Monday, October 29, 2012

Politics And History: ‘For The Children’

Public endeavors that bring huge benefits to the participant (we’re talking state-level and national politics here) can be a tricky thing when you want people to know that you’re in it for them and not for yourself. A popular way for politicians to demonstrate their intentions (altruism) is to invoke the children, as in “our children and our grandchildren.”

I can’t help but laugh when it’s used today because it should be worn out by now. Yes, I know … it really means a concern for the future, but it’s so much more poignant and meaningful when it’s “for the kids.” The term has been used so much, it should be considered child-phrase abuse.

Take, for instance, the recent barrage of ads supporting the candidacy of Matt Doheny. This is not to pick on Mr. Doheny or to take sides. History helps reveal who uses the phrase (the challenger), and when (during the opposing party’s ownership of the White House). He happens to fit those parameters.

Doheny on Medicare: “It’s time to fix the program in a way that both keeps our promise to current recipients, like my mom, and preserves it for our children and grandchildren.”

Doheny on the budget: “I support a balanced budget amendment to ensure that Washington won’t saddle our children and grandchildren with a crushing debt and reduce America’s competitiveness.”

Doheny on the national debt: “We have just passed $16 trillion in debt―debt that will be on the shoulders of our children and grandchildren and hurt our competitiveness in the global market. We simply cannot allow … President Obama and his partner in Congress, Bill Owens, to continue to spend with impunity.”

Sounds well-intentioned to be against spending with impunity, but history suggest it to be merely the position of the party that does not currently control the nation’s purse strings. The party in power rarely expresses any worry about “our children and grandchildren.”

Like it or not, that’s how it works. For evidence, pore over articles covering politics from 1980–1988. You’ll find Democrats bemoaning Reagan’s policies, which will ruin the future of our children. After years of that mantra, Republicans recognized an opportunity and begin to join in, insisting that cuts to entitlement programs would help the Democrats save the children’s future. Slick politics!

If you’re beyond 30 years old, you can recall the surplus handed to George Bush, followed by an unprecedented spending spree. On September 20, 2005, two well-known politicians spoke out on national television: “Where is he [President Bush] going to find roughly half a trillion dollars over the next several years for Iraq and for Katrina?” asked Sen. Joseph Biden on CNN.  “The country cannot fight a war in Iraq, rebuild the Gulf region, and deal with other domestic needs while cutting taxes for the wealthy,” said Barack Obama on CBS’ Face the Nation. But the spending went on.

Suddenly, in late 2009, Republicans began to voice concerns over the financial future of our children and our grandchildren, and are still doing so today as Election Day approaches. Think hard and see if you can recall … what was different in 2009 from the previous 8 years?

Well, rest assured, the ploy is nothing new. “The children” have been used in every crisis to manipulate the electorate. The complaining party either just left office or was building a case to take it back again.

In one of the few uses of the phrase NOT connected to spending, famed orator Daniel Webster said in a speech before Congress in 1850 that if the South were allowed to secede, thus ending the Union, “… our children and grandchildren would cry out shame upon us.”

It’s interesting (and frustrating) how history repeats itself: “The sale … of our government bonds to European capitalists … to be paid in full, principal and interest, by our children and grandchildren, is one of the direct and disastrous results of our insane persistence in the use of a fallacious, juggling currency.” Sounds like today’s news, but it was said in 1867, addressing debts of the Civil War.

The answer to the problem? Bonds, but often at a high price to the country. Again, the comments sound like those in 2012 but are from the NY Tribune in February 1869: “The national debt … the market is gorged with government securities … bonds which our children and grandchildren will have to pay. This cannot always go on, and should be stopped at once.” The difference? The European creditors of 1869 have been replaced today by China.

War traditionally yields large, long-term debt, so post-war periods carry an onslaught of save-the-children pleas.  In 1917, regarding WWI: “Shall we pay for it with cash in hand … or shall we pay for it this year and all other years … our children and grandchildren … bound to the frightful burden of it, age after age?”

In 1925 regarding WWI debt: “We thought that the war was costing us a lot, but … it is our children and grandchildren  to whom are left the payment of the financial cost, and it is estimated that not until 1972 will the last of the war debt be extinguished. In fact, we are still paying the debts of the Civil War, and the cost was a mere trifle compared with that of the World War.”

On top of WWI debt, the 1930s featured the New Deal, and Republicans went heavily to the attack. In 1934: “… the public debt now amounts to … a staggering sum … it isn’t you or even myself that I am worrying about.  … what about our children and grandchildren? They will be left to face the music.”

Again in 1934: “… it is astounding that the present adult generation in America is so complacent about the ‘mortgage’ that is being placed on our children and grandchildren, in the form of a public debt of unprecedented proportions.”

In 1935: “… you [FDR] proceeded to plunge a whole nation into such a staggering debt that the world at large gasped in amazement. You can never pay it; we can never pay it; but you have hung such a millstone around the necks of our children and grandchildren …”

In 1936: “… as a result of reckless spending by our federal, state, and local governments, a public debt of more than $50 billion … will be handed down as a grim legacy to our children and our grandchildren.”

Again in 1936, regarding the Democrats who took power in 1932:  “They found a debt of $20 billion … and they are leaving … a debt of $40 billion. … Not only have they mortgaged our future, but that of our children and grandchildren. They have taken a blood transfusion from infants not born.”

In 1944 regarding WWII: “We are leaving 64 per cent of our cost for ourselves, including the men in our armed forces, and the children and grandchildren to pay in the future.”

Again in 1944: “We are indebted to the New York Sun for the table, reproduced below, showing the complete financial record of every US President from Washington to Roosevelt’s third term. These figures establish Mr. Roosevelt as world history’s biggest spender to date. … [the facts speak for themselves when it comes time for the fall election] … hard cold facts for our children, our grandchildren, and their children.”

There are so many examples of referring to the children: in 1954 about a balanced budget (said Robert Byrd, “Interest and debt will continue to climb, the dollar continues to shrink. The reckoning for our children and grandchildren will be beyond imagining”; in 1960 on the national debt; and in the 1970s for Vietnam, the War on Poverty, and desegregation.

Does this sound like anything you read today? “Our most serious fiscal hemorrhage results from the entitlement programs of recent years. Some of these programs, such as food stamps, student loans, Medicaid, subsidized housing, and nutrition carry a needs test for eligibility. If we are serious about reducing the deficits, these needs tests will have to be further strengthened.

“More significant (and more difficult) savings must be achieved in programs that do not carry a needs test. Among these are … Medicare and Social Security. … One of these days, our children and grandchildren will discover a trillion dollars in unfunded liabilities …”

The irony is, that’s from the Reagan administration in 1983, and the word trillion came back to haunt them. Just a few years later, the national debt reached $3 trillion, more than triple what he inherited.

Since that time, it has been the budget, the federal deficit, entitlements, veterans’ benefits, the Iraqi War, Hurricane Katrina recovery, and Tarp that have led to constantly bemoaning the fate of “our children and grandchildren.” George Carlin or Louis C.K. could tell them what to do about the kids!

On the regional level, pleas on behalf of the children have been employed on many issues: in Canton, regarding bonds for a water system in 1916; bonds to provide a war bonus to veterans in 1947; to save the Ausable Forks Community Center in 1981; highway/bridge bonds in St. Lawrence County in 1988; the 21st Century Bond Act in 1990, partly to buy Adirondack lands; the fight in Lake Placid against a proposed Walmart in 1995; and of course, the anti-Bill Owens/Democrat ads of recent weeks.

But it wasn’t always about the children. In an 1871 article about the cost of the Civil War being shared with future Americans, one veteran saw it this way: “We of this generation saved the country in the late Rebellion, at a heavy cost of lives and treasure. Why should we be taxed so heavily to pay off the debt? Why should not the burden be left to our children and grandchildren, when the resources of our country and its population may be doubled?”

A similar viewpoint came from a WWI veteran in 1919: “We are fighting the war to make the world safe for democracy. … Future generations should share the price of this boon with the present generation which bears the heaviest load.”

Not to be outdone was the “West Branch Philosopher” from the banks of the Oswegatchie, who in 1960 (in the Gouverneur Tribune-Press) wrote with tongue thoroughly in cheek:

“Of course I understand what the President is saying: he means the debt we run up will have to be paid off by our children and grandchildren, and he’s right, but in defense of us adults, I’d like to underscore the fact that a lot of these debts we’re running up can be traced directly to the children.

“Take schools. When you go into debt to build a school, it’s not for the parents’ benefit. Most parents I know are already educated about as far as they intend to go. It may not be far enough, but most of them seem satisfied with it.

“Or take roads. Of course parents use roads, provided their teen-age children are tied up with the mumps, and half the time when the parents are using roads, it’s for hauling kids around who are too young to drive, but loud enough to get their way.

“And so it goes. Hospitals, parks, even national defense, whatever it is that goes with our national budget, the children are getting a pretty good slice of it, and I for one am glad to be able to shift a little of the cost onto them when they grow up. One of the troubles with children now is that they expect everything to be handed to them free of charge. If we keep piling up the national debt, it looks like we’ll get that notion out of their heads one of these days.”

Makes about as much sense as everything else on the subject.


Lawrence P. Gooley

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 21 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, has been a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. They have published 75 titles and are now offering web design.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publisher’s Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.





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