Budgeting For The Good Of The Next Generation In a recent op-ed in USA Today, President Obama wrote that the debt deal offers the chance to "secure a better future for our children." But there's no consensus on how. Some argue we owe the next generation a lighter debt load, others prioritize fully funded education and retirement programs.
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Budgeting For The Good Of The Next Generation

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Budgeting For The Good Of The Next Generation

Budgeting For The Good Of The Next Generation

Budgeting For The Good Of The Next Generation

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In a recent op-ed in USA Today, President Obama wrote that the debt deal offers the chance to "secure a better future for our children." But there's no consensus on how. Some argue we owe the next generation a lighter debt load, others prioritize fully funded education and retirement programs.

Guests

Ron Elving, senior Washington editor, NPR
Robert Samuelson, columnist, Washington Post
Lisa Mensah, executive director, Initiative on Financial Security, Aspen Institute

TONY COX, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tony Cox in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Just moments ago, President Obama signed into law the measure that will cut federal spending and raise the debt limit. For now, the debt ceiling debate is over.

President Obama argued in a recent op-ed in USA Today that the debt debate offers the chance to secure a better future for our children, but there is intense debate over just what that means. Some argue we owe it to the next generation to sacrifice and pay down our debts. Others insist we owe them well-funded education, retirement and other programs and services.

We want to hear from callers of all ages today. What does this generation owe the next generation? Our number, 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We will tackle that very important question in just a moment, but first we want to check back with our resident debt ceiling expert about the most recent developments. Senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us again in 3A. Ron, nice to see you again, two days in a row now.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Tony.

COX: As we said, the president just signed this bipartisan agreement into law. Compromise, let's begin there, is a word we've heard a lot of over the last few weeks. Just how much compromise was involved with this?

ELVING: There was compromise on all parts but not in equal amounts, and I think it's probably fair to say that everyone feels that they gave up too much, although, in the end, it is clear that the deal is a spending cut deal towards the deficit reduction and not a spending cut and revenue increase deal towards deficit reduction.

So in that sense, the side that felt that there had to be two wings on the airplane gave in, and one wing on the airplane is all that's being relied upon. That's one reason why this package wasn't as big as the one the president had been negotiating with Speaker Boehner, the so-called grand bargain that would have cut roughly twice as much from the deficit over 10 years but which would have also included some revenue increases.

COX: Let's hear from the president, as a matter of fact. After the Senate vote today, he made a statement in the Rose Garden at the White House. Among other things, the president made a point to remind voters that this debt deal is just the first step.

President BARACK OBAMA: This compromise requires that both parties work together on a larger plan to cut the deficit, which is important for the long-term health of our economy. And since you can't close the deficit with just spending cuts, we'll need a balanced approach, where everything's on the table.

Yes, that means making some adjustments to protect health care programs like Medicare so they're there for future generations. It also means reforming our tax code so that the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations pay their fair share. And it means getting rid of taxpayer subsidies to oil and gas companies, and tax loopholes that help billionaires pay a lower tax rate than teachers and nurses.

I've said it before, I will say it again. We can't balance the budget on the backs of the very people who have borne the biggest brunt of this recession.

COX: Ron Elving, if I may use a boxing analogy here, a heavyweight fight sometimes goes the distance, and it sounds as if we have gone through round one, maybe even round two of a heavyweight fight over the debt ceiling issue. But now we're going into some more rounds.

ELVING: Yes we are, and perhaps the reason that those fights last longer is because those kinds of fighters tend to be warier. They don't go in throwing lots of punches. They size each other up. They do a lot of footwork. That is one reason why those kinds of matches last a long time.

And in this case, you do have two parties which have been diverging and eliminating their own respective centrists so that we have more and more liberal Democrats, and we have more and more conservative Republicans.

And so as a result, the people who used to be the glue in Congress - the moderates, if you will, the people who are interested in compromise, believed in compromise, thought compromise was what Congress needed to be all about. Those people are, well, scarce.

They've become quite scarce in recent years, and so we're going to have more and more rounds of the two heavyweights looking for a knockout punch against each other.

COX: Let's talk about the specifics of the supercommittee that is to be put together and that is facing, as I understand it, a Thanksgiving deadline to come up with some sort of idea about what the next phase of cuts would be.

ELVING: Yes, interesting that the designers of this compromise made Thanksgiving their deadline, and then the deadline for Congress to act on their recommendations is Christmas Eve, practically - the 23rd of December.

This is savvy because the truth of the matter is that when Congress acts, it's usually right ahead of a holiday or some other kind of recess that is going to drag them out of town, and they know they finally have to focus and get it done, not unlike the final week before exams or when your papers are due. That's how Congress operates.

So this new Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, as it's called, will have 12 members. Three will be appointed by the House Democratic leader, three by the House Republican leader, and correspondingly three from Senate Republicans, three from the Senate Democrats.

They - we need to see these names within 14 days. That's how long the leaders have to tell us. Of course, they could come out and tell us this afternoon. I don't think they will, but sometime in the next 14 days, they've got to come across with those 12 names.

They can choose people that are interested in compromise. For instance, in the Senate perhaps they could choose the Gang of Six. That was three Democrats and three Republicans who got together over a matter of months and had sporadic meetings and eventually came up with a rather grand bargain, if you will, in the sense of it having both spending cuts and - primarily spending cuts and some revenue possibilities.

And they put that forward to their colleagues. It was actually getting quite a bit of support in the Senate. More than 50 senators showed up at the meeting to talk about it. A lot of Republicans said it was something they might be able to live with.

But I don't expect that Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, and Mitch McConnell, his Republican counterpart, are planning to appoint those six senators. I think we'll see six different senators.

COX: One of the things that the committee is designed to do is to act or else. And that if the committee doesn't act, and I need you to explain the rest of this for me that if they're not able to come up with an agreement, or if Congress is not able to come up with an agreement, then automatic cuts go into effect.

ELVING: Yes, now the listener will have noted that this is an even number of people on this committee, and therefore we could easily get a six-to-six kind of an outcome. If that is the case, then they won't have anything to report, and Congress won't have anything to approve.

If, on the other hand, they can get a seven-to-five or perhaps, you know - be still, my heart - an eight-to-four or a nine-to-three kind of agreement, then they could put that before the House and Senate and before September 23rd, the House and Senate need to approve it. If they don't, then what's called sequestration, which is about as pleasant as it sounds, kicks in.

And under sequestration, there is an across-the-board cut, all kinds of spending with the exception of what we call the entitlements, although Medicare will not be held harmless. Medicare will not be held harmless. They do want to protect beneficiaries from losing their support, but they're going to try to get more money out of Medicare, and that's going to be difficult to do without some kind of ramifications for patients.

Anyway, that's what happens. You get this big, across-the-board cut of about a trillion and a half dollars. That is definitely going to hurt, especially in defense because defense is already taking a bit cut in the first round.

COX: As you know, we're going to be talking about that in more detail for the rest of the hour. One of the issues, as I understand it, also is that there is not going to be any cut to Social Security, at least in this first round, and even if it were to go to be triggered where the automatic cuts go into effect, Social Security would still not be hit, at least not initially.

ELVING: That's correct, and now of course, down the road there's going to be more pressure in this area, but Social Security is a special animal. It does have its own revenue stream, and it is not in immediate trouble. Down the road, down the road as more people live longer and so on, it has fiscal problems. It has fiduciary problems. But for the moment, Social Security is not the source of this problem. It's all the rest of the federal budget that is the problem.

COX: We have two callers. We're going to try to get them both in while you're here, Ron Elving. The first one is Joe(ph), joining us from Harrisburg, Virginia. Joe, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JOE (Caller): Thank you. I wanted to say that I think our generation owes the next generation as small a government as possible, and that includes eliminating both military and entitlement programs and that's because military power is always abused and causes national disasters, and government programs do not depend on solving problems for their survival. Civic organizations do, and that's why we've seen a refocus on local economies and local co-ops.

COX: Joe, thank you very much for that. Is that a position you think that is widely held?

ELVING: There are certainly many people in the country who feel we'd be better off having the problems of the nation dealt with at the state level or the local level or in the private sector, or by some hybrid of local governments and the private sector, and I'm sure that's true for many problems.

It does not deal with the challenge of national security, which is, generally speaking, why nations form, for their national security, to hold off intruders from other countries. And certainly it is a huge part of our federal government to provide for the common defense of the 50 states.

The entitlement programs have grown up since the 1930s, Social Security, Medicare, enormously popular programs. Do any kind of a survey in this country, and you will find most people expect Social Security and Medicare to remain intact for their old age. That's a pretty strong political imperative, too.

COX: Let's take another call. This is Steve(ph) from Ellensburg, Washington. Steve, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

STEVE (Caller): Oh, thank you. I'm wondering, this concern about future generations seems relatively recent, and we wouldn't even be having this conversation if there had been considerations for future generations back when we chose to go to war in Iraq and when we chose to give the wealthy tax cuts for no obvious good reason. I'm...

COX: Let me stop you there. Let me just stop you there, Steve, just because the clock is saying. Is it true? Do you have a response to what he said, because we've got to move to another segment.

ELVING: Well, of course politicians are always making decisions with one eye on the future generations. You know, many years from now, their own children and grandchildren. But in truth, most politicians make most of their decisions based on two elections in all of American history: the last one and the next one.

COX: Final thing for you, before we go to our next part of this ongoing conversation. Do you think that the nation can let out a collective sigh of relief right now?

ELVING: Only a partial one because we certainly did not want to default on our obligations. We certainly didn't want large portions of the government to shut down. We didn't want government checks to stop going out to people who are expecting them and live on them. We didn't want any of those things to happen.

And we did not want to run up against this debt ceiling and have those things happen. But it's only a partial reprieve and a temporary reprieve, so not too much of a sigh yet, Tony.

COX: Ron Elving, thank you very much for your time today. Senior Washington editor Ron Elving, joining us here in Studio 3A. Now that the deal on the debt is done, we're going to talk about one common argument in this debate. What do we owe the next generation? And we want to hear from callers of all ages to tell us what does this generation owe in your opinion. The number is 800-989-8255, or by email, that address is talk@npr.org. I'm Tony Cox. this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. The debt deal is done, with some $900 billion in cuts over the next 10 years and more than a trillion more still to come. We don't know yet exactly where those cuts will come or how they will affect most Americans. We do know that all sides tend to make the same argument: We owe it to the children.

Depending on who you ask, the spending cuts are stripping future generations of the investment they need or saving them from the burdens of an unmanageable government debt.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): Just to stay afloat, we're now borrowing 41 cents of every dollar we spend from our kids and grandkids, and this spending spree threatens our children's future.

Senator DEBBIE STABENOW (Democrat, Michigan): You don't just cut your way to success, you grow. You invest in the future.

Representative KEVIN MCCARTHY (Republican, California): Think for one moment or only imagine what the future could be if the debt was taken away. What could you spend that interest money on? What could you invest in for America?

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): There are things that we need to invest in to get America back to work: education, training and research.

Representative JEB HENSARLING (Republican, Texas): The American people have long since said: Washington, quit borrowing 42 cents on the dollar, much of it from the Chinese, and sending the bill to our children and grandchildren.

COX: That was House Speaker John Boehner; Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat; Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy; Democratic Senator Dick Durbin and Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling.

So what does this generation owe the next generation? We want to hear from callers of all ages today. The number here is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Just go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson argues that spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other programs has, quote, become so huge that unless checked, they will sabotage America's future, end-quote. Robert Samuelson joins us now from his home in Maryland. Nice to have you on the program.

ROBERT SAMUELSON: Nice to be with you.

COX: In a moment, we'll be joined by Lisa Mensah, who is the executive director on the Initiative on Financial Security at the Aspen Institute. One of the things that you wrote about in your column, Robert, you said, you know, the bulk of the problem here, and I'm paraphrasing, but I'm going to quote in a second, you said it's the elderly, stupid. Why do you say that?

SAMUELSON: Well, let me just first inform your listeners that I am 65. So I am not - I might be considered elderly. If you look at what the government budget actually does, it is mainly a mechanism to transfer income from workers and taxpayers to retirees.

About 50 cents on every dollar, excluding interest payments, goes to retirees through one of a number of programs, Social Security and Medicare being the most prominent but other programs including Medicaid, SSI and veterans and civil service retiree programs.

If you go back to the 1950s and 1960s and even the 1970s, government's main function was defense spending. It was to protect the country, to guarantee our security. And in the '50s and '60s, defense spending often constituted half or more of the budget.

So we have had a major social and political and economic transformation over the last 50 or 60 years, and when you talk about the federal budget now, you're talking mainly about these obligations, and they are the main part of the budget.

And the argument I made in that piece, and have been making in many pieces for many years, is not that we should eliminate these programs - they are vital, important programs that are part of our social fabric - but we need to modernize them to reflect current economic and social conditions.

In particular, we need to reduce benefits for retirees who are reasonably well-off, and I would say for some retirees, we need to eliminate them altogether. We need to make them - those very wealthy retirees pay the full cost of their Medicare, and we also to raise eligibility ages to reflect longer life expectancy and the better health of retirees.

And if we don't do this, we are simply imposing an enormous burden on our children, an enormous burden on the future, and that's basically been what I've been arguing for years.

COX: Let me use this opportunity to bring Lisa Mensah into the conversation, and then we're going to bring the audience into it, as well. I've got some emails I want to share with you, and we'll take some phone calls. Lisa, welcome to the program. What is your thought about what Robert Samuelson has just said the problem is with regard to the elderly?

LISA MENSAH: Thanks, Tony, it's great to be here. You know, I love the conversation about what do we really owe our kids, and I think that's a very powerful way this debate has been framed. But I'm unwilling to pit kids against elderly. I think that's not the right frame for America.

I think we are all in this together. I live in a three-generation household. My kids are under 18. My husband and I are 48 and 50, and my mom's 74. We all - all of these investments work together as a system. I love the call for the critical investments that are needed in the rising generations, and I'll come back and talk more about that because I think we have an unfinished agenda there.

But our kids, my 12- and 15-year-old, definitely need a system that doesn't put the burden of caring for me, as their parent, or their grandmother on them. And I don't think that's just a budget thing. I think that says we need a robust country that works, that a social insurance system that works.

COX: The point that you are making is one that is made in a number of the emails that I have. I'm going to read a couple of those, and then we're going to come to Steve(ph) in Orlando, Florida. This one comes from Brandon(ph) in Kansas City.

What do we owe the next generation? We owe them compassion and tolerance. We owe them a healthy environment, a sound education and health care, exclamation point. All these things cost money, another exclamation point. All these things don't mean we have to go further into debt. It means we have to pay for the future we want. The future isn't cheap, but I think it's well worth the investment.

Here's another one. This one is from Maria Rayes(ph): Today's generation owes the next generation affordable education, and beyond that, access to education for any child regardless of socioeconomic status. We owe all elders and children affordable medical coverage. We do not, however, owe the next generation a retirement fund.

I think if we have learned anything from recent events, it's that, number one, we need to save and stop relying on credit; number two, it's important to invest in retirement plans and not be dependent on government; and number three, we all have to do our part by paying taxes - and this is in parentheses - and yes, probably higher taxes for the most fortunate.

So today's generation has the task of educating the future one about living within their means.

One other one. This is from John Roe(ph). John, I was taught to leave any place you go in a better condition than you found it. We owe the next generation a stable nation with security and acceptable debt. Sadly, this may not come to pass.

Let's take a phone call. This is Steve in Orlando, Florida. Steve, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

STEVE (Caller): Good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss how I think - looking at it from the standpoint of a citizen, if I don't balance my family budget, I'm going to go broke very quickly, and nobody's going to loan me anything.

And so we owe the next generation a balanced budget. That's my opinion. And if at the reading of my will, and my kids find out that I've left them an enormous debt, they probably wouldn't give me a decent burial, and they'd probably steal my gravestone to pay for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COX: Interesting. Steve, thank you very much for that call. That's an interesting thought. Let's go next to Kevin(ph) from Houston, Texas. Kevin, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KEVIN (Caller): Thank you very much. Yeah, I think that we've elected a bunch of people who don't know how to listen to us. The American people, you know, there was a poll that came out that said two-thirds of the people wanted revenue increases as well as spending cuts. And then that didn't happen in Washington.

And I think we need to, number one, elect people who are actually going to listen to us and number two, elect people who actually have the guts to call these people out on this. They're not doing their jobs. They're not listening to us, and nobody in Washington is standing up for them.

COX: Kevin, again, thank you for that call. We have one other call we're going to take. This is Mark(ph) in Miami, Florida. Mark, welcome, you're on the air.

MARK (Caller): Thank you for having me. I've got two quick points, if I could make. One is what we owe, and I'll try and stay as unromantic as possible. The only thing we owe the future is freedom and security as far as the government is concerned. The balanced budget is our responsibility.

Now on that point, on a more pragmatic point, what I do for a living is make companies more efficient through software and technology. I'm happy and sad to say my business is booming because the economy is so bad. And the reason I bring that up is the only reason the business of becoming efficient is booming is because these companies no longer have the amount of cash inflow coming in that allowed them to float through all their inefficiencies.

The only thing that's going to get our government programs modernized, as the paneler was starting to talk about, is cutting the flow of debt. If they can't borrow, regardless of how inefficient they are, they're going to have no choice but to become more inefficient, and that's what we need.

COX: I think you meant to say more efficient, absolutely. Thank you very much for that. Let me come back to both of you, Lisa and to Robert. We've heard some calls. We've read a couple of emails. Let me ask you both, starting with you, Robert. With the new debt deal, the one just signed by the president today, what type of future do you imagine for today's children when they turn 50 or 60?

SAMUELSON: Well, I'm not sure that today's children who'll turn 50 or 60, if they're 15 or 10 or 20 - nobody can predict what's going to happen in 40 or 50 years. If you were sitting in - it was 1900 and somebody asked you what was it going to be like in 1950, you wouldn't have been able to predict the Great Depression. You certainly wouldn't have predicted World War II. You probably wouldn't have predicted World War I. You wouldn't have predicted television. You wouldn't have predicted mass air transportation and so on. So I don't know what's going to happen in 50 or 60 years, and nobody does. And somebody who says they do is really deluding you or deluding themselves.

COX: Well, let me put it to you another way, Robert. What if nothing is done to address what you say is the issue, one of the largest issues with regard to dealing with the elderly and how much money they are draining from our economy, if nothing is done to address that, then what would you say - youngsters who are going to be 50 or 60 in 40 years, then what might they see?

SAMUELSON: What will happen and is already happening is that you see taxes are going up and public services are going down, and the mechanisms by which this is happening vary from place to place, and some of it has been triggered by the great recession and the financial crisis. But what we see here is rising health care spending, much of which goes to older people who are naturally not as - are sicker than the younger people, beginning to squeeze out education spending, roads, local services and will continue to do so at the national level.

And taxes will go up for taxpayers who are mainly, though not exclusively, workers, because between now and 2030 the over-65 population is roughly going to double. The health care spending is rising at an unsustainable rate, much higher than - much more rapidly than incomes or general prices. So all of these forces will basically come together and are going to impose much higher tax burdens on people or force reductions in other government services. And that's the basic problem, budgetary problem that we face as a society.

COX: Is that what you see, Lisa?

MENSAH: Tony, I think you can't predict, but you can prepare. And I think we can prepare at the household level privately, but I also think we can prepare for the future at the public level, and that's what the big conversation is about. How you prepare at the individual level at households, that's the core of financial security. We spend a lot of our work on thinking about private savings, how do you prepare. That's a 40-year work life that a child can contemplate, and you can privately save and develop a strong nest egg, and that's part of the function of the private systems and the government tax supports that make that.

I believe we could get to nest eggs of six figures if you start saving diligently, and I think we should start those savings accounts, frankly, at birth. But I think the other question about what to prepare for is how we prepare our fiscal conversation. And I'm thrilled that we're here with that conversation now because this is where the mature conversation needs to go, how do you pay for what you want?

COX: Let me let the audience know we are talking with Lisa Mensah, who is executive director of the Initiative on Financial Security at the Aspen Institute, and with Robert Samuelson, a columnist with The Washington Post. We're talking about what this generation owes the next. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

So, Lisa, it's one thing to prepare, but don't you have to have an environment that you can prepare in? And the question that we're talking about and that Robert Samuelson has addressed is whether or not the environment that the government has created for all of us as we get into our golden years, is it one that we can prepare for and thrive in? And should we?

MENSAH: I think opportunity comes in crisis, so I would give two examples. I think at the private level, this is the opportunity. Sure, when you're unemployed, your savings rate goes down, but households have started to save, and that's a powerful thing. On the public level, let's think about 1983. We've been talking a lot at the National Academy of Social Insurance, where I chair the board, about what was put in place when we were almost out of money in the Social Security. It was a much worse system. We were months from running out of money to pay the checks. And then, we came together seriously, and we put together a plan that would carry us for the next 30 years.

Those changes haven't even come through yet. So we have before. We saw the baby boom coming. We took steps then. We started - we slashed the benefits - we actually increased the retirement age. My generation is going to face already a higher retirement age. So we prepared in a moment of crisis. We took the steps necessary to preserve the social insurance systems that we're all counting on. I have full confidence that we can do that again, despite an environment of challenge.

COX: Do you really believe that we have prepared adequately? I suppose that's the question.

MENSAH: I think that's where this mix of private and public comes in. I think we have a lot more private savings to do, but all of the private savings rests on an insurance basis. You know, you can save at work, and you can save at home, but you need the Social Security insurance system to protect you for all sorts of things. It's the baseline of our system. And as every banker knows that, that this is a both/and system, not a choice of whether we do this just solely on our own with our own savings or not.

COX: Well, we're going to have an opportunity to continue this discussion with you and with Robert Samuelson and with some callers and some emails for the rest of this hour. I want to read a couple of emails first, though.

I believe the most important things we should leave our children are self-sufficiency, greater strides in renewable energy, stronger conservation, more enforcement of environment protections. Also, leaving them a true democratic government for the people, not government bought out by and for the profits of our corporate overlords. That comes from Nicole.

This one comes from Shannon in Buffalo, New York. This is the first time I have written into TALK OF THE NATION, though I am a regular listener. I am 29 and the mother of two elementary-age children. One thing I have learned is how unfair it is to expect my children to bear my debts. Many in my generation are struggling with the realization that our extended lives will not be as carefree as that of our grandparents and parents. Credit will not carry us through retirement, and it is time we as a country stop living beyond our means. We owe our children a hard work ethic and some self-responsibility, not costly handouts.

We're going to be talking, as I said, a lot more about what we owe the next generation in just a moment. If you'd like to join the conversation, the phone number is 800-989-8255. You can also reach us by email, talk@npr.org. That's the address. Stay with us. I'm Tony Cox. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COX: Right now, we're talking about the deal to cut federal spending and raise the debt limit. What do we owe the next generation? Some say we're mortgaging their futures. Others argue we owe it to the next generation to invest in their education and retirement and other programs. We want to hear from callers of all ages today. What does this generation owe the next generation? Our number, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website, just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson. He also wrote the book "The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Influence." I know we haven't talked to you in a couple of moments. You're still with us, aren't you, Robert?

SAMUELSON: I think I'm here.

COX: OK. I appreciate it. I haven't forgotten about you. We're coming back to you, I promise. Also with us, Lisa Mensah, executive director of the Initiative on Financial Security at the Aspen Institute. She joins me here in Studio 3A. As you might imagine, Robert and Lisa, the phone lines are just lit up...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COX: ...with people from all over the country calling. So I beg your indulgence, the two of you, as our guests to let me get some of these calls in, and then, we'll come back and continue with the conversation. The first one I'd like to go to - this is Erin in Salt Lake City. Erin, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ERIN (Caller): Hi, Tony. Thanks for having me.

COX: You're welcome.

ERIN: I wanted to talk a little - I'm in, you know, I think the next generation that you're talking about. I'm 23. And I just wanted to talk about apathy, both in this - in my generation and in the generation that Congress is in, and I don't think that - I mean, especially with politicians having to raise so much money to campaign, and so it just seems unlikely that they care about, you know, especially their own children because they're not going to have worry about their own educations. They're going to be taken cared of.

So we can't - my generation can't allow the apathy and nor can we participate in it. So I just wanted to present that point of apathy, and that I don't know why we're not, like, taking to the streets and protesting. And I'm from Utah, so it's very unlikely here that that's going to happen - a real conservative state but...

COX: Erin, thank you very much for your call and for your thoughts. A couple of more, then I'm going to come back and talk to our guests about what you are saying and writing to us here at TALK OF THE NATION on this very obviously touching subject, touching in terms of reaching out and making people feel that it's part - something that they want to be a part of. Joel is in Johnson City, Tennessee. Joel, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JOEL (Caller): Well, thank you. A few things, but I was asked to focus. And let me focus on an import tariff. What we need to do to create jobs is do what we had in the 1950s when I grew up. We had full employment. Employees were able to purchase things. They had a better standard of living. And we have certain countries like Germany that take care of their workers. They have better working conditions. They don't subsidize their manufacturers the same degree as China.

They don't control the currency in favor of cheaper exports. They have environmental controls. We need an import tariff that grades the country from which the import is being brought in. Go from one to 10 on a scale, find the factors and say, well, you're in China, and you know what? You get graded a one, and we're going to put that many controls on you. We're going to charge you X number of dollars for your imports. Level the playing field. German import, they get a 10. They're fine. And as long as we're talking about international and free trade, let's talk about free trade. Now, let's make sure that the American worker is competing on a level playing field.

COX: Joel, thank you very much for that. We're getting a lot of very interesting ideas. I'd like to go to one more person. This is Danielle from Rochester, New York. And as I understand it, Danielle, you are one the people that we are talking about, your future. Am I correct?

DANIELLE (Caller): Yeah. That's absolutely right. I'm 25 years old, so I am paying into a system that's, from what I hear, will not be benefiting me when I come to retirement age. But I think that more of what we should be thinking about when it comes to Social Security and Medicaid is, well, the question of what do we want the fundamental function of our government to be.

As we've been hearing around this debt debate, revenue is not a problem for us. The problem is where we spend our money. And do we want a government that gives preference and preeminence to corporations, people with deep pockets? Or do we want one that actually take care - takes care of our individuals in the country? I know I would like to have Social Security and Medicaid. I think that's a much more important program than giving subsidies and tax benefits to oil companies and banks that are failing.

So I think the real question is, what do we, as nation, want to give importance to? Do we want it to be people who've got a lot of money and who can pay a lot of lobbyists to get their agenda taken care of? Or do we want the government to take care of the American people?

COX: You know, that's an interesting thought. Thank you very much, Danielle. Robert, I think that Danielle hit on something there. Are we talking about a sea change or the need for a sea change in this nation's attitude towards how it spends its money, how it treats its young people and how it treats its elderly?

SAMUELSON: Well, I believe we do, but I don't think we're near it. Your first caller from Utah mentioned the apathy of young people and I don't know whether young people are apathetic or not. I have three kids in their early 20s. But what I think is true is that young people are so focused on living in the here and now and focused on getting their first job or whatever that they really don't think about a lot of these long-term political issues.

Where by contrast, people who are in their 50s, 60s and 70s, are - have plenty of time usually and they are very focused on the benefits they get from the government, and so they are very active politically. And so you have a generational mismatch where we're taxing the young to support the old. And I think that up to a point, that's fine. We want to have a social safety net. We want to shield people from destitution in their declining years. But in my view at least, we should not be subsidizing people simply to go into retirement, people who could afford to do it without government help or at least with less government.

And so we ought to be more discriminating in to whom we pay these subsidies, and so we should lighten the burden on the younger people so it's easier for them to form families, to buy a new home, to pay off their own past debts, college debts or whatever.

COX: Now, I would think, Robert, that that is the area where Lisa is suggesting - and she's smiling, so I believe I'm on the right track here - that more spending needs to go towards young people to enable them to do that. Is that your position?

MENSAH: I would absolutely agree. Critical investments are needed in this young generation. And I love your callers' energy at 23 and 25. I think they won't even be that costly to support them, and their savings to support them as they complete higher ed, many times several degrees, to support them, and saving for a strong down payment, are all the things that we should be fueling forward in our future generations.

But it's tragic, I think, when the caller who said I'm paying into a system that won't be here. I absolutely reject that frame. 35 years hence, this is exactly what will make this country robust. We owe them more than a budget. We owe them a strong, robust country with a strong middle class. And what we've proved over the last 70 years is that you need a social insurance system to do that. It is the beautiful complement to a strong capitalist system. You need a strong insurance system so we can start that business, buy that house. And I actually - I would refute that the system is not going to be here.

Particularly, I love that caller who called in earlier and said she doesn't want to leave her child a debt. Social Security is not a debt. She has already paid in. That's the - it's been loaning the government money. Where it's challenged is in the out years. And in those years, we've got modest - very modest solutions that would bring that into balance. And even if we did nothing - you know, we're looking at a, sad but a 20 percent reduction, which we don't have to do - we can fix that modestly.

So I think this is a system that, you know, we shouldn't conflate Social Security and the health care cost issue. Medicare is not the driver of costs, so I think this - I'm energized by hearing callers in their 20s who absolutely take interest in this country's future.

COX: Well, you know, let's take some more calls. Let me read a couple of emails, and I want to ask you and Robert to think about this question for a moment and then I'll come back and get your answer. What the callers are saying to you - what are you taking from what you are hearing, from these numbers of callers from around the country and from emails like this one? This is from Duff(ph) in Grantfork, Illinois. I think that, quote, "what do we owe the next generation," quote, is the wrong question. A better question might be what does the next generation owe us?

Here's another one. This is from, I think it's Jerame(ph). I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing that - oh, Jeremy. There it is, Jeremy, from Tucson. I am 37, a wildlife biologist in the Southwest. Our parents' generation that currently holds the bulk of political positions owes us the resources to change the basis of our energy and economic networks. First, by ending subsidies for coal and oil corporations and directing those funds into renewable energy sources and technologies. Second, teachers should be among the most valued and highly paid individuals. Third, we need further resources for ecological protection and research to address climate change.

Let's take a caller. This is - let's see, this is from San Carlos, California. This is Jamie(ph). Jamie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. You're on the air.

JAMIE (Caller): Hi.

COX: Hi.

JAMIE: I'm 18, I just graduated from high school. And I'd like to say that one of the things that scares me about growing up in this society is the possibility of being drafted in my future. I remember when we first became engaged in Iraq and worrying about my older brother and his safety in the military. And now, 10 years later, here I am draftable. I'm 18.

Another point I'd like to bring up is that education is failing. I went to one of the top high schools in California - I went to Los Altos High School - and 50 percent of the students, about, were Latino. And I think that there's very, very few resources for students whose language is not English - their primary language is not English. There are few resources for those students to compete with other students academically, mostly white students. And there's a huge imbalance of opportunity.

COX: Jamie, thank you very much. I've got to stop you because the clock is running out on us. Robert and Lisa, I wanted to give you more time to respond to this and, unfortunately, I don't have it. Do you have a really brief thought, and by that, I mean very brief. Lisa, I'll come to you. About what you've heard, what does it say? Are you encouraged, discouraged?

MENSAH: Yeah, I'm encouraged. I don't hear anybody saying, I'm entitled, pay for me. I don't care if I'm a burden. I hear everybody with a future orientation. And I hear the compassion in people's voice. I hear the common sense. But I particularly hear the future, these points about energy, about new research, about the teachers that are needed, about the speakers of other languages that need to be brought in. That's a huge confidence in our future, where we're headed.

COX: Let me see, Robert, can you give me an answer in about 20 seconds or so? I know that's a little unfair.

SAMUELSON: I don't find that - the questions and the commentary very hopeful because it's mostly happy talk, I'm afraid. We have a huge gap between what the government has promised people and what will - people are willing to pay in taxes, and Americans of all ages are simply unwilling to confront that reality.

COX: I appreciate both of you coming on. Lisa Mensah is a - oh, there you are. She is the executive director of the Initiative on Financial Security at the Aspen Institute. And Robert Samuelson is a columnist for The Washington Post. And I want to thank all of the people who have called in and sent letters and emails about this very interesting topic.

We couldn't resolve it today. And while Robert thought that it was happy talk, I thought people had an opportunity to vent and say what was on their minds, which is what we try to do here at TALK OF THE NATION. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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