We are Americans, and we want the best. Now! Instant gratification has become the American ethos. In roughly three generations, American society has been transformed from a nation of penny-pinchers, scrimpers and savers to a nation of consumption-addicted spendthrifts oblivious to tomorrow. Despite the second-highest per capita income in the world, we save next to nothing. As late as the mid-1980s, the savings rate regularly exceeded 10 percent.
Once upon a time, families actually saved to purchase a home. Young people saved money from their summer jobs to purchase a car. People even saved to prepare for unforeseen trouble or opportunity — "a rainy day."
Forgoing spending to save for something important taught crucial disciplines of delayed gratification and prudent spending. After several years of sacrificing certain comforts or pleasures, we are much more diligent to make certain that what we buy will last, to take care of that purchase, and to understand contracts before signing them.
That personal stake is absent from purchases that require little more than a promise to make future payments. When we have no skin in the game, it seems we have nothing to lose. As a result, Americans have amassed $2.5 trillion in household debt — more than $23,000 per household.
It's no wonder that we transfer that same instant gratification ethos to government. When we the people fail to practice self-discipline at home, we cannot possibly be serious about fiscal restraint in government.
Politicians of all stripes use our shortsightedness to their advantage. With rare exceptions, the populace doesn't embrace candidates who call for tough choices. That's why elections are typically won by the candidate who tells the most people what they want to hear.
For the last 30 years, high school students have learned virtually nothing about the proper limits of government, although they may hear that government should "stay out of your bedroom," which facilitates more instant gratification.
Nearly 200 years ago, Frederic Bastiat wrote: "Government is the great fiction by which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else."
It used to be that politicians sought to ingratiate themselves to the masses by vowing to tax "the rich." By now, most voters are savvy enough to realize that "rich" means everyone with a job and a pulse.
So candidates now promise more government goodies – health care and mortgage bailouts – at the expense of our children and grandchildren. They won't say it that plainly because we wouldn't fall for it if they did. But that's exactly what is happening.
When Congress and President Bush rushed to pass their popgun economic "stimulus" package, they increased the current year's deficit by more than 150 percent and charged another $152 billion to future generations.
The federal debt is more than $5 trillion — $48,359 per household. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. We owe another $5 trillion to federal employees and veterans for health care and retirement benefits.
However, the cost of retirement and health care programs for the general public really shafts our children and grandchildren. The unfunded cost of providing Social Security and Medicare benefits to everyone alive today is more than $45 trillion. That's not the total cost; it's the cost that cannot be covered by existing revenues.
The board of trustees of these two programs says the promises we've made to ourselves "are not sustainable under current financing arrangements." Social Security's existing surpluses will "turn into rapidly growing deficits as the baby boom generation retires."
"Medicare's financial status is even worse," the trustees warn. That should make any clear-thinking American recognize the sheer foolishness of creating a new health care entitlement for everyone.
Too many Americans, whipped into a frenzy by groups like AARP, prefer to sentence our children or grandchildren to stratospheric tax rates than to consider simply slowing the growth of future benefits. Without changes, government will grow from an historic cost of about 18 percent of GDP to 30 percent in just 22 years. In some 40 years, spending will consume 50 percent of GDP — more even than during World War II.
Our decisions today determine if we will saddle our children and grandchildren with an unrestrained government that drains the economy and makes the dollar virtually worthless.
If we hope to secure the blessings of liberty for our posterity, we must force our leaders to confront the future responsibly and aggressively. Most of us did not endure the Great Depression nor any of our country's most demanding tests. However, we face a moment of truth that is just as crucial to our nation's future.
It would be tragic if we who have been asked to do so little fail even this test.