Commentary

Happy Days

“I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.”

“What? Who said that?” Colin said, giving me a puzzled look. We had been drinking lattes and chatting about his plan to get a masters degree in computer science. He had expected me to say something worthwhile about his plan. I had disrupted his expectations. Colin is my son. My job is to disrupt his expectations.

“Albert Einstein. I think it’s some sort of joke about relativity or about the fate of the universe or something. But never mind, that’s too hard to understand. Your plans reminded me of the quote.”

“How?” Colin was still puzzled and thus interested.

“Like the man says, never think of the future. That’s where you’re going wrong. You’re thinking of the future just like everyone says you are supposed to. That’s what makes you a sucker. In particular, you’re falling for the human capital argument, the idea that you should improve your skills through education or what the economists unimaginatively call ‘training.’ Since the returns to education are really high, you get richer and everyone gets richer.”

“Yeah. That’s the idea. I mean it worked for you, even you. What could be wrong with it?”

I paused. Even me? About once an hour Colin forces you to recalculate his costs and benefits to determine whether he’s a plus or minus.

“The future has to be like the past. Over the past three decades the returns to education have been astronomical. Spend more on education, get more income after taxes. But your working life will be over the next five decades at least. That future doesn’t have to be like that past. In fact, the signs are you should do what Einstein says.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Look at this way. It doesn’t matter whether education increases your productivity unless you get to keep enough of the added wealth to justify the high cost of a degree. Even with the tax rates we have, the added education made sense for my generation, but it probably won’t for your generation.”

“Why not?”

“You’ve got debts to pay. Other people’s debts. There’s $11 trillion or so for Social Security that’s not provided for now. You’ll have a sizable chunk of that, and it’s not the scary part. Medicare has a $60 or $70 trillion shortfall, somewhere in there. $16 trillion for the prescription drug benefit alone. As it is. Not as it will grow to be.”

“So?”

“So, someone’s got to pay for those programs. The generation that will receive the Social Security that you have to pay for.”

“You mean your generation, old man,” Colin laughed.

“Right, my generation. We have paid for the benefits of earlier generations, benefits that were huge compared to that generation’s taxes. So we expect you to do the same for us. But here’s the beauty and the horror of it. The benefits I get, and the debt you pay, is not fixed. It can be anything depending on what Congress passes into law.

“So my generation votes benefits for itself that must be paid for in the future, by future people, people that don’t exist now, or people like you that do exist now but not in the way they will exist in the future. People that don’t exist can’t vote. Future people who can’t vote pay for benefits for current people who can. Got it?”

“I suppose.”

“But there’s a problem. Everything depends on you being a sucker. You must get more education and become more productive to pay the debts of my generation. The added money from your added education and work will be taxed away one way or another to pay for Medicare and Social Security. The debts are just too large.

“So everything depends on you getting more education and becoming more productive despite the fact doing so will be a losing proposition over your life. To make it work, you have to never think about the future. You need to be a sucker or the entitlement state will break down. But you’ll get the final laugh.”

“I don’t see much that could be amusing here,” he remarked.

“Well, consider this, my boy: You’re not a sucker. Neither are the other people like you, the people who will produce the most wealth in the future. You all will realize that it doesn’t make much sense to invest in yourselves or in the businesses of other people when the returns go down the entitlement sinkholes. So you won’t make the investments, and the economy will turn sluggish and sooner rather than later we will become a dying economy, like France or Germany. It might even happen before the current generation dies out.

“We might live to experience and to see the disaster brought by our demands for entitlements. We have to hope you don’t think about the future and that the future doesn’t come too soon. We have to be the opposite of Einstein, which is good reason for you to follow his advice.”

“I think that’s ironic, not amusing,” Colin said.

“Or tragic. Say, are you paying for these lattes?”

John Samples is director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.