Beliefnet
Reprinted from the October 2004 issue of Science & Theology News. Used with permission.

Review of "The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know About America's Economic Future."
Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns.
Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press, 2004. 328 pages. $27.95 hardcover.

If even a portion of what "The Coming Generational Storm" predicts comes true, our country is in trouble.

Co-authors Laurence J. Kotlikoff and Scott Burns explain in wonderfully easy, humorous language the impact of current U.S. fiscal policy on future generations. Kotlikoff, a Boston University economics professor, and Burns, a personal finance columnist for the Dallas Morning News, have garnered impressive endorsements from three Nobel Prize winners in economics: Robert J. Shiller, George Akerlof and Paul A. Samuelson. Despite being a good read, this book will not give you warm, fuzzy feelings. The authors use "generational accounting" to show a $51 trillion deficit looming in America's future. "Generational accounting" is the present value of taxes that members of a particular age cohort will pay over their lifetimes. Adding up the taxes of all living generations gives a figure for the government's income during that same time frame. If we subtract from this sum the government expenditures, we come up with a figure that ideally should be zero, nada, zip.

"Generational accounting" is like balancing the family budget on a larger scale. If a family spends exactly the amount it earns, it is living within its means. If a family spends more than it earns, and does so year after year, it will lose the family farm.

The United States is spending beyond its means - $51 trillion dollars beyond its means. You don't need to be a Nobel laureate in economics to realize that $51 trillion is a scary deficit. By comparison, the current U.S. gross domestic product (the value of all products and services produced in the United States in a single year) is only $11 trillion. The federal debt is, as of Jan. 2004, $4.4 trillion, and even that sum compromises the value of the U.S. dollar against the euro. What will happen when the deficit skyrockets?

Why is our debt growing? Social Security's unfunded liability, Medicare, war in Iraq, homeland security and an aging population are all running up the tab of national expenses. Kotlikoff and Burns call their proposed solutions the "menu of pain." We have to cut spending, increase income or implement some combination of both.

How about this for a campaign slogan: Raise income taxes 17 percent, raise payroll taxes 24 percent, cut federal purchases 26 percent and reduce Social Security and Medicare benefits 11 percent. No politician, Democrat or Republican, is going to ride a wave of popularity into office by backing these draconian measures. Yet the authors argue that some choice from the "menu of pain" will be necessary.

As for personal finance, Kotlikoff and Burns provide specific suggestions, including how much money to place in retirement accounts (not much) and how much to save (a lot). They even recommend names of specific mutual funds.

There are critics of the "generational accounting" approach, of course. Readers will want to look at the opposing viewpoints before changing their personal investment strategies. To ignore this discussion, however, would be unwise. The relationship between the generations is very much a concern for individuals and for spiritual communities.

Faith communities need to think through their roles in meeting the spiritual and material needs of the increasing legions of older citizens, some of them inevitably sick and poor. Faith communities need to face the prospect that young people, saddled with increasing bills, may resent the growing ranks of elderly who lived in a different world and retain an entitlement ethic. The war between generations would be a devastating one. Arm yourself with awareness. Read this well-crafted book.

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