would be sufficient to address climate change even while shoring up our constitutional system, but if push comes to shove, democracy and the rule of law must come first.  I would much rather allow future generations to address the consequences of any issue via a system that protects the vote for all people and is truly representative than to allow the political system to continue to be run by plutocrats and sociopaths -- who can, after all, at will undo any current progress that we might be able to make on environmental or any other issues, if they are allowed to continue to dominate the political system.  I will expand on this trade-off in a future column.

One could respond, however, by saying that Buttigieg is right to make the case in favor of taking younger people's interests into account on all of these issues, even if there is a much bigger threat to their future.  And I would agree.  I will, however, note that Buttigieg includes in his bill of particulars that younger people are "going to be dealing with the consequences of what [their parents and grandparents have] done to the debt."  That sounds all very chin-strokingly sage, of course, but it is also incredibly fraught in the current political environment.

The last thing we need is for Democrats to tie their own hands by buying into budgetary orthodoxy -- again.  This happened to Bill Clinton, who -- during the post-election transition in 1992, thus even before he took office! -- abandoned a program of public investment in favor of a commitment to balanced budgets.  Barack Obama also fatefully embraced the 2010 pivot toward fiscal orthodoxy that needlessly extended the painful process of economic recovery -- a process that was particularly brutal for younger people, by the way.

In upcoming columns, I will discuss the "new economics" of budget deficits (which is not, in fact, new at all) in some detail, but suffice it to say here that Buttigieg's approach is at worst sloppy and at best an ill-considered repetition of a very dangerous conventional wisdom.  If we are to think about the interests of future generations -- as we most definitely should -- it would be wise not to buy into a worldview that stands in the way of the adopting policies that would help young people the most.