Politics & Policy

Eating America’s Seed Corn

We have chosen to imperil the future out of greed and foolishness.

As gas prices climb back toward $4 a gallon, the Obama administration — facing a tough reelection campaign and rising Middle East tensions — is once again considering tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. For years, administrations have bought and stored oil for emergencies, in fear of a cutoff of imported oil, as happened during the Arab embargo of 1973–74.

But since 2009, the U.S. government has declared most federal lands off-limits to new oil and gas exploration — despite vast recent finds of energy and radically new means to tap it. President Obama also canceled the most vital sections of the Keystone pipeline, a proposed conduit from the Canadian oil fields into the heart of the oil-consuming U.S., while preventing production on existing oil and gas reserves in northern Alaska and offshore. In the midst of a crop-killing drought, we are diverting about 40 percent of our shrinking corn crop to produce high-cost ethanol fuels.

Apparently, Americans are not willing to produce enough new available oil to meet our always growing gasoline appetites. Yet to keep gas prices manageable in an election year, we will surely tap what our predecessors banked for us.

The same shortsighted selfishness characterizes debates over entitlements and the deficit. Republicans accuse Obama of transferring more than $700 billion out of Medicare to help fund his new federal takeover of health care. Obama counters that Representative Paul Ryan’s budget plans would either privatize or end Medicare as we know it. But either way, without revolutionary changes, Medicare’s costs will almost double in the next ten years and bankrupt the system.

Periodic tax hikes to support Medicare have never quite caught up with ever-growing expenses, as the pool of elderly recipients exploded and the number of younger payers shrunk. Baby boomers insist that politicians keep Medicare payouts untouched, but that unrealistic demand will ensure that millions of mostly poorer younger people will pay more and receive less — if anything — themselves.

Since 2001, the federal government has added more than $10 trillion to the U.S. debt. Even the supposedly toughest budget cutters admit that they cannot realistically balance the budget within the next ten years, much less pay down what may soon reach $20 trillion in aggregate national debt.

The generation now in charge of the country can afford such reckless borrowing only because interest rates remain at historic lows. But should inflation mount, the cost to service this enormous borrowing will ensure that generations to come will have to sacrifice to pay back what others long gone spent so recklessly.

Americans have rarely questioned the value of a college education — until now. Tuition costs are soaring and jobs for those with bachelor’s degrees grow scarcer. Yet campuses have added layers of unnecessary administrative bureaucracy and offered student services more akin to spas than institutions of learning.

Teaching loads are generally less than they were 30 years ago, while opportunities for faculty travel and release time are far greater. The result is that collective student indebtedness has reached $1 trillion, with the cost of financing college similar to taking out a huge home mortgage. 

Yet few universities seem willing to freeze or reduce tuition costs by slashing unnecessary administrators, having faculty teach more courses, and cutting back on perks such as student unions that resemble Club Med, superfluous and trendy “studies” classes, or redundant campus “centers.” Spiraling costs for the higher-education industry are serviced by ballooning student debt that will take decades to pay down.

There is more talk of our deteriorating roads, bridges, and dams than there was during the 1960s, a far poorer era. But again, such erosion is no accident. While our grandparents sacrificed to leave us spectacular freeway interchanges and new airports, we allowed it all to decay without worrying about who will restore the infrastructure after we are gone.

Examine the annual rates of budget increases in Medicare, Social Security, unemployment and disability insurance, food stamps, and public pensions. The common denominator is redistribution and consumption right now for us — investment and maintenance later for others.

“Eating seed corn” is a metaphor for being forced into the no-win situation of imperiling the future to survive the present. So the allusion does not quite work with contemporary America. Unlike the proverbial farmer who loses his crop to drought or pests, and thereby is forced to live on next year’s planting seed, Americans are under no such coercion.

We were not forced into our dilemmas by nature, but simply by choice — and our own greed and foolishness.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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