In the 1983 film WarGames, an eccentric professor creates “Joshua,” a highly intelligent supercomputer who plays strategy games to determine the effectiveness of U.S. military campaigns. When given access to nuclear missiles and the command to play the game “global thermonuclear war,” Joshua analyzes every possible future outcome before making an unexpected decision: not to launch the missiles at all. “A strange game,” Joshua tells the professor. “The only winning move is not to play.”
Like Joshua, millennials have chosen not to play the political games of their parents and grandparents. With a crumbling economy, a squabbling Congress, and issues starkly drawn along party lines, the political environment in the United States looks more like a warzone every year.
Decisions are increasingly made by an older generation driven by presuppositions and personal hostility, while the younger generation grows progressively more detached from political society. It should come as no surprise that many millennials have surveyed the torn political landscape and chosen not to play what looks like a twisted game in which there are no winners. But millennials cannot afford to check out now, if only because they alone can solve the single most pressing issue faced by modern America: the unsustainable national debt.
Despite the universal danger presented by a rapidly growing federal deficit, misinformation and misdirection continue to delay authentic solutions to a real problem. This seemingly infinite spiral of generational theft can be cut short by the activism of well-informed young Americans, but only if the misinformation is met by a varied and engaging media campaign, independent from party ties.
Campaigning politicians tout the evil of public debt so often that voters frequently dismiss national credit as no more than a talking point—but the skyrocketing national debt poses more than a perceived problem. According to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the federal deficit will cause interest rates to rise from $315 billion this year to $914 billion in 2028. By 2026, the third largest category of the U.S. budget will be interest. Though they may seem a nebulous foe, interest costs pose a real threat to the economy.
When the federal government spends increasing amounts on interest, it decreases spending in areas like infrastructure or education, areas vital to the lifeblood of the American economy. Even so, some have posited that public debt remains desirable because government securities are risk-free assets (as compared to riskier private borrowing), and risk-free assets are essential to a healthy economy. The flaw in this argument exposes the Achilles heel of public debt: government securities are not truly risk-free.
Carlo Cottarelli, former director of the International Monetary Fund’s Fiscal Affairs Department, points out that “raising taxes does not win elections, so one should have doubts about the willingness of governments to raise revenues to repay debt under any circumstances.” But what will happen if the United States defaults on its debts, transforming its “risk-free assets” into worthless pieces of paper? When the federal deficit becomes unsustainable—an inevitable scenario without intervention—the fallout will begin with a sudden, rapid decline in confidence among investors who have bought U.S. securities. This will occur when the government crosses an invisible line—an unpredictable debt limit which will trigger financial ruin.
Greece provides a helpful case study. In 2009, Greece Parliament announced that its annual budget deficit would be 12.9% of its GDP—over four times the limit set by the European Union. The rest of the world subsequently watched Greece stumble into the worst economic crisis in her modern history, provoking an era of hardship in which the Greek economy fell by 26 percent per capita between 2007 and 2014. According to the Guardian, “The poorest 20% of Greece’s 11 million people have suffered a 42% drop in disposable income since 2009.”7 To put those numbers in perspective, Greece—although in nominal recovery—continues to suffer a poverty rate worse than that of America’s Great Depression.
All this suffering occurred because the Greek government hit the debt wall, and investors lost confidence in its ability to pay back those debts. John Mauldin and Jonathan Tepper, authors of Endgame: The End of the Debt Supercycle, write that “the limit is all about confidence…Real endgame is when governments begin to run into the limits of their ability to borrow money at today’s low rates. Greece already has. Others will follow.”
As the Greek catastrophe demonstrates, confidence is key to a functioning economy. If investors lose confidence in the government’s ability to pay them back, they stop buying government securities and the government loses market access. Immediately, the government must either cut spending or raise taxes, which in turn cripples the private sector. The result? In this scenario, Cottarelli writes that “the whole economy is likely to crash.” Yet with a current federal deficit of over $21 trillion (and climbing), the United States has failed to learn from Greece’s mistakes.
If the United States crosses the debt limit, the resulting collapse will be catastrophic. Unemployment will rise dramatically, while the value of the dollar falls. Higher interest rates and loss of bank equity will make private lending impossible. Stocks will drop and devalue investments, wrecking the retirement plans of millions of working Americans, while the millions of Americans already on Social Security see those payments halt. Disruptions in the global market will create ripple effects throughout the global economy, causing similar effects in hundreds of both developed and undeveloped nations. In short, the consequences of our current trajectory will be untold suffering and economic ruin.
The conclusion is clear—whether you’re Republican, Democrat, third party, independent, or have no political affiliation at all, the national debt threatens your future. For such a monumental problem, the solution appears deceptively simple: eliminate wasteful spending, cut ineffective programs, and trim the budget. After all, with the government spending billions of dollars on yoga classes for federal employees, commercials promoting Christmas tree sales, and golf equipment designed for use in outer space, re-examining the budget seems like common sense. Yet Congress remains silent, largely because the federal deficit is a useful political tool, both on and off the legislative floor.
On December 6, 2009, Senator Mitch McConnell wrote a press release about how cutting Medicare would harm American citizens—then one day later, he issued another release about how expanding Medicare would ruin the economy. These two positions are ideologically contradictory, but politicians like McConnell are much more interested in wooing voters than in addressing the dangerously high deficit. The paradox is striking: deficits have been planted firmly in the public conversation, but rather than addressing them in any substantial way, politicians continue to use them as political leverage.
Simon Johnson and James Kwak, co-authors of White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why it Matters to You, see only one end to this spiraling cycle: “In the long term, either the voting public will ensure that the national debt is brought down to a sustainable level, or bond investors will do it for us, as they are doing to Greece…One way is much better than the other.” In order to forestall a debt crisis like that of Greece, the American people must choose to make a change. But responding to this serious issue means that, as 31 percent of the electorate, young Americans must take a stand.
According to a poll of 1,006 registered voters conducted by Global Strategy Group and North Star Opinion Research, 90% of millennials in 2016 believed that young Americans stood to benefit from a long-term solution to public debt. But if millennials recognize—at least in part—the dangers of the growing federal deficit, why do they remain politically silent on the issue?
After living through the administration of a Democrat who told the American people that “we have an obligation to future generations to address our long-term, structural deficits” immediately before increasing the deficit by $9 trillion, and then the presidential campaign of a fiscally conservative Republican who also refers to himself as the “king of debt,” millennials are tired of hearing politicians promise one thing and then deliver another. Public debt has become white noise, a political play set against a background of corrupt congressional games. Just look at the numbers: with a voter turnout of just 46 percent, the lowest involvement of any age group, most millennials ignore the pressing need to vote for politicians who will address the deficit.
Such weak political presence might seem to suggest ignorance or even apathy on the part of millennials—but the markedly high numbers of millennial political bloggers, social media campaigners, and community volunteers tell a different story. Millennials are not apathetic, they are cynical. They have not lost faith in humanity, they have lost faith in politicians—and, by extension, public policy. Broadly speaking, millennials are acutely aware of societal problems, but are so disillusioned by the duplicitousness of Washington that they opt out of the game. Like the supercomputer in WarGames, they have decided that the only winning move is not to play.
As a millennial, I am guilty of this same attitude. In my first presidential election, the 2016 race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I became so disheartened by corruption on both sides that I decided I could not vote for either candidate. On November 8th, 2016, I posted a picture of my empty ballot on Facebook. “Game over,” I wrote. “I won’t play.” While I don’t regret my choice in that election, two years later I recognize the danger of my attitude. The future will be shaped by millennials, by our vision and values. If we do not speak up now, generational theft may rob us of that potential before we ever inherit it. Millennials must make it clear that we will not tolerate the destruction of our future through generational theft.
This is much easier said than done, for one simple reason: millennials are poorly informed. Of course, in an electronic age where information is available at the touch of a finger, millennials are not uninformed, but misinformed—inundated with news sources that routinely fail to present accurate information about the national debt. According to research by the Hewlett Foundation, millennials turn to Facebook as their top news source, with CNN, local TV, and Google News following close behind. These popular news sources tend to offer a myriad of flashy stories with hidden political agendas, often containing contradictory and even inaccurate information.
When the internet is crowded with political thinkers elbowing one another to manipulate the next generation of voters, can millennials really be blamed for their lack of political direction? Such misinformation presents a real danger, as millennials are the immediate future of politics. David Andersen, a political science professor at Iowa State University, agrees:
Millennials actually started outnumbering the baby boomers about four years ago. But because they’ve voted at lower rates, they won’t actually catch up to them in the electorate until about maybe 2018, probably 2020. And after that, millennials should dominate for a long time.
As millennials mature into an ever more formidable force for change, politicians grow ever more detached from the younger generation, and the national debt reaches ever higher, our best hope is to reach through the flow of information and campaign where millennials spend most of their political time and energy: social media.
Raising awareness of the federal deficit through social media requires a totally different method of engagement than any other political venue. First, such an awareness campaign must present varied content: pithy articles, engaging podcasters, trustworthy bloggers, and clear infographics. Effectiveness in this case means reaching the widest audience possible, so the more outlets, the better. Second, much of the content must be brief. Millennials are far more likely to absorb plain and clear information with few words. The Gabriel Marketing Group agrees: “A general rule of thumb is to start with snackable content. Let us decide if it’s worth clicking the link.” Third (and most importantly), content must be published independently. Given that 71 percent of millennials disapprove of both the Republican and Democrat parties, any party affiliation will be regarded with suspicion and even hostility. Through a social media campaign following these three principles, independent thinkers of every political affiliation can come together to reach millennials with a single message: the federal deficit threatens the American way of life.
With Congress caught in a widening gyre of gratification and accusation, there are no other options available. The older generation is either incapable or unwilling to make the hard choices necessary to achieve fiscal responsibility, and the younger generation will inherit the cost of their mistakes. Plainly speaking, the activism of millennials is not just a possible solution to generational theft, it’s the only solution. But achieving this goal means targeting millennials with a social media campaign designed to cut through the misinformation. When it comes to the high stakes of public debt, Joshua is wrong. If millennials do not set aside their cynicism and choose once again to engage in political society, our moves will be made for us—and this time, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.