The human instinct to preserve life -- to protect the next generation from harm -- is one of mankind's most redeeming qualities. We have seen instances of it throughout history, where one generation sacrifices so that another can flourish, sometimes in the starkest terms.
In the mid 1990s, during a famine that became known as the Arduous March, North Korean senior citizens reportedly starved themselves to death so that their grandchildren and great grandchildren could live on what little sustenance was available. None of us knows if he or she would have the strength to do that under such circumstances, but I'm sure every man and woman in America would like to think that he or she is capable of demonstrating such love. As much as I like to tease my daughters that they'd be on my dinner plate by noon, you can count me among them.
So it is perplexing to watch the dynamic playing out in America today where one generation is unabashedly stealing from the next. Parents who would never take from a child directly are seemingly content to do so as long as there is a governmental middleman to do the dirty work.
None of us can feign ignorance. Stories on the national debt are ubiquitous. Yet we turn our faces away from the facts while dressing our children for school. We don't want to know how badly we are hurting them.
Now we learn that the U.S. Postal Service will be defaulting on $5.5 billion in guaranteed pension benefit payments on Aug. 1. It will default on another $5.6 billion on Sept. 30. But postal officials assure us this will not affect our mail delivery. Those Saturday circulars will show up -- and be instantly discarded -- right on schedule.
The money we owe postal retirees will still get paid, of course, but with debt that likely will be appropriated by Congress to avert longer lines at the post office. Put it on the tab.
We all love to beat up the post office, but it has heretofore been a rare model of fiscal prudence where pension payments are concerned. Throughout its history, the Postal Service has actually put aside enough money to cover promised retiree benefits. Many state pension funds have not, using accounting gimmickry to mask alarming shortfalls. It is estimated that states are short a collective $3 trillion in pension money, and that figure grows every day.
Then there are the massive federal entitlement programs: Medicare, Social Security and soon-to-be Obamacare. Unlike with the U.S. Postal Service, the money to pay those guarantees has not been set aside. Sure it was taken out of paychecks, but the "lockboxes" were pillaged years ago. Social Security dollars were "invested" in Treasuries, meaning that Uncle Sam is "borrowing" the money. Guess who has to pay it back? Yet every day we continue to borrow more, while cringing at the thought of losing Saturday mail delivery.
The ironic thing is that we know how to fix the problem. The answers are detailed in plans like the famously ignored nonpartisan Simpson-Bowles report (the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Plan) and in various other budget blueprints like that of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). The details of any plan can be debated, but Social Security and Medicare, inescapably, will need to be revamped to include means testing, benefit reductions and an increased retirement age. It won't be pleasant, but it's a whole lot better than the options the North Koreans had.
A paragraph of the Simpson-Bowles preamble reads: "After all the talk about debt and deficits, it is long past time for America's leaders to put up or shut up. The era of debt denial is over, and there can be no turning back. We sign our names to this plan because we love our children, our grandchildren, and our country too much not to act while we still have the chance to secure a better future for all our fellow citizens."
Saturday mail delivery? I can live without it. How about you?
Bill O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant struggling to hold onto his own name. He is no relation to Bill O'Reilly the Fox News commentator.