Intergenerational Equity Reconsidered: A Communitarian Perspective

Richard M. Coughlin

University of New Mexico

June 2006

    The ants were spending a fine winter's day drying grain collected in the summertime.  A Grasshopper, perishing with famine, passed by and earnestly begged for a little food.  The Ants inquired of him, "Why did you not treasure up food during the summer?'  He replied, "I had not leisure enough.  I passed the days in singing."  They then said in derision:  "If you were foolish enough to sing all the summer, you must dance supperless to bed in the winter." --Aesop’s Fables  

Concerns about the consequences of the actions of one generation for succeeding generations--that is to say, for intergenerational equity--are not new to public discussion or scholarly research.  Indeed, writings on the subject may well have reached the point of oversupply, with a large number of increasingly alarmist expressions appearing in recent years about the grave problems that future generations will face as a consequence of the policies and behaviors of current generations.  By the year 2000 over 200 books and articles had found their way into print (Wisensale, 2004).  Attempts to evaluate the living standards and life opportunities of the present population versus those of future generations has been addressed by economists, philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, environmentalists, and not least of all numerous popular writers and pundits.   At times the focus of intergenerational equity has been on the possibility of irreversible, catastrophic damage inflicted on the natural environment, whether by overpopulation, introduction of toxic substances into the ecosystem, and most recently the prospect of the devastating effects of global warming (e.g., Weiss, 1989, Gore, 2006).  However, a major part of the ongoing debate over intergenerational equity for the past 30 years or so, and the one I will focus on is this essay, concerns the long-term implications of economic and social policies, above all old-age pensions and health care programs, in the context of falling fertility rates and high levels of government spending in the U.S. and other advanced societies.   The true nature and extent of the problem, and assessments of the burden that will be placed on future generations, has been embraced at various times and with predictably divergent results by critics across the ideological spectrum: libertarians, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and liberals have all had their turn at the question (Wisensale, 2004). 

The purpose of this essay is to build upon existing analyses of intergenerational equity, introducing principles and ideas drawn from communitarianism (although, of course, I do not claim to speak for all communitarians), to identify a perspective that is distinct from the various ideological and theoretical perspectives on the subject that have been proposed to date. In addition to reviewing some of the main arguments pertaining to intergenerational equity, I will conclude this essay by suggesting some approaches to addressing the intergenerational equity problem in ways consonant with communitarian theory and policy. 

Politics of Intergenerational Equity: Two Recent Examples

In the fall of 2003,, a politically progressive movement founded by two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, ran a contest to select the best new 30-second television spot advertisement critical of the Bush Administration.  The winning entry was entitled “Child’s Pay” (, 2003).  The prize-winning production had a distinctly gloomy, Dickensian tone.  It depicted a series of children (who appear to be between 5 to 10 years old) laboring in dank, sweatshop conditions at menial, dead end jobs--dishwasher, janitor, garbage collector, and assembly line worker. The piece ended with the stark question, “Guess who will pay for Bush’s $1 trillion deficit?”

 Two years earlier, in March 2001, then Secretary of Treasury Paul O’Neill gave testimony to House Committee on Ways and Means and Senate Committee on Finance, reporting the results of a study his office had commissioned.  O’Neill, previously the CEO of Alcoa Aluminum, was interested in assessing the fiscal health of the federal government.  The study he commissioned, entitled “Fiscal and Generational Imbalances: New Budget Measures for New Budget Priorities,” was prepared by economists Jagadeesh Gokhale and Kent Smetters (2003).   The authors presented the startling conclusion that the federal government had accumulated $44.2 trillion in “unfunded liabilities,” which equates to about four years of current GDP or about $148,000 for every American.  Despite the fact that the $44.2 trillion figure was only the midpoint of the researcher’s estimates, which ranged from $29 trillion to $64 trillion (Gokhale and Smetters, 2003:6), and setting aside for the moment the study’s unorthodox approach which utilized forward projections in perpetuity rather than the more conventional 50 or 75 year period used by most other economists studying these matters (e.g., Congressional Budget Office, 2004; Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 2004) Gokhale and Smetters’ study commanded immediate and widespread attention, and the “$44 trillion dollar deficit” found its way into numerous speeches (e.g., McCain, 2004) and media reports (e.g.,, 2003), and popular books on economics (e.g., Bonner and Wiggin, 2006).   President Bush, eager to promote a major tax cut agenda, was evidently not pleased by the secretary’s report, and O’Neill was soon replaced as Secretary of the Treasury. 

These recent examples, drawn from opposite ends of the political spectrum, are illustrative of two significant components of the intergenerational debate that have been present since at least the 1970s: first, the tendency for overstated, even apocalyptic, imagery to be invoked to characterize the future economic implications of present actions (or inactions); and second, the inherent malleability of the politics of intergenerational relations, which can just as readily be appropriated by either the right or left in support of their respective positions.   As Marmor et al. (1997) observe, over the years the discussion of intergenerational equity has more often been overheated and simplistic than dispassionate and reflective.

Theories of Intergenerational Equity

              Summarizing, much less surveying, the theoretical landscape of intergenerational equity is a particular challenge.  There is no single, coherent theoretical perspective that has emerged as dominant.  Indeed, the literature to date has produced numerous theoretical perspectives, each of which seems to be adapted to particular substantive interests and ideological biases of the author(s) (e.g., a focus on the natural environment versus concerns about appropriate rates of aggregate savings; ideologies that emphasize individual liberty versus those that emphasize the importance of collective responsibility).  Nonetheless, it is possible to identify two major camps within which various theories can be classified.

              The first camp consists of theories that hold that each generation, including the present ones, has a moral obligation to pay its own way and not impose burdens, whether fiscal or environmental, on future generations.  Weiss (1989) describes these theories as “preservationist.”  Although there may be some intuitive appeal in this approach, it represents both a naive and simplistic view of economic and natural history, and is (or should be) of little importance.  Carried to its extreme at the societal level it would produce, at best, a set of conditions that would impede the growth of, or paralyze, modern economies.  It is a view best reserved for radical environments and reclusive monks.

              A second grouping of theories, and the ones that are of interest in this essay, consists of various degrees of pushing the costs of current behaviors and policies into the future, where they become the responsibility of future generations to contend with.  Within this second group there is a sharp distinction between theorist who are concerned with attempting to carefully determine the types and levels of burdens that can justifiably be shifted forward to future generations, and those that regard these questions as of minimal importance or even, at the extreme, of no concern whatsoever.  The latter perspective takes the unabashedly, one might say wildly, optimistic view that nature is boundless in its resource potential and humans are sufficiently inventive to deal with any problems that arise out of present actions.  It is a view typically associated with right-leaning economists who assume that every rising cost will produce a compensatory search for less expensive alternatives. This perspective will not be addressed in this paper, although its potential impact on public policy should not be dismissed.  

              In communitarian terms, the debate among theorists who seek to establish a fair and morally sound relationship between generations that is of greatest interest.  Certainly it makes sense to take the welfare of future generations into account, since they constitute extensions of the families and communities of the present.  But the welfare of future generations, which depends on factors that can only be predicted with uncertainty, should not be used in a way that materially harms of unduly constrains the opportunities to improve the lives of the current population.  Thus, the critical question for communitarianism, and for other theorists seeking to identify sound guiding principles here, is how to determine what types of costs, and to what extent, can we shift costs forward to future generations.

              The work of John Rawls, in his classic Theory of Justice (1971) occupies a prominent, one might even say ubiquitous, place in the discussion of intergenerational equity, and is widely cited in the literatures of economics, philosophy, political science, and law.   Stated in the barest and most simplistic terms, Rawls theory of justice holds that the distribution of opportunities and rewards in society should be distributed as if every person’s eventual place in society originated from an unknown (“original”) position concealed behind an impenetrable “veil of ignorance” (Rawls, 1971:136-142).  Under these circumstances, an improvement in the condition of any person in society is just only if it also improves the condition of worst-off individual.  In terms of intragenerational distributive justice, this proposition seems reasonable and fully consistent with communitarian principles.

              Rawls also attempts to apply the “original condition” and “veil of ignorance” to distributive justice across generations.  However, by his own admission, the results of this attempt are less than satisfactory. In his own words:

The one case where this conclusion fails us is that of savings.  Since the persons in the original position know that they are contemporaries (taking the present time of entry interpretation), they can favor their generation by refusing to make any sacrifices at all for the successors; they simply acknowledge the principle that no one has a duty to save for posterity. Previous generations have saved or they have not; there is nothing the parties can now do to affect that. So in this instance the veil of ignorance fails to secure the desired result. (Rawls, 1971:140; emphasis added)

To this, Rawls adds a further limitation on intergenerational equity:

These comments about how to specify the social minimum have led us to the problem of justice between generations.  Finding a just savings principle is one aspect of this question. Now I believe it is not possible, at present anyway, to define precise limits on what the rate of savings should be (Rawls, 1971: 286; emphasis added)

Rawls’ pessimistic conclusions here lead us to wonder if it is even possible to address the question of intergenerational equity in any but the most general of terms.  I think it is possible to advance the discussion, but only if two problem are addressed.  The first involves the careless and overly general use of the term “generation”; the second concerns the inherent problems of predicting the future.

How Useful is Generation as a Theoretical Concept?

Before venturing too much further into the philosophical and ideological thicket surrounding intergenerational equity in search of a distinctly communitarian perspective, it is worthwhile to pause briefly to ask a simple but necessary question: to what extent is “intergenerational equity” a useful concept in analyzing current versus future socio-economic conditions and the relative distribution of costs and benefits over periods of time that span several decades or more?

One immediate problem is the imprecision of the terminology itself, which carries different meanings and is misused as often in the scholarly literature and in colloquial discussion.  To be specific, strictly speaking, societies do not have distinct generations.  As opposed to families, where individuals can be located precisely in generational terms (e.g., Paul is the son of Peter, who the father of Mary and grandfather of Mary’s children), when applied to societies the concept of “generations” is at best only a loose description or a metaphor.  Large human populations are virtually continuous in terms of age--with births and deaths occurring every minute of every day--and what are conventionally described as “generations,” are really just age cohorts covering approximately 20 year time spans. These age cohorts tend to arbitrarily defined and have only limited analytical utility; at times their use may be more misleading than helpful.  For example, Baby Boomers, the “generation” most often discussed in relation to intergenerational equity, is typically defined as people born from 1946 to 1964.  However, the youngest Baby Boomers may have little in common with the oldest members of their “generation,” with the exception of sharing a larger than normal number of peers due to higher rates of fertility rates after World War II through the mid-1960s.  In some cases the youngest Baby Boomers are the progeny of the oldest members of the same generation--a situation that is unambiguous at the level of families where the term generation has actual meaning but somewhat perplexing at the societal level.  Similar ambiguities afflict other age cohorts often described as “generations,” such as the so-called “Greatest Generation” (those who reached adulthood during the 1930s depression and went on to serve in World War II), Generation-X (the sons and daughters of Baby Boomers), and now Generation-Y.  The term has even been applied to age cohorts that do not even approximate biological generations: for example, those people who were in their teens and twenties during the 1960s, sometimes described as the “Vietnam Generation.”  All of these descriptions may have some value for certain purposes, but none accurately reflect the chain of parent to progeny that is the true meaning of generation. 

              In response, it could be argued that the use of the “generation” in the discussion of intergenerational equity is merely a matter of the selection of a metaphor that is not quite right--always a possible problem possible when metaphors are used to describe actual realities (Maslansky et al., 2003).  The main problem here is that the generational metaphor has been used in a way that is inflammatory and divisive, and which offers solutions that appear to be clear cut and simple but which are in reality ambiguous and problematic. 

In the case of actual families, any one person’s position in the family tree is usually clear, and traditionally expectations of affiliation and support are also clear, at least in theory if not always accepted or acted upon.  Parents are obligated to care for their children; children may be expected to contribute to the care of elderly parents, albeit less so now in American society than in the past.  To a certain extent, the same can be said to be true of small, close-knit communities. The “generational” make-up of large societies is less clear. True, there are still children to be taken care of, particularly if the parents do not discharge their legal and moral obligations to do so.  But due to the continuous nature of the age distribution in large populations, generational boundaries are blurred and both the burdens and expectations of support are often not clear. 

Differences in the concept of “generation” between actual families and large societies can be subtle or stark.  For example, while a particular family may elect to provide financial support extending into a child’s early adulthood or beyond, a situation commonly related to completion of higher education and launching into a work career that will provide financial independence, other families may cut off support at age 18 years, the age at which parental responsibilities to provide child support and supervision legally end.  At the societal level, at least in contemporary American society, support for young children is fairly minimal, and support for young adults struggling to find a secure economic footing is virtually nonexistent.  In the case of the family, whether support is provided or withdrawn, the generational identity is clear.  For society as a whole, the demarcations between childhood and adulthood are arbitrarily drawn at a particular point (why not 16 years? or 21?), as are the boundaries between “middle age” and “elderly” (the convention of 65 years established by Bismarck’s social insurance programs in the late 19th century), which appear increasingly obsolete.

At the societal level the “generational” dimension is effectively a blur of individuals along a continuous distribution, like trees in a vast forest, at once distinct from one another and yet part of a larger whole, with certain features arbitrarily used to distinguish one generation from the next.   Although conventionally defined generational categories may have some usefulness as approximations in describing societies, they are obviously limited when applied to actual people:  everyone likely has a relative or knows of someone who fits is a vital, energetic 80 or 85 year old, a prematurely aged 55 year old, a precociously mature 16 year old, or a hopelessly immature 30 year old.  In short, what is plain to see in our actual experience, with all the attendant consequences for familial relations, is completely hidden by the broad brush of conventionally applied societal categories.

To observe that a metaphor has been misused is not to reject it entirely, however.  There is, I believe, an appropriate place for “generation,” properly understood, inthe analysis of socio-economic equity, but it has rarely been applied.  This is a point to which I return to later in this essay in the section on communitarian prescriptions.

Generations differ from other social categories

In addition to having indistinct boundaries, generations are different from most other social categories in that members of each generation expect (or hope) to move through the entire life cycle, taking the place of preceding generations, in a continuous chain of genealogy that has existed for thousands of years.  Furthermore, unlike other social categories, there is considerable overlap in interests across generations, as parents routinely transfer assets to children—inheritance being the most visible but certainly not the only example—and adult children may contribute to the care of elderly parents.

Second, historically the boundaries defining separate generations, and intergenerational relations generally, were less important than they are today, since poor health care, bad nutrition, and grueling, hazardous work ensured that only a select few actually reached old age.  Up to and including the first part of the twentieth century, “retirement” was commonly reserved for the well-to-do; for the vast majority the loss of a job at an advanced age was effectively a sentence to abject poverty or humiliating dependency on family members or consignment to the poorhouse (Fleming et al., 2003).  Until less than a century ago, the common pattern was for most men (and a large share of working class women) to work at paid employment until they couldn’t work any longer or died (ibid.). 

Third, with some exceptions, for at least the past 200 years each generation has been better off than those before it, and each new generation could expect to enjoy, on average, a higher standard of living than preceding generations.  The only exceptions to economic growth over the long term have involved serious disruptions of the economy brought about by war or depression (Mankiw, 2003).  Although resulting from human action, such events were not foreseeable or intended to benefit one generation at the expense of another.  More recently, however, concerns about intergenerational equity have taken a new turn.  Large and growing numbers of the elderly receive pension and health care benefits provided by government programs, with large and growing budgetary deficits associated with these programs (but not only these) passed on to future generations to pay off.  The idea that the current generation of retirees, and even more recently, the entire population is effectively mortgaging the future for current consumption has become a commonplace in the contemporary discussion of intergenerational relations.

Problems with Predicting the Condition of Future Generations

How then should we describe the relationship between current members of society and future generations?  There is not a problem in areas where the effects of actions taken by current generations are long-lasting or even permanent, such as irreversible destruction of the natural environment or the horrific aftermath of nuclear or biological warfare.  The question becomes problematic when it is applied to the economy, where “generations” may or may not capture the experience of actual age cohorts.  As is often said of financial investments, timing may be everything in determining the economic well-being of different age groups at different points of time in the future. Economic circumstances can change rapidly as a result of financial crises that deplete or wipe out assets, severe recessions or prolonged depressions speculative manias can make and break the fortunes of individuals caught up in their fervor (Chancellor, 1999), natural disasters, disease pandemics, the outbreak of wars and other geo-political conflicts that disrupt supplies of vital commodities or otherwise impede normal economic activity--all may take their toll suddenly and without warning.   The effects of these events may span several generations or cut across a single generation.  On the positive side, it is equally impossible to predict developments that will produce positive results: breakthroughs in medical research leading to the cure or prevention of deadly diseases, seminal scientific discoveries that enable the development of new technologies, the demise of corrupt or repressive political regimes, the peaceful resolution of chronic political conflicts and international tensions--any one of which may lead to unexpected windfalls for those fortunate to be alive at the right time and place.  In all of these cases, the concept of “generation” applied at the societal level to assess what is “fair” versus “unfair” remains at best a blunt instrument.  Membership, if that is the word, in any particular generation may or may not reflect the important social categories with which people identify, or the conditions they experience, and so it may have little or no significance for evaluating the equitable distribution of social and economic costs and benefits. 

A Proposal for a Process of Continuous Reform

              Having sketched out some of the difficulties inherent in conceptualizing and analyzing the question of intergenerational equity, I would like to attempt to offer some general points that will help to distinguish communitarianism from other theoretical or philosophical perspectives.

1. The first and cardinal principle is that it is appropriate, even essential, to think in terms of the obligations of the present population to future generations, but concerns about intragenerational equity must come first.  This is particularly true where basic human needs are currently going unmet or have been seriously neglected.  There is little question that the poverty rate in the U.S. is too high (nearly twice the average observed among advanced societies), and the situation even worse among children (where 1 in every 5 child lives in a household officially classified as poor).  These conditions obtain even as poverty among the elderly (i.e., the population 65 years and older) has declined significantly since the 1950s.  The intergenerational compact, which holds that each working generation has an obligation to support its elders in return for the support they (the younger population) received, does not take precedence over concerns about the current population. Indeed, it is merely a subcategory of a larger, more encompassing social compact, in which certain minimum conditions are met for the entire population.  Currently, in American society, there is no question that this larger social compact has experienced significant deterioration.

2. The relative economic condition of different generations should be considered, but not cast in terms of intergenerational warfare.  In weighing rights and responsibilities both within and across generations, the metaphor of family (and community) can serve as a useful guide if applied in a certain way.  By way of a “thought experiment,” we can proceed by imagining a hypothetical “ideal family”--one in which close and stable bonds among parents and their children, grandparents, and close relatives by marriage, all situated in a close-knit supportive community of friends and neighbors.  Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to infer the patterns of mutual support that would obtain to make sure that no individual falls too far below the “rich minimum” that Etzioni (2001) proposes is basic to a good society.  As would be the case in an “ideal multigenerational family” the burden of funding programs to support those in need would be both broadly and justly distributed.

3.  Public policies should support, not subvert, the efforts of families and communities to care for those in need. Aid actually provided by family members, friends, or others who voluntarily step forward should be actively encouraged and generously supported by governmental policy, but it should not be required.  We cannot expect that individuals in need will have relatives, friends, or members of the community who are there to help in times of need; that is largely why formal social welfare policies came into existence in the first place, and why the welfare state has expanded so greatly over the past century or so.  Although it is unrealistic to require families to provide for the care of their dependent elders (and others in need), it is possible to imagine public policies structured along lines that mimic, insofar as possible, that accomplish what the hypothetical “ideal” family and close-knit community in our thought experiment would do for its members during various stages of life, and particularly times of need. 

4. Replace the language of “insurance” or “legal entitlements” with the metaphor of “family obligation” and establish a process of continuous reform.  The legal contract paradigm of social insurance and other “entitlement” programs, which is largely a fiction anyway, should be replaced by a framework of social and economic benefit programs based on an explicit societal moral commitment to provide support at the highest levels that are possible given conditions at particular times. For example, old-age pension benefits--and those of other social programs--might be set at some percentage of average income instead of at predetermined levels. Retirees and other program beneficiaries thus might end up receiving more, less, or the same as they would be under a system that attempts to guarantee specific benefit levels decades into the future.  More importantly, such an approach would encourage intergenerational solidarity by placing retirees (and other beneficiary groups) on the same footing as active members of the labor force.  In a similar fashion, the total amount to be allocated to health care might be fixed at some percentage of GDP, rather than left as an open ended financial commitment. (This is more or less how health care budgets are already handled in most advanced nations with universal health care schemes).  Given the uncertainty of future predictions, the flexibility afforded by this approach is essential for ensuring intra- and intergenerational equity over long periods of time.  Equally important, specification of the details of this societal commitment must necessarily be subject to ongoing dialogue and debate, involving multiple interests and constituencies, and will allow for periodic readjustment as changes (for better or worse) in economic, social, and even political circumstances dictate. 

5.  Intergenerational equity, at least in socio-economic terms, must always be regarded as a matter contingent on the actual unfolding of events and changing conditions.  We know the past and present but not the future. Projections, even the most unbiased and competently constructed, are no more than educated guesses.  These projections may turn out to be accurate, or not too far off base, or they may be completely wrong for reasons that could not be predicted or anticipated.  We have no way of knowing in advance which will be the case.  Consequently, under such condition measured steps are probably the best way to proceed.  For example, during economic times of sustained economic growth, increased levels of savings and investment in areas that will yield future returns are indicated.  The rule of “prudent savings” should serve as a guide (cf. Daniels, 1983). On the other hand, during hard times, including deep recession or, as during the 1930s, depression, deficit spending and “mortgaging the future” is both morally justified and, as has been generally recognized since Keynes (1936), sound economic policy.

6. Extremes of both optimism and pessimism about the future should be avoided. To the pessimists does the reminder that economies can be remarkably resilient.  Apart from poisoning the environment beyond repair or destroying the infrastructure of civilization, advanced societies have shown remarkable resilience in adapting to new challenges and rebounding from extreme hardship. The examples of Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (and perhaps now India and China) suffice to demonstrate that under the right conditions economies can undergo remarkable growth, rising Phoenix-like from ashes and rubble to robust wealth in a relatively short period of time.  Indeed, the phrase “economic miracle” has been applied to so many nations at various times over the past half-century that the “miracle” has become somewhat routine.  On the other hand, to the optimists there needs to go the opposite warning: those who run up unnecessarily large budgetary and trade deficits, who spend the public’s money with abandon but are unwilling to tax proportionately, and who offer glib arguments that debt is no longer relevant to assessing a nation’s economic health, are playing with fire.  History shows that even the most robust periods of periods of economic growth are punctuated by sudden, harrowing declines and, even more commonly, long periods, sometimes spanning decades, of relative stagnation (see, e.g., Shiller, 2004).  The unbridled optimists who spend and borrow freely today without regard for tomorrow are apt to find themselves in the situation of the grasshopper in Aesop’s Fables, only if things go wrong it is future generations that will bear the onerous and morally indefensible economic burden of a “supperless winter.”

Possible Objections

The tentative agenda I have proposed above for improving the way in which intergenerational equity is addressed, along lines consistent with communitarian principles, is not without potential pitfalls.  Firstly, there is always the possibility that in a process of continuous reform future generations will vote to refuse support to the elderly (or other categories of beneficiaries) and dismantle social programs. Although there is no way to guard against this occurring, this outcome is also possible under conditions where laws purport to “guarantee” benefits. Given the right actors and circumstances, commitments can always be broken.  The process of continuous reform I have proposed would at least make it clear that ongoing adjustments in benefit programs may be required, and would reduce the possibility that denial and avoidance behaviors will put off action on impending problems until they have grown into full blown crises.  There is, I would argue, a greater danger in breaking what are thought to be firm promises or allowing the perception to take root that existing programs are so hopelessly broken--“bankrupt” is a term favored by President Bush here--that they will not be around in the future when the current working generations will need them.  It is already the case that in the U.S. a majority of young people believe that the Social Security program will be completely exhausted and unable to pay them any benefits when they reach retirement age.  In reality, the current “worst case” scenario is that the old-age pension program would continue to pay about 75 percent of currently-promised benefits beginning around 2040 if nothing is done in the meantime to reform the program (Social Security Online, 2006).  An ongoing dialogue addressing the problems and prospects of government spending programs could do no worse than the current arrangements to encourage this sort of dysfunctional intergenerational thinking--and it might well improve the situation.  As noted above, a candid assessment of problems and debate about competing demands on collective resources can just as easily build solidarity as it can conduce to greater conflict.

Second, there is the danger that bad government--either extremist in its orientation, incompetent in its capacity to carry out its functions, or corrupt in its operations will subvert the process of continuous reform I have proposed.  To this objection I can only respond that if we experience such a failure of governmental leadership so profound, the issue of intergenerational will be only one of many problems that will likely overwhelm future generations.

Third, concerning my proposal to encourage and materially support the activities of family members, friends, or community volunteers as adjuncts to formal social welfare, there is the possibility of fraud and abuse of public funding and/or the provision of substandard or inappropriate care will occur.  Included here is the possibility that government funds might be used for radical sectarian purposes.  In the first case, I am not proposing elimination of social benefit programs or professional administration.  My purpose is more modest, aimed at more effectively mobilizing and more equitably compensating care that in many instances is already being provided through family, churches, and other informal channels.  There will always be a central role for government agencies and experienced professsionals to monitor informal care and keep spending programs accountable.  In the second case, sectarian extremism is the core challenge of so-called faith-based initiatives.  Abuse is always possible here, especially under auspices of political administrations dominated by narrowly a partisan, sectarian, and self-serving agenda.  To repeat: there is no magic cure for bad government.  As many thoughtful scholars and social activists have recognized, there is considerable promise in the general concept providing government support to faith-based (and other grass-roots) organizations. Because the concept has been so poorly executed by the Bush Administration does not mean that it need to be rejected completely as a possible option for the future.


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Phillips, Kevin P. (2006) American Theocracy: the Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century (New York: Viking)

Rawls, John (1971). A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)

Shiller, Robert J. (1999) “Social Security and Institutions for Intergenerational, Intragenerational, and International Risk-Sharing” Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy 50: 165-204.

____________ (2004) Irrational Exuberance (2nd ed.) Princeton University Press

Social Security Online (2006). Status of the Social Security and Medicare Program (downloaded June 20, 2006)

Weiss, Edith Brown (1989). In Fairness to Future Generations. Tokyo: The United Nations University, and Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Transnational Publishers.

Wisensale, Steven K. (2004) “Population Aging and the Emerging Intergenerational Debate in Europe.” Social Policy as if People Matter. Adelphi School of Social Work, Garden City, New York, November 11. intended the ad to run during the Super Bowl in January 2004 but the television network broadcasting the event refused to accept it.

Wisensale (2004) provides an excellent summary of the debate over intergenerational equity since the 1970s, including some of the most lurid examples of exaggeration and hyperbole that have appeared over the years.  For example, in a 1984 television interview, Richard Lamm, the former governor of Colorado, stated that “older persons have a duty to die and get out of the way.”

Apart from the faith of some mainstream economists in everlasting progress, there is another, more disturbing, faction within this category that discounts all future costs based on the Second Coming and end of the world as we know it.  Phillips (2006) describes this ultra-fundamentalist Christian perspective, and suggests that its potential role in American politics should be taken very seriously.

See, for example, Weiss (1988), Shiller (1999), Delattre (1972), Daniels (1983).

This same imagery can be applied to the contrast between the clarity and specificity of the primary group relations of family and community within and across generations, which are fundamental to communitarian thinking, to the myriad of weak and shifting secondary associations that define so many social relations in large societies.

A New Yorker-type cartoon, reprinted in two contemporary macro-economic textbooks, depicts an outraged youngster confronting his parents with the question, “What’s this I hear about you adults mortgaging my future?”

An interesting and perhaps vital addendum to discussion of the problem of uncertainty in predicting future economic conditions is offered by Benoit Mandelbrot (Mandel and Hudson, 2004), a mathematician and pioneer of fractal geometry.  In essence, Mandelbrot argues that financial markets are far more unpredictable and subject to catastrophic failure than is assumed by mainstream economics.  The sudden and spectacular failure of LTCM, a hedge fund whose computerized trading strategies were based on a sophisticated mathematical formula devised by two Nobel Prize-winning economists, suggests that Mandelbrot’s warnings should be taken seriously.

The deceptive language used to describe entitlement programs such as Social Security is widely discussed in the literature. See Coughlin (1982) and (1986) for my perspective.


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