Former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis did a media circuit this week to promote the release of his new book on leadership, Call Sign Chaos. One common theme throughout these interviews is General Mattis’s deeply held concern for the direction of our country – both in terms of fiscal sustainability and the temperament of our discourse.
Most notable, were his grave warnings to the younger generations that will pay the heaviest costs should these trends continue.
Our Biggest National Security Threat
During General Mattis’ appearance on Face the Nation, he was asked to name the biggest national security threat that faces our country.
In addition to the threat of authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China imposing their will on the global order, he pointed to “our growing debt that we’re going to transfer to the younger generation with seeming no fiscal discipline.”
He has a point. Should the national debt debilitate our economy, our ability to defend our nation and allies abroad would be severely hindered. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen connected – “the strength and the support and the resources that our military uses are directly related to the health of our economy over time.” It also just so happens that China owns a $1 trillion of our national debt.
Further elaborating in an interview in Chicago, General Mattis lamented that “we’re loading the younger generation with intergenerational theft, with debt that we’re not paying for, and it is going to be such a burden that we are going to shrink the venture capital of the capital available for many things — for defense, for investment, and research and development.”
Mattis is tapping into the problem illustrated well by the Steuerle-Roeper Index of Fiscal Democracy which measures the amount of tax dollars remaining after mandatory and interest spending.
In 1967, 60 percent of federal receipts remained after mandatory and interest spending. Today, only 20 percent remain. In a decade, it will fall to zero. In other words, around the time that millennials are truly starting to govern in 2029, every penny of revenue collected will be used to pay for promises and interest payments accrued from laws that were passed decades ago.
To illustrate the threat posed to younger generations, Mattis brought up the concept of “usufruct,” in an interview with Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations. Usufruct, Mattis explains, is when, in an agrarian society “a son or daughter, they can take over the land of their parents, you can chop down the trees, change the watercourse—you can do whatever you want, plant crops—but you must turn the land over in as good a shape or better than you found it.”
Until recently, this has been the standard in American life and economy. But Raj Chetty has found that absolute mobility has sharply declined in America. 90 percent of Americans born in 1940 made more than their parents. That number drops to just 50 percent for those born in 1984. Moreover, median family incomes have stagnated over the last 20 years.
Add $100 trillion in unpaid for liabilities to this mix and its plain to see that older generations are not practicing usufruct. Not even close.
General Mattis empathizes with our generation’s plight, recognizing that “you young people ought to be madder than heck about it.”
Friends and Enemies
General Mattis also pointed towards another area that concerns him – a “lack of friendliness,” elaborating that “it’s the increasing contempt I see between Americans who have different opinions.”
As Arthur Brooks spelled out in his recent book, “Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America From the Culture of Contempt,” political polarization is at its worst levels since the Civil War and one-in-six Americans have stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election.
While urging a restoration of trust between political adversaries, Robbie Rosamelia recently broke down how increasingly caustic rhetoric has led to a profound lack of trust in government institutions (a piddly 17% of Americans trust Washington to do what is right always or most of the time).
Between the heated rhetoric and untrustworthy behavior, our leaders in DC have certainly exacerbated the “lack of friendliness” problem.
Mattis addressed this, advising our leaders that once an election is over, its time to set aside our differences. He reminds everyone that it “doesn’t mean we can’t have good arguments. And we are set up to have three coequal branches of government. They all have a voice. And one of them, just to add fuel to the fire, they’ve—we’ve got a bicameral legislature. But if we don’t start working together, there’s no guarantee that we’re going to turn this over in as good a shape or better than we received it.”
Living Up to Our Word
Which brings up the last piece of advice that Mattis has to share that could fix the problems with our unsustainable budget and the devolution of our nation’s discourse: “We must mean what we say, to both allies and foes: no more false threats or failing to live up to our word.”
Trust is absolutely critical to course correct our country’s fiscal and civility problems. Democrats and Republicans alike have made promises on the campaign trail to get our fiscal house in order. But as soon as they get in office, they do not have enough trust in each other to push for transformational fixes without their opponents using it against them on the campaign trail.
General Mattis reminds us all that “American democracy is an experiment. We must preserve it or it will be destroyed.” It will take trust between leaders in Washington, the American people and our elected officials, and between all of us, in order to make the changes necessary to fend off the serious threats that face our country.
So let’s heed the sage advice of General Mattis and start to build that trust, live up to our word, address the national debt, and pass down this great American experiment in even better shape to the next generation.