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Indentured Youth

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AS a young congressional staffer, I yearn to ask the elder statesmen around me if they really want to bequeath their children crumbling roads, dirty air, a mountain of debt, uncontrollable hazardous waste, and a hollowed-out industrial base. For in these days of deficits and tax tinkering, it seems that, tragically, America's political leaders have relinquished all semblances of governing - trading their children's future prosperity for reelection. Daily we are sacrificing our long-term health for our short-term wealth.

Though leveled before, my criticisms are today painfully relevant. Unheeded, they have brought us to the brink of decline, with the '80s debt draining our economy through military consumption and imports, rather then capital investment.

We can no longer hide from the fact that those of us born in the mid-'60s or later are fast becoming economically indentured by the reigning generation.

The signs of servanthood are frightening: the United States as the world's largest debtor; attempting to mask our real problems with accounting gimmickry such as the recent Bush capital-gains proposal, which will cost $21 billion over the next decade; $30 billion of the S&L bailout hidden from the deficit by taking it ``off-budget;'' and a severely weakened industrial base that jeopardizes our ability to respark a rise in stagnating living standards.

As Sen. Ernest Hollings and Charles Bowsher, head of the General Accounting Office, have pointed out, ``cooking the books'' by financing our budget deficit with Social Security surpluses can only mean one of three things when it comes time to provide for the baby-boomer retirees: dramatically slashing benefits, defaulting on a huge stack of IOUs, or sharply increasing taxes on tomorrow's workers.

Even more shocking are the GAO's estimated costs of meeting America's human and capital-investment needs over roughly the next decade: for example, $150 billion to modernize our nuclear-weapons complexes; $350 billion to repair and maintain our infrastructure; and $20 billion to rebuild America's deteriorating stock of public housing.

America is today unwilling to pay the price of prosperity, in a large part because of the economic myopia of our elected leadership. When the bill comes due, it will tighten today's middle-class squeeze like a vise - as second-rate industrial strength leads to second-rate living standards.

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