The Ten Commandments tell us not to steal. There are not many religions or worldviews that honor stealing. But the incredible greed and mismanagement of our generation is stealing much from our children and grandchildren, as well as endangering our own economic well-being.
In Thomas Jefferson's day, wealth could be passed on to individual heirs. Debt could also be passed to heirs. That is not the case today. Today we can only inherit wealth if the estate left enough to pay all creditors or mortgages. But we do not inherit debt if the deceased's estate cannot pay it.
In Jefferson's day, the laws were different. When John Wayles, Jefferson's father-in-law died, his debt was legally passed on to Jefferson. It
became a great financial burden. Jefferson could never get it off his back during his lifetime. Attempts to keep creditors at bay used up funds that could have helped Jefferson become secure, if not prosperous. After Jefferson died, his home, Monticello, had to be sold to pay the accumulated debt.
As individuals, we wouldn't like to be straddled with other people's debts. Even the best of us would be up against it. We'd soon join the ranks of Jefferson and look like poor money managers.
But we expect our children's children and grandchildren - as future taxpayers - to inherit our national debt. They are soon to be the new Jeffersonians.
What better uses for their money will they have to forego in order to pay for the greed of our generation? Is there justice in this?
Our national debt is a significant justice issue and we need to face it as such.
There are three areas of government spending that worry economists today:
1. The need to fund the new program called "Obama Care."
2. The need to fund increases in Medicare and Medicaid spending to cover aging Baby Boomers.
3. The need to fund increases in Social Security costs that outpace Social Security income.
Any one of these areas will require an enormous increase in government spending in order to fix it, and will raise our national debt.
But the problem is greater than the financial burden of these programs. These come on top of the gigantic debt we already owe: a debt that continues to increase enormously for political reasons.
And if we pay for it simply by printing mountainous stacks of extra money, we will damage the value of our currency. Doing that is not in the best interest of anyone, including the poor. The weakening of the dollar preceded the Great Depression.
There are times when our nation has had to adopt deficit spending for our own survival. This happened during World War II. We had to fight and we had to fund the fight. But we didn't go into that rush of war spending already burdened with a huge national debt. That is one of the major differences between then and now.
As a nation, we had a right to burden future generations with the financial bill for World War II. They would all benefit by growing up in a free society.
No comparable necessity is upon us today. Our national survival is not at stake if we refuse to increase the deficit because of unbridled government spending.
Politicians love to promise us more comforts and programs. Somehow it doesn't bother us when we are told someone else may have to pay our way. It seems like a windfall.
Yet there is no free lunch. Everything comes with a price tag that must be paid by someone. If the government needs to pay more, then it must be funded by more taxes - unless those in power are wise enough to grow the economy.
But more taxes take money from our pockets. Less money leaves us less to save and invest, less to keep for our own needs and our own family's welfare, and less to give to a neighbor in need.
Above all, there is the historical reminder that raising taxes does not stimulate economic growth. We need economic growth because it both increases employment and increases tax revenue.
There are good historic lessons on how to grow the economy from the 1980s, under President Reagan; and in the 1990s, under President Clinton; where tax decreases, lowering the capital gains tax, a strong dollar, curbing the growth of non-defense government spending, and eliminating regulations played a big role in providing new jobs. Yet we have many politicians who are not willing to adjust their theories to the real lessons from our own economic history.
Now you may think that piling up a huge national debt is only an economic issue. Why do I call it a justice issue? Why do I think there is a spiritual and ethical component?
Because our generation is taking a lot that we are not paying for. We expect to benefit and make future generations pay the bill.
We cannot guarantee them a strong economy in their lifetime, but we expect them to pay for what we refuse to pay for.
To do this and not call it stealing requires an explanation.
How do you justify placing this enormous burden of debt on your children and grandchildren?
How do you justify placing our debt on your grandchildren's grandchildren?
At the very least, it requires someone to make a case that it is just. So far, no one has done that.
Not even the preachers and political activists who talk so much about justice.
The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Walla Walla. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 509-525-6872. Pastors in the U-B circulation area who want to write a column should contact Catherine Hicks at 509-526-8312, or by e-mail at email@example.com.