If I'd Invested Money Today Rather Than Spending It On Mango Lassi My Great Great Grandson Could Eat a Whole Indian Feast

On reading Jim Manzi’s wonderful essay, the push back offered by his thoughtful critics, and his responses, I began to think about a question peripheral to the whole conversation, but worth raising anyway: what does one generation owe to the next? It’s often asked with regard to environmental policy, but I think it is as fully implicated in questions about economic policy, social justice, and how much inequality a society should bear.

As I do research for a non-fiction book project I’m working on, I’ve taken up Kevin Starr’s superb series of books on California history. One can’t help but marvel that prior generations brought about a golden age of infrastructure growth in this state when their immediate material comfort was far inferior to what almost every Californian enjoys today. This is true even of many wealthy Californians, and certainly the state could have spent a lot more of their wealth tending to the needs of the least advantaged among them. Migrant laborers and Chinese railroad workers toiled for decades under conditions little better than what Southern slave workers endured. Bakers in San Francisco worked 14 hour days, 6 or 7 days per week. How dramatically their lives could have been improved by what amounted to a pittance.

Nevertheless, they invested heavily in the future, partly out of necessity — since the gold rush this state has seen its population explode several times in very short intervals — but also as a considered choice that these projects whose full benefits still haven’t been realized were better uses of wealth than consuming it. Without expressing any opinion on whether they balanced present versus future correctly or not, it is clear that all these decades later, even the poorest Californians should be glad, if they are thinking about their own well being, that former state leaders didn’t spend on social welfare the money that built our system of aqueducts, or the Hoover Dam, or the Golden Gate Bridge.

When I ponder how government should spend tax revenue, or even how much I should save for my future children and grandchildren, I am not only undecided about the correct answers, I am stymied trying to decide upon a basic framework for weighing such goods against one another. It seems to me that these trade-offs matter as much as the tension between economic growth and social equality when we try to formulate policy choices.