August, 5, 2010
What this country needs is a movement to lower the voting age to 10. Hear me out.
Wherever you look, from debt to schools to climate to pensions, the distinctive feature of American public life today is a shocking disregard for the future. Yes, politicians blather on about "our children and grandchildren" all the time -- but when it comes to what they actually do, the future doesn't have a vote. If you want to change people's behavior, you need to change their incentives. It's time to give politicians a reason not simply to praise children, but also to pander to them.
About 125 million Americans voted in the 2008 presidential election. There are about 35 million Americans ages 10 to 17. Giving them the vote would transform our political conversation. It would introduce the voice we're sorely missing -- a call to stewardship, of governing for the long run, via the kind of simple, "childlike" questions that never get asked today.
Imagine a phalanx of fresh-faced yet fierce 13-year-olds (like those on my daughter's middle school debate team) shaming the adults with the following, for starters:
-- Is it really a national priority to borrow billions more from us to keep taxes for the best-off 2 percent of Americans lower than they were during the Clinton boom, when we're in the midst of two wars and already piling up trillions in fresh debt?
-- Why are you handing off to us a system of decaying bridges, roads, sewers and airports? Doesn't it embarrass you that you've decided you prefer to devote the resources for such investments to your own current consumption?
-- Even if you're not sure whether global warming is man-made or potentially fatal, wouldn't it be prudent to put a high price on carbon to force us toward a green energy economy, just in case the worst turns out to be true? What will you tell us if you leave behind a scorched planet? "Sorry, kids, you had to be there -- the interest-group politics were really tough"?
-- Why are we the only advanced nation that requires kids to go deep into debt to get a college degree?
-- How can you keep assigning the least qualified teachers in the country to the millions of poor children who need great teachers the most?
-- Is the quarterly earnings craze in a stock market that operates like a casino really the way to fund and build enterprises that will be globally competitive when we grow up?
-- Why do you say Social Security can't be touched, even though you're planning real benefit increases for future retirees now in their 40s despite trillions in existing unfunded promises? Why rule out questioning these built-in increases when there's no similar "trust fund" for great teachers or for universal pre-school?
-- Are you really going to keep letting senators who represent less than 15 percent of the population stop any legislation they want? What about majority rule?
Isn't a children's movement that sounds like this overdue? Still, I know what you're thinking. This is a joke, right? Miller can't seriously be proposing we give fifth-graders an equal say with mature, responsible adults.
Let that objection linger in view of the questions above and decide for yourself if the grown-ups really occupy the high ground here. We're in a topsy-turvy world best captured by my favorite political cartoon from the debt-soaked 1980s:
"Your generation will just have to spend a third of your income to support my generation when you grow up," says a stern father.
"Why us?" his scared daughter asks.
"Because of your failure as children to teach your parents to be responsible."
"I'm sorry, Daddy!"
"So am I."
The fascinating thing would be to get a movement going in six or seven states to enact this lower voting age. The crusade would provide the news hook the media needs to focus on long-term challenges that are routinely ignored amid the breathless daily panting over trivia.
I'm not saying "10" is the only answer. I want creative litigation brought on behalf of minor future taxpayers, suing states and public-sector unions that have recklessly saddled kids with zillions in unfunded pensions. Or anti-debt street protests by 10th-graders eager to redefine community service for their college résumés.
It would be nice if the kids didn't have to take up this burden, but we are where we are. To those who say this is all unseemly if not insane, I have four words: Got a better idea?