It has become Washington’s most-used phrase: kicking the can down the road. It’s what happens when elected officials do the bare minimum necessary to avert one budget crisis or another, rather than addressing the long-term drivers of our growing national debt.
You might be sick of hearing about the can, but my generation of millennials is sick of being that can. After all, it’s our future that is being kicked, again and again. And our frustration is reaching a breaking point.
We had hoped, after the president’s fiscal commission received bipartisan, majority support for its everything-on-the-table recommendations in December 2010, that Washington would finally address our long-term fiscal challenges. After all, the report was the so-called moment of truth. Maybe, just maybe, politicians would put our generation’s future ahead of their own. Instead, leaders largely ignored the conclusions and kicked the can.
Our frustration grew even more after President Barack Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner failed to reach a meaningful agreement during the debt ceiling debacle of July 2011. As a result, the can was kicked to a not-so-super supercommittee that not only failed to address the true drivers of our debt but also exacerbated our economic problems by setting into motion a senseless sequester that has indiscriminately slashed investments in our future.
The fiscal-cliff fiasco of January 2013 proved to be more of the same — a last-minute agreement that hiked top income tax rates without any meaningful reform of our broken and antiquated tax code. Another can kicked. We wondered, how long must this bipartisan, Olympic sport of can-kicking at the nation’s Capitol continue before the rising millennial generation, largely fixated on other worthy issues, decides to kick back at Washington?
So as the country headed toward the government shutdown and debt ceiling showdown, The Can Kicks Back campaign headed out on a “Generational Equity Tour” to issue a wake-up to young people — channeling years of lost hope into real action.
We shared our new report, “Swindled,” with young audiences from Berkeley, Calif., to Miami, disclosing the true size of our national debt to be in excess of $200 trillion and revealing the alarming inequality in the federal budget: While today’s seniors receive more in benefits from social insurance programs than they have paid in taxes, a future American can expect to pay $400,600 more in taxes than he or she will receive in benefits.
We collected thousands of signatures on a petition to the president and Congress, urging them to enact the INFORM Act — a bipartisan piece of legislation we have championed that would force government, for the first time, to put all of its obligations on the books and report the inter-generational implications of today’s tax and spending policies.
We live-polled the audience via text message on their views of the issue and found 73 percent support for the idea of a Grand Generational Bargain that would increase federal investment in the short term, slow the growth of entitlement spending over the long term and reform our tax code to raise additional revenue. On a separate question, 75 percent said both parties have done more harm than good in addressing our national debt and need to reset.
We collected messages from young people about why they wanted their leaders to stop kicking the can and start fixing the problem. As our tour comes to an end in Washington this week, hundreds of such messages will be delivered to offices on Capitol Hill on actual tin cans.
“Stop screwing us,” wrote Max from Illinois.
“Quit passing temporary measures for a long-term problem,” wrote Jessica from Ohio.
“My future shouldn’t be decided by your inability to work together,” wrote Emily from Maryland.
Politicians would be wise to heed messages like these.
The five young people who launched The Can Kicks Back one year ago are now part of a movement of more than 20,000 millennials. Our frustration has given way to legislation that has since been enforced by more than 1,000 economists, including 15 Nobel laureates. Our conversations online have translated to events in excess of 800 students offline.
And our movement is still building. A consensus is growing. Both parties better watch out because we refuse to be the first generation in American history to inherit a country worse off than the one handed to our parents.
In 2014, elected officials may very well face a choice: either get serious about working together and putting our fiscal house in order, or you’ll be the ones getting canned.
Nick Troiano is a graduate student at Georgetown University and co-founder of The Can Kicks Back, a nonpartisan campaign to defeat the national debt.