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Young Americans Should Protest in the Streets

After reading Matt Miller’s weekend opinion article for the Washington Post, I have decided to join the Occupy movement. But forget Wall Street. I’ve got a different take: Occupy Social Security. Or, perhaps, Occupy Government Debt. He writes: “[Younger Americans], you’re in big trouble. You don’t even know it. You’re busy trying to get a degree, land a job, start a family, save for a home. You don’t follow the news. But trust me—you’ve been taken for a ride by your elders.” Miller goes on to detail all the things government should be doing but isn’t because pensions and healthcare for largely wealthy seniors consume federal and state budgets: keep roads, sewers, airports, and bridges and parks in good order, revamp the nation’s mediocre K-12 and higher education system, and fix our current job and savings swamp, for starters. Young people are “being swindled,” he says. He’s right. Younger Americans don’t realize they’re coming of age in an era in which both parties have pre-committed virtually all public resources to seniors. They’ll inherit a government without the cash or flexibility to address emerging non-elderly needs—choices that should be every generation’s birthright. Want to help a poor child or fix a bridge? Sorry, kids, the till is empty. Jonah Goldberg has been on this kick lately about how young people are generally too foolish to be trusted in public policy. But young people still have self interests. How many of your friends (or you) are out of work or waiting tables while struggling to pay off their college degree? Of my close friends in my graduating class, at least half were out of work or working a “pay the bills” job (telemarketing, insurance sales, high school level retail, etc.) a good two years after graduation. And I am fine with paying taxes, as long as it’s going to some direct public good: Roads. Schools for other people’s kids. Police. And so forth. But I am not fine paying taxes so other people can live in comfort by means they have not earned while I, my husband, and my two children get the shaft. That’s where this self-interest issue becomes an ethical issue. It’s not just “if someone’s getting stuff on the public dime I want it to be me.” It is immoral for elderly people to vote themselves the right to pick the pockets of younger people. If public policy continues on this “high taxes to provide luxury items to people who didn’t earn them” route, life in the U.S. will soon start to feel, for younger people, a lot more like involuntary indentured servitude. So, what should we do? Off the top of my head, I’d recommend that any young person aim towards marriage and a job, which with graduating high school virtually guarantees they will not be impoverished. But what about a voting coalition? Every national politician seems to aim at “the youth vote,” but there’s not much of a youth vote. Young voter turnout has always been abysmal, even with the glorious Obama effect in 2012. And I fear that my peers are, on average, so foolish that higher voting turnout from us would only exacerbate our national problems. Given the youth unrest here and places like France and Chile, perhaps something is poised to change. But rioting and civil unrest is dangerous, and not to be wished for. Much better would be a movement towards civil engagement of the traditional kind: Hectoring our representatives, voting in droves, volunteering for causes we care about, and so forth.