The defining challenge of our time is straightforward, writes Urban Institute Fellow Gene Steuerle in his 2014 book Dead Men Ruling. Today’s young people, he says, have been systematically stripped of their “fiscal freedom”: the ability choose how our country allocates its resources, both in taxation and expenditure.
Leaders in the late 20th and early 21st centuries enacted a host of social programs designed to increase automatically in size, growing to consume every dollar of revenue government takes in. What’s more, they have locked in tax cuts and expenditures that guarantee low future tax receipts and growing national debt. As Steuerle writes:
For most of American history – from the founding of the republic to at least the end of World War II – the reality of governing in Washington reflected the truism, “To govern is to choose.” Each year, our elected leaders decided which programs to fund and how to finance them. They set new priorities based on the challenges at hand, be they war or recession, poverty or hunger, civil strife or economic injustice.
Tomorrow’s leaders will not have that same luxury. The bulk of tax and spending decisions have already been codified into law by dead or retired leaders, leaving future generations with less flexibility to respond to new needs and emergencies, Steuerle argues. The discretionary side of the budget, including programs that invest in our children, workforce, and infrastructure, is in a tailspin.
This novel analysis has won the prestigious TIAA-CREF Paul A. Samuelson Award For Outstanding Scholarly Writing On Lifelong Financial Security. The award is given annually in recognition of an outstanding publication that can advance Americans’ lifelong financial and economic wellbeing.
Indeed, despite its grim analysis of the problem at hand, Steuerle’s book is hopeful. Despite declaration of an “age of austerity” by some, we actually live in a time of great promise, he writes: even modest economic growth will generate trillions of dollars of extra government tax receipts over the next decades, giving leaders great ability to invest in the future if we can reclaim the discretionary ledger of the budget.
And it is just that – investment – that represents Steuerle’s vision for righting our course. We should, he suggests, reallocate our spending away from locked-in promises and toward annual discussions based on current priorities. We should make the 21st Century the century of the child, investing heavily in kids’ human capital and the physical capital they need to live productive and healthful lives. We should, especially, make investments geared toward expanding people’s opportunity learn, grow, move and create.
It is this hopefulness of vision that makes Dead Men Ruling an important contribution to elevating the debate about how to achieve the goal envisioned in the name of this prestigious award: lifelong financial security. We’re grateful for recognition of Gene’s thoughtful efforts from TIAA-CREF, and we’re proud and honored that Gene Steuerle calls the Urban Institute home.