What are the Forgotten Issues of this Election?

[1] A substantial number of the forgotten issues in this election involve questions of intergenerational justice. Consider the following:

Both the Hospital Insurance part of Medicare (Part A) and Social Security are headed for bankruptcy-Medicare Part A in the next few years, Social Security a few years down the road. Both are financed by taxes on current workers, with the implicit promise that when they retire, they will receive benefits comparable to what current beneficiaries receive. That promise will not be kept.

After a brief period of budget surpluses in the 1990s, the federal government is once again running up massive deficits, the costs of which will be imposed on our children and grandchildren. At a bare minimum, the funds needed to pay the interest on the national debt will siphon off much-needed resources from education and other worthy programs. Even worse, this massive debt could adversely affect our economy and, in turn, the world economy, resulting in loss of jobs and lack of economic opportunity.

Failure to encourage energy conservation and develop alternate energy sources leaves our children and grandchildren hostage to foreign producers whose agendas and commitment to human rights might not be the same as ours. Spiraling energy costs could also adversely affect job growth and economic opportunity.

[2] All of these problems (and others as well) are manageable if addressed in a timely manner. All will be far more difficult to deal with if ignored until they assume catastrophic proportions.

[3] Why are these problems being ignored? For a wide variety of reasons including the following:

Addressing these problems requires making sacrifices. Politicians rarely get elected by asking voters to make sacrifices. Traditionally, Democrats get elected by promising expanded social programs while Republicans get elected by promising tax cuts. Meanwhile, the national debt continues to pile up and Medicare and Social Security continue to careen down the road to bankruptcy.

Relatively few younger Americans vote. In the 1972 presidential election, 52 percent of the 18-24 year-olds eligible to vote did so, with the number declining to 37 percent in the 2000 presidential election. The age-group with the best voter turnout is those 65 years old and older, 67.6 percent of whom voted in 2000. The political reality is that politicians pay the most attention to the concerns of the age-groups that vote in the greatest numbers.

[4] Will candidates in future elections pay more attention to issues of intergenerational justice? That’s not likely unless a greater number of younger Americans register to vote and show up at the polls. Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming put it this way at a conference on intergenerational issues a few years ago: “Take part or be taken apart.”

Daniel E. Lee

Daniel E. Lee teaches ethics at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, where he is the chair of the Department of Religion.