Bad Battle Cry

March 18th, 2019

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When the unsustainable trajectory of entitlements was explained to President Trump, he reportedly said, “Yeah, but I won’t be here.” That’s the battle cry for many of us.

I make it a habit to read good books. A very good book is Other People’s Money: The Real Business of Finance by John Kay. Kay is a professor at the London School of Economics, an Oxford Fellow, and a financial consultant. He’s also a critic of the financial world.

Kay’s book begins by citing Adam Smith’s The Wealth of the Nations (published 1776). Smith criticizes directors of joint-stock companies as managers “of other people’s money.” That’s a problem, as “it cannot well be expected that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance” as they watch over their own money.

Kay argues that managing other people’s money is why the financial sector has devolved into financialization. This describes a growing class of professional managers, investors, bankers, and government pension planners who “watch over” other people’s money. As Adam Smith warned, too many have been negligent. Financialization has brought efficiency and extraordinary opportunities to some but has contributed to inequality and economic dislocation for many. This is not shalom, or social wellbeing for all.

This isn’t a rant against financial advisors (Kay does a little himself). It’s a warning, harkening back to Adam Smith. When we’re dealing with other people’s money (for example, future generations), the battle cry is often “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.” This is the refrain repeated throughout Kay’s book. I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.

This is Trump’s battle cry. He was elected after promising not to touch Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—all drivers of the deficit. The US deficit is approaching $1 trillion with the national debt heading toward 100 percent of GDP. When warned this is unsustainable, Trump reportedly replied, “Yeah, but I won’t be here.” Not a problem.

This is often the battle cry of my tribe. I’m a white, baby boomer evangelical. It’s dismaying how many (including GenXers) show scant concern about the unsustainable trajectory of entitlements, debt, and unfunded liabilities in the US. Instead, we see a narrow focus on maximizing individual return on investments. What about the debt load being passing on to future generations? Not a problem. “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

I hear this when asking others about climate change and rising sea levels. How this might impact future generations? No worries. “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

Now we hear variations of this in younger tribes. Medicare for All. The Green New Deal. Free college tuition. On present course and speed, the US is on track to experience the highest deficits in its history, reaching more than $2 trillion a year by 2029. These new entitlements will add significantly to our future debt, for there aren’t enough “fat cat millionaires and billionaires” (as Barack Obama called them) to pay for them. Who pays then? Future generations. “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

And what about the human (and financial) toll of the worst drug crisis in our nation’s history? Drugs now kill about 70,000 Americans every year—more than car crashes or guns. More than AIDS did at the height of its epidemic (42,000). More than all the American soldiers killed in the entire Vietnam War (58,000). In 2017 about 47,600 of those deaths were caused by opioid overdose—a fivefold increase since 2000.

Chart the overdose death rate in America since 1980 and a terrifying hockey stick graph emerges—an exponential curve increasing at a constant clip of 7.6 percent per year. Estimates suggest that the epidemic will rage for at least a further five to ten years, killing more than 50,000 people each year. How will we pay for the programs necessary to stem this scourge? Borrow from future generations. “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

This seemingly cavalier attitude can be corrected by reading Adam Smith’s first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, written in 1759. He describes virtuous capitalism, holding in tension economic prosperity and social wellbeing. Both/and, requiring virtuous people who don’t say I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone but rather We are in some way responsible to try to fix this. It’s our problem. We might die trying, but we must try.

William Wilberforce felt this way. He was born in 1759, the year The Theory of Moral Sentiments was published. Wilberforce grew up in a time when most people viewed the slave trade as It’s not my problem. I didn’t create it. When Wilberforce came to faith, his battle cry pricked the conscience of England. “You can look away, but never again say you did not know.” We can look away from the unsustainable trajectory of entitlements we’re passing on to future generations, but we can never say we did not know.

 

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3 Responses to “Bad Battle Cry”

  1. Garrett says:

    No comments yet? Hmmm. Perhaps we are all overwhelmed? No? Complacent, complicit, culpable. Hard words to stomach and sit with.

    What does trying to do something about it look like?

    Haven’t people been trying?

    I have been wrestling with corporate responsibility for being a part of an unjust system. Reflecting on stories from the Bible, I see corporate responsibility time and time again. A few examples: Israel was punished in battle for Achan’s sin (Joshua 7), Daniel – upon reading the scroll of Jeremiah – repents for the sins of generations past in sackcloth and ashes (Daniel 9), Isaiah cries out before the throne room of God, “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean leaps and I come from a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6).

    What does repentance look like? It starts with recognizing reality and naming it for what it is. Thanks for helping us do that Mike.

    Interestingly enough, the Church is currently in a season of repentance. Lent is an opportunity we have to ask God what he would have us do.

    This is my problem. This is our problem. I am culpable. I am complacent. Lord, have mercy on me a weary sinner. Help me see clearly and act justly.

  2. Ron Morley says:

    I am in the business of financial services,have been for 32 years. It has had it’s pinnacle moments and it has had it’s dilemma’s .

    Adam Smith was right, too many people have been negligent, and the buck stops with me. I have heard countless others repeat the phrase, “what do I care, Ill be dead and gone.”

    We can’t even mutter statements about Islam, for fear of being called a “Muslim-a-phobe.”

    I read your article, with some disbelief that Trump said it would not effect him, however, I would like to see what would he say if I answered, You do care, you know you do, but to get this solved will require a cooperation from all sides of the political isle, all sides of the churches isles, and all sides of human race isles.

    Don’t know how it would get solved, but , with the minds that write this, and read this letter weekly, it’d have a pretty good start!

    Ron Morley

  3. James Bruno says:

    Trump, more so than the bureaucrats and professional politicians, is a savvy businessman. He knows all about compounded interest and which side of the debtor -creditor side of the equation to be on ( to include debtor-creditor nations). While anything is possible these days, unless it was said in jest, I have trouble believing these words were said with conviction. Can you site the context of the discussion or a direct quote?

    I can however, understand his resignation to the problem, given the fear of touching “third rail “politics. The constitution was expressly comported to free us to pursue happiness, unburdened by an enveloping and encumbering government. The constitution is not designed to actively carry it’s citizens to happiness and a life of ease. We, as a society must set up policy that engenders skills development,literacy, work ethic, and most notably, responsibility for one’s own welfare. This can be done with a heart and the inculcation of values that we are not ashamed of.

    In football, a “pick -six “is a game changer. It is a quick fourteen point score swing. In society, a productive, self sustaining, independent family man or woman, is a societal “pick six”, a game changer. As an example, maybe his or her wage and benefit package is 60,000 dollars. By definition, in the free market he is assuredly providing something of value. No one separates from 60,000$ for nothing. If he were instead, on welfare, he and his family might require 60,000 $ for health care, food, heat assistance,rent assistance, etc. That is a 120,000 $ swing. Moreover, an employed citizen is contributing to the soon to be broke social security system and medicare program, lengthening it’s trajectory for our most vulnerable citizens, the elderly, who would have the greatest difficulty rejoining the work force.

    I am not confident our constitutional freedoms can be preserved when the government compels us to support anyone and everyone who chooses not to participate in the work force.That is a very large beast to feed indeed. If any citizen wants something of value from our society, is it not reasonable to give something back to society?

    We should, and do struggle to provide a life of dignity to those who truly cannot work. Though struggle we should. Trump is definitely on the right track, creating through good policy, the opportunity for full employment in our nation. Consider the arithmetic of sustaining wages, and taxable wages. Growing the nations income(GNP increase) is another way to pare away at debt, if we cut the “credit card” spending . It’s just like your personal finances on a grand scale, but comprehensible.

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