The Clash of Generations: Niall Ferguson’s Take on the Biden-Ryan Debate

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson saw in the debate, not the clash of civilizations, but the clash of generations:

What we saw last week was not just a contrast between Irish-American political styles. We saw the opening round in the clash of generations that will soon dominate American politics.

That clash will center around the national debt:

In its latest “World Economic Outlook,” the International Monetary Fund points out that the U.S. public debt now exceeds 100 percent of GDP. The last time debt was this high, the IMF shows, the results were an “unexpected burst of inflation” and policies of “financial repression.” But that combination doesn’t look likely today—which means the debt is going to be around for years to come. More importantly, in the absence of the kind of reforms of Medicare, Social Security, and the tax system that Paul Ryan has long advocated, it’s going to keep on growing.

Already a staggering $16 trillion, the debt represents nothing less than a vast claim by the generation currently retired or about to retire on their children and grandchildren.

I’m a big Obama supporter, but I must say that I agree with Niall Ferguson’s zoom out here. The national debt is, indeed, the elephant in the room. If the electorate ousts President Obama from office, it will be in large part because of collective anxiety over this problem and a fear that Obama won’t tackle it. So if Romney-Ryan prevail, they better fix the debt because that will be their mandate.

Romney, to fix the debt, will have to sign-off on numerous things that are so unpopular that he will have to settle on serving only one term. But maybe this is Romney’s redemptive narrative–the thing he’s telling himself. Romney didn’t serve in Vietnam; he didn’t participate in the civil rights movement; he didn’t pay his fair share of taxes through the years. But he can fix the nation’s growing debt crisis; he can leave the country, four years from now, in a much better financial position than it is now.

I like to think that President Obama will also rise to this occasion should he win a second term. But if Obama doesn’t win, then I’d also like to think that Romney will surprise me, and have a deeper moral core than I now suspect he does.

At bottom, how the debt gets dealt with will be about ownership: who owns the debt, who will pay down the debt, who will be dropped from the federal credit card, and who will still be allowed to tap it.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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