It is with sadness of heart that increasing numbers of Americans realize that our political system is chronically dysfunctional and requires a new form of therapy to be rehabilitated. Every day our government spends a billion more dollars than it takes in. This debt, $4.2 trillion today and growing out of control, is the cruelest tax yet invented: a tax on youth.
It will never be paid by the generations that spent it, and some of those generations' programs actually transfer to them the wealth of a younger, poorer generation. As a youth tax, the debt is taxation without representation, for most of the youth who bear its burden can't even vote.
Even more sorrowfully, the debt represents a reversal of the social contract that since the dawn of time bound the grown to care for the infant, and for the present to make a bequest to the future. In effect, the last few generations have spent their savings and their earnings. When that ran out, they spent their childrens' earnings as well.
In Washington this summer, I witnessed a desperate event that shamed the souls of our nation's political leaders. A group of 200 young Americans, some of them as young as eight, marched on the Capitol past police and dumped 4200 pennies on the steps. The Congress of the United States has indebted them $1 billion for every penny they dropped.
This moral and economic crisis is not a failure of democracy. It is a triumph of democracy. For our democracy has voted into office politicians who keep taxes low and spending high, a feat no individual can match. Instead, I believe this crisis is a failure of political leadership, the inability of politicians to make tough choices and to force their constituents to live within their means.
As young students at Harvard, we're concerned about what the burden of all this debt will mean for the future. We're concerned about whether we will be able to get good jobs, whether members of our generation will be able to move out of their parents' houses before the age of 30 and into their own homes before the age of 50. We're concerned that when the crunch comes, the government will be so strained that it won't be able to provide even necessary services.
That's why Mark McKay '94 and I have started one of the University's newest organizations, Harvard Lead or Leave. This non-partisan group fights for a cause that really speaks to our hearts: the economic future of our generation. It speaks to the hearts of many other Harvard students as well, for since the start of the semester we have gained 100 members and are still growing. Our mission is three-fold: first, to educate our generation about what the debt means to our future; second, to organize the young politically around the issue of generational equity; and third, to help make the debt a big political issure for the 79 million of us.
In the past, politicans did not cut spending because of special interests, and they did not raise taxes for the same reason. And so, because they lacked the leadership to make tough choices, they pushed their problems onto the future. The goal for Harvard Lead or Leave is to make the debt such a hot issue, starting here on campus, that politicans will be forced back on to the responsible path of generational equity and living within their means.
The national Lead or Leave organization (of which we are not officially a part, according to Harvard regulations) has organized chapters in all major American campuses in the space of one year; as a scrupulously nonpartisan organization, we have attracted people of every political affiliation and every generation. This diversity is reflected in its advisory board, which includes Tom Hayden, William F. Weld '66, Paul Tsongas, Ann Richards, and Harvard Professor Ben Friedman. The national group began as a political pledge, taken by scores of candidates nationwide, to either reduce the deficit or retire from politics.
Harvard Lead or Leave attracts a similarly wide range of students. Already, we include Marxists, Wall Street prebiz types and everyone in between. I am an officer of the Harvard-Radcliffe Republican Club, Mark of the Harvard-Radcliffe Democrats.
We have a very specific meaning in mind when we demand "leadership" from politicians. We demand simple values that have fallen by the wayside over the last two generations: responsibility and fairness. We elect politicians to resolve our country's fiscal life. Today this requires real leadership. It is only when they neither raise taxes, nor cut spending, and allow the youth tax to grow, that they fail all of us and jeopardize the future of our community.
You will see us on campus passing out literature, tabling, holding consciousness-raising demonstrations, and hosting all-day teach-ins on the debt. If you care about your economic future, then you owe it to yourself and your generation to learn more about this crisis and become a part of Harvard Lead or Leave, your generation's vanguard.
Steven Wardell '94 is co-founder of Harvard Lead or Leave with Mark '94.
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