Have you ever been challenged to the "heads I win, tails you lose" coin flipping game? (Hint: it never works out in your favor.) Well, that's exactly the kind of game both parties are playing with the Millennial generation over the federal budget.
The current debate in Washington magnifies the differences between left and right while virtually ignoring the tradeoffs being made between young and old. All of the budget proposals offered to date maintain to various degrees a status quo that would shortchange young Americans and leave our country in a worse position for the unborn. To a large degree that's because, in the world of MoveOn, Club for Growth, and the AARP, there is no similarly powerful coalition for the future — at least, not yet.
When it comes to deficit reduction, both parties like to talk about "balance." President Obama wants a balance between spending cuts and tax increases. His budget replaces the $1.2 trillion sequester with less harmful cuts (including, to his credit, some savings from entitlements) and raises about $600 billion more in taxes. House Republicans want a balance between expenditures and revenue. Their budget eliminates the annual deficit by 2023, with deep spending cuts to compensate for not raising any additional taxes.
But neither budget places much emphasis on striking the right balance between generations. As it stands today, spending on benefits through entitlement programs, which primarily benefit the elderly, is on an automatic and unsustainable trajectory upward. Spending on investments through discretionary programs, which primarily benefit the young, is being squeezed out and is on track to its lowest relative level on record.
As Ron Brownstein observed, investments in the future have already declined from about a third of the federal budget in 1969 to just 14% today, as payments to individuals have nearly doubled. Both sides are guilty of perpetuating this generational imbalance: Republicans by going too far on non-defense discretionary cuts (a $1.1 trillion/18% reduction over the next decade), and Democrats by not going far enough on entitlement reforms (despite $400 billion in health care savings in the president's budget proposal, Medicare and Medicaid would still grow by 27% over the next decade).
Young people are not only losing value out of the federal budget. Congress is losing control of it altogether. In 2012, 65% of the federal budget was committed to mandatory spending (largely entitlements), which is already written into law, while just 35% went to discretionary spending, which is set annually by Congress. By 2035, under current law, the gap will grow to 78%-22%. That means the power of our voice and our vote will be diminished by decisions that have already been made by lawmakers past.
The way to change course is to reframe the debate in Washington. David Brooks suggests that a new debate "would be organized around a different trade-off — not a balance between taxing and spending, but a balance between greater discretionary spending in exchange for structural entitlement reform." That is precisely the meaningful negotiation that is missing today.
Achieving generational balance in the federal budget does not require a zero sum game between young and old or an intergenerational battle. Young people want to see our grandparents have the financial support and medical care they need; likewise, older people do not want to burden their grandchildren with higher taxes and a lower living standard. These are not incompatible goals.
But changing the debate in Washington does require a greater voice for young Americans, or at least a greater concern for them. This can be achieved in two ways.
First, millennial organizations from the left, right, and center must unite behind a common agenda of fiscal reform, not simply serve as foot soldiers in the partisan trench warfare that got us here. Alone, without access to the same resources as the long-standing and well-funded special interests that already exist, these organizations can only have minimal impact. Together, these organizations can more effectively mobilize young people and more loudly and clearly articulate a message of generational equity.
Second, beyond advocacy, more millennials must begin seeking seats at the decision making table by running for elected office. The 113th Congress is among the oldest on record: the average Representative is 57, and the average Senator is 62. Younger leaders would, by nature, have a keener eye on the future. In addition, millennials are a more collaborative and perhaps even post-partisan generation that is capable of getting government working again through cooperation and compromise.
Given the size, diversity and connectedness of our generation, we should not have to settle for picking sides in a game that we will inevitably lose. We must — and we can — change the game.
Nick Troiano is co-founder and National Field Director for The Can Kicks Back, a non-partisan and Millennial-driven campaign to fix the debt.