Monday, 23 April 2012

A Modern Modest Proposal

I read an article in the Globe and Mail by Miles Corak, a professor of economics, who suggested that parents should have the right to exercise votes on behalf of their children.  I.e., since Dave and I have two children, our family would get four votes.

It’s an interesting theory.  When I first read the title “Why We Should Give Children The Vote” I thought I would be reading something about how children would expect honesty out of politicians and hold them accountable for breaking promises.  Those with small children know they can be relentless about pursuing something you’ve promised them.  But it turned out to be something quite different.

There’s been a lot of articles in the Globe lately about how the choices the boomers made have impacted their children and grandchildren.  A massive debt has accumulated, forcing future generations to accept fewer services for more tax dollars in order to repay the money which has been borrowed.  This has certainly caused some intergenerational strife, from resentment from younger generations to a confused denial of modern circumstances from boomers.  (They were able to buy a home, raise a family and indulge on single family incomes, so why can’t modern families do it?)

The theory behind the proposal was that if children’s interests had been represented by actual votes, it would not have been possible to sell out their futures.  This strikes me as overly optimistic and altruistic.  People do things against their children’s interest fairly frequently.  And I don’t honestly see how this would have restrained the boomers from making the decisions they did.

When the boomers were making the decisions to spend more than the government earned, they were riding a wave of euphoria at having changed some fundamental injustices in society (gender roles and civil rights).  The economy was on a long, steady boom and there was a real belief that things were only going to get better.  It was okay to borrow from the future because the future would always repay you with interest.  They weren’t being malicious or consciously selfish.  They believed it was possible to have it all and more besides.

Reality was somewhat different than they’d hoped.  It’s easy to criticize from hindsight and I’m sure there were those who urged caution at the time.  Just like the people who argued against sub-prime, zero down mortgages.  But when the gravy train is flowing, those people are seen as being anti-progress.

Humans are astonishingly short-sighted.  We aren’t good at making short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits.  Our very biology is designed for a glut and famine cycle.  When things are good, we stuff ourselves as much as possible, trying to accumulate enough to ride through the inevitable wave of famine.  This works pretty well in a hunter-gatherer subsistence environment, but not so good when our attempts to glut can affect the entire global ecosystem.

I don’t accept this as an excuse.  We have a lot of “natural” tendencies that we’ve overcome.  Fear of strangers, fear of change.  We’ve got brains as well as instincts and when we acknowledge those instincts and want to overcome them, we can.

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