Eyes on the future

Posted: Jan 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Typically we criticize our politicians as shortsighted, looking only to the next election, unwilling to take any short-term risk for the long-term national interests. But today's politicians -- notably George W. Bush, but also some of his Democratic opponents -- are fighting for long-term stakes. Sure, they make compromises and back and fill. But they are also acting with an eye to what America will look like 20, 30, even 40 years out.
That's true of the continuing fight over the Bush tax cuts. Some of the surface arguments are disingenuous. Bush talks of disciplining government, but in his first term he failed to cut spending nearly as much as taxes. He let House and Senate Republican leaders use spending as the glue to hold their slim majorities together.

 Democrats have had a good time attacking Republican deficits, although precious few of them were motivated to go into politics by a hatred of deficit spending and many at the same time called for increased spending on their favorite programs. But both sides are thinking about the long-term future.

 Bush believes that cutting taxes and making the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent will in the long run hold down government's share of the gross domestic product. Many Democrats act out of fear that Bush is right. They would like to see America move some distance toward a Western European-style welfare state. They know that permanent tax cuts would tend to prevent even a President Hillary Rodham Clinton from doing this. It's a serious difference over a serious issue.

 Similarly, on Social Security, Bush wants to allow younger workers to put their money into individual investment accounts so that every worker can do what most already do: accumulate significant wealth over their lifetimes. That will tend to make them less dependent on government. It will also keep government's share of the nation's gross domestic product from rising as we move from the America of 1935, when there were more than 40 workers for each retiree, to the America of 2042, when there will be two -- and when the Social Security trust fund will run dry, according to many projections.

 Democrats want to preserve Social Security as it is, as a safety net for the elderly, and they fear the change in attitude that may come as all workers become investors. They say that taxes can always be raised a point or two because they think it's a good thing for government to take a larger share of national income and redistribute it progressively.

 Certainly there are some shortsighted players here. Connecticut Rep. Rob Simmons, a Republican, said he is not concerned about the plight of Social Security in 2042 because "I will be dead then." Simmons, who was born in 1943, probably will be. But his constituents who turn 30 this year will turn 67 -- retirement age -- in 2042. They may not appreciate it if their congressman is indifferent about the solvency of Social Security in the year they're scheduled to retire.

 On foreign policy, and particularly on Iraq, the stakes are also long-term. Bush believes that the emergence of a democratic Iraq will change the political and religious culture of the Middle East for the better. There is at least some evidence, mostly not covered by mainstream media, that this is starting to happen: public demands for democratization in other Arab countries; criticism by Arab intellectuals of the dead-end policies of existing regimes; the victory among Palestinians of a candidate who says violence is futile.

 Democratic critics of Bush on Iraq fear that the United States has committed too much manpower and money to an enterprise that is impractical and quite possibly counterproductive. Better, in their view, to accommodate received opinion in Western Europe and the Arab world.

 I have my own views, and you have yours, on who is right on these different issues. But many of the politicians on both sides deserve some credit for considering the long-term future.

 George W. Bush has been criticized for ignoring voters' current priorities. But that's because, right or wrong, he's taking a longer view. As a result, the decisions made by Congress and the actions of the Bush administration over the next year or two will determine, more than most congressional decisions and administration actions, the kind of America and the kind of world we will live in 20 years from now. That's important whether you are one of those who expect to be around then or not.