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Student activists should be protesting the crushing national debt

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Everywhere you look, media figures are touting the inspirational leadership of student activists. The tragic Parkland, Fla., shooting has galvanized students nationwide to pressure lawmakers into enacting gun control measures. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Student activists are emerging as the early front-runners to be Time’s “Person of the Year.”

Everywhere you look, media figures are touting the inspirational leadership of student activists. The tragic Parkland, Fla., shooting has galvanized students nationwide to pressure lawmakers into enacting gun control measures. Children and teenagers are suing the federal government over inaction on climate change. And in Kansas, six teenagers are even running for governor.

As long as student activists are challenging government policies, they should be protesting something that is going to wreck havoc with their economic futures: The crushing national debt.

Right now, the U.S. has accumulated nearly $21 trillion in total debt, a number that grows by billions each day. That number is so absurdly large that it’s hard to comprehend, but one way to think about it is that it’s larger than the entire economies of China, Japan, and Germany combined. And it’s only getting bigger. With new debt being piled on top of old, the burden being inherited by children is set to reach unprecedented levels, even after adjusting for the fact that our economic output is much bigger now. As baby boomers retire and healthcare costs grow at an alarming rate, this problem will continue to get worse. By the time today’s teenagers enter their 30s, as they are building families of their own, a year’s worth of economic output won’t be enough to pay off the national debt, which will only increase from there.

The tradeoffs will be devastating. Investors will demand higher interest rates to take on the risk of buying U.S. debt, which in turn means that interest payments will take up a greater share of the federal budget, squeezing other priorities and making it even harder to reduce the underlying debt. If lawmakers don’t do anything, the vicious cycle will continue. But if they enact dramatic spending cuts and tax increases to reassure debt markets, it would have dire economic consequences, which in turn would make it harder to retire debt.

As today’s teenagers grow up and face the onslaught of expenses associated with being adults — balancing short-term costs of childcare, food, and housing against long-term costs of retirement and savings for their own children’s college — they’ll be asked to rescue the retirement system on behalf of their profligate parents. At the current pace, by 2035, Social Security beneficiaries will face automatic cuts of 25 percent. To avoid that scenario, government will have to take more money out of the paychecks of tomorrow’s workers. And that’s before even grappling with the rest of the bloated budget.

Do they want their taxes to soar? Do they want to see sudden and severe cuts to defense? To education? To student loans? To healthcare? Those are the choices they will inevitably have to face, unless policymakers enact more gradual changes right now to get this debt on a sustainable trajectory.

However, by nature, people have a lot of difficulty making short-term sacrifices to avoid consequences that will only become apparent over time. Those at or near retirement are a large and powerful voting bloc, and they will fight bitterly against changes to Medicare and Social Security. On the other hand, not only do teenagers not vote, but they typically aren’t worrying too much about how they’re going to support their own future families or finance their retirements. While retirees have powerful lobbying groups such as AARP to fight to maintain the status quo or further expand government, there is no counterbalancing force looking out for the financial interests of younger generations.

Faced with the choice of rattling the current electorate with sweeping reforms, or doing nothing and facing zero consequences, the inaction among lawmakers isn’t surprising. Democrats support higher taxes, but generally to subsidize ambitious new spending initiatives, and few admit that their broader vision would require large tax increases on the middle-class, not just the wealthy few. Republicans, meanwhile, support lower taxes, but only talk about cutting spending rhetorically, and even then, only when a Democrat is in the White House.

So, if student activists want to seize the current moment when the public is open to hearing their voices, if they want to shake up Washington and shame lawmakers and adults into taking action on an issue with dramatic consequences for their generation, it’s time they start protesting the national debt.