Nobody sang “Kumbaya,” but it was startling to see progressives and libertarians establish so much common ground just weeks after the debt ceiling crisis highlighted ugly ideological divisions in Washington.
The scene was a Cato Institute-hosted forum Thursday on national debt and the millennial generation, which featured the Mercatus Center’s Matt Mitchell, The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle and the Center for American Progress’ Matt Yglesias. Cato is a libertarian think tank based in Washington, D.C.
The remarkably cordial discussion, titled “U.S. Debt and the Millennials,” was structured as a debate but seldom felt adversarial. Without exception, panelists waited patiently for their turn to speak, repeatedly expressing support for co-panelists’ conclusions across the political spectrum.
McArdle summarized concerns that the millennial generation faces an uncertain economic future in the wake of rising debt.
“Younger people are going to be paying higher taxes,” she said. “They’re going to be working longer. They’re going to be working harder, just because there are more people in the workforce.”
A recurring theme during the evening was the notion that it’s unrealistic to balance the budget through either spending cuts or tax increases alone.
“It is perhaps undesirable, but certainly possible, to cover the Social Security actuarial deficit,” McArdle said. “You could raise taxes, you could cut benefits.”
Yglesias emphasized the historical roots of the budget crisis.
“It’s almost impossible to understate the unique, sort of personal role that George W. Bush and his administration played in this,” Yglesias said.
Moderator Dan Mitchell tried a few times to provoke controversy. On several occasions, he interjected with what he called “editorial comments,” breaking from his neutral tone.
He took a good-natured jab when he introduced Yglesias, as well.
“I really think [Matt’s] secret thing in life is that he’s married to me. Why do I say that? Because no one has said so many mean things about me since my ex-wife,” Mitchell said, to laughter.
But the panelists didn’t seem to have anything mean to say about each other. All three expressed bemusement at the audience suggestion that a faltering economy or high tax rate could force a significant number of U.S. citizens to emigrate away from the domestic job market.
“Don’t get me wrong: I’m not painting some terrible dystopian future where we all go off to work in the Soylent Green mines, before we come home to our dish of Soylent Green,” McArdle said. “Life is still going to improve in many ways. I think the economy and the country are still going to be getting better. But it’s going to be getting better more slowly, and more unevenly.”
Yglesias suggested that some portion of the apparent solidarity was due to not discussing specific budgetary concerns.
“The reason there hasn’t been that much disagreement, I think, is that we haven’t talked about the specifics of how we might change Medicare,” Yglesias said. “Among people oriented toward policy questions, there’s a lot of consensus about quantity, and a lot of disagreement about how.”
[Crossposted from Campus Progress]