The morning of November 22, 1963 was cold and drizzly. As a junior at TCU, I was beyond excited at the prospect of seeing President Kennedy speak in my hometown of Fort Worth. I picked up Jeanne, a fellow student, at her parents' house. It was our first date, and 47 years of marriage and four grandchildren later, it still seems like yesterday.
We drove five miles, parked downtown near the Texas Hotel and made our way through the crowd as I fumbled with an umbrella. (I didn't want Jeanne to get her hair wet.) At last we got within 200 feet of the speakers' platform. It was noisy and the PA system wasn't working very well, but I can still remember the optimism I felt as the President began to speak. Although Kennedy's voice that day was muffled, when he spoke I imagined that I heard those immortal words from his inaugural speech:
"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
Standing before me, this young, active leader, only a generation ahead of me, reflected hope and confidence -- hope that America could continue to overcome whatever challenges came its way, and confidence that no matter what the obstacles, it would succeed. Seeing was believing. I bought in and wanted to be a part of it.
After the speech, we returned to campus and went to class. I got out at 11:55 and went over to a friend's apartment for lunch. We turned on the TV and sat in amazement as Walter Cronkite told the world that President Kennedy had been assassinated. For an idealistic college student, it was a devastating blow.
By that afternoon, America's unbounded optimism had already begun to fade. First there was Vietnam, then the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, then Watergate, then the energy crisis, then the Iranian hostage crisis, and finally, the steady decline of the middle class. All this makes it hard for a middle class kid today to have the same optimism that I had.
A half-century later, pessimism has replaced optimism for many of today's college students, recent grads and the many of that generation who cannot afford college. As globalization and technological innovation intensify competition, those who can't bear the cost of college wonder what their future holds.
As my generation looks back on the anniversary of JFK's death, we might ask ourselves what opportunities lie ahead for today's generation of college students. Will most of them do as well we have? How can we prepare this generation to pick up the mantle of leadership or even to join the middle class? What may become of America if we don't help them succeed?
Remembering the morning of November 22, 1963 from the vantage point of a retired lawyer, life could not have seemed brighter for a college kid. The middle class was on an upswing (my own middle, middle-class family managed to get a little further ahead each year). Everyone who wanted a job had one, with decent pay no less. The only barrier to working was willingness, and everybody I knew was willing.
Within a few years, Jeanne and I got married. I became an intelligence officer in the Air Force. With the help of the GI Bill, I later earned a law degree from the University of Texas. Leaving UT Law, I spent the next 40 years climbing the greasy pole, first working in a political campaign, next working as an IRS attorney, next working as an SEC enforcement lawyer, and finally spending 30 years in private practice as a public finance lawyer.
Fifty years of life and experience have sobered my thinking on many things, including my views on JFK, but my belief in, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" has remained constant. However, I'm not convinced that others in my generation see it the same way.
From the Greatest Generation to the Prodigal Generation
On the morning of November 22, 1963, America had come through the Great Depression with its middle class intact, won World War II, organized a post-war peace and ignited the most powerful economy in the world to produce the largest, most prosperous middle class in history. All of these achievements were the legacy to us of what Tom Brokaw has characterized as the "Greatest Generation," my parents generation. In just over 25 years, the Greatest Generation made our country the world's leader, living proof of America's exceptionalism.
The Greatest Generation bequeathed my generation a thriving economy that lifted all boats. Good public schools for all, affordable college for the middle class, victory in the Cold War, an ethic in which all Americans from all backgrounds served in the military, and a paid-down national debt. At that time, America offered most of its people enough help from the government to make it but not so much interference as to stifle it. My Dad, as a WW II vet, had help. I had a National Defense Student Loan to help out with college tuition, and the GI Bill for law school.
However, my generation, the "Prodigal Generation," has distinguished itself by ending the draft, disdaining public service, making college unaffordable to the middle class, letting the public schools decline, creating an economy that benefits those at the top more than the middle class, cutting taxes without cutting spending, and bloating the national debt to dangerous levels. We Prodigals dropped the torch handed to us by the Greatest Generation.
No single barometer tracks national wellbeing and financial security better than whether the national debt, as a percentage of the economy, goes up or down during any given period. National emergencies, economic downturns, over-spending, and under-taxing drive up the national debt. Economic growth and financial discipline drive down the national debt.
From the end of WW II until 1980, the Greatest Generation slashed the national debt by about 77%, and from 1980 through 2008, my Prodigal Generation inflated the national debt by about 208%. The Greatest Generation cut the national debt while winning the Cold War, fighting a war on poverty, and financing a system of public and higher education that was the envy of the world. My Prodigal Generation increased the national debt during peacetime while abandoning the war on poverty and cutting support for both public education and higher education.
An increased standard of living financed by increases in the national debt and hiring out to others to fight America's wars do not qualify as the kind of patriotism JFK's words called for. The Greatest Generation increased its standard of living through hard work, but my Prodigal Generation puffed up its standard of living by cutting its taxes and increasing the national debt.
As a public finance lawyer, I spent the better part of my career working closely with investment bankers, rating agencies, politicians and a motley crew of financials wizards and experts to apply, and in some cases help make, tax laws to benefit those who are best off. In being out in the real-world economy of deal-making for over 40 years, I've seen firsthand how tax preferences have harmed America's economy and benefitted a few to the detriment of many. (Understanding the tax system served me well, but it's time ordinary Americans understood what it's doing to our economy in order to protect their own interests.)
Fact is, no well-off group in any generation before mine has benefitted so much from so little. Now that I'm in my seventh decade, my opportunities to "do for my country" are narrowing quickly. About all I can do to make America better at this point is to pay my taxes. Having seen what I've seen, I've little patience for the well off that waive the flag while complaining about their taxes.
Given the concentration of income and wealth in the older Americans of this generation, and given the dangerous levels of the national debt, it's time for us well-off Prodigals to step up to help pay down the debt. Paying a few more points in taxes and sacrificing a few preferences to help educate a 21st century workforce, America's greatest asset, may be the most patriotic thing we can do.
Thomas Allen Moon is a retired public finance attorney and the author of the forthcoming book 'The Ameri-Share Tax: A Plan to Save the American Dream.'