When the first world war ended 100 years ago, no one had to be told that it was an important event. Every story on the front page of The Chicago Daily Tribune on Nov. 11, 1918, had something to do with it.
We are still feeling the repercussions. The war, among other things, helped lead to the creation of Saudi Arabia under the House of Saud, whose crown prince has dominated the news in recent days.
What will be remembered of the present moment a century from now, by contrast, is not so widely understood. Elizabeth Warren, Kanye West and even Mohammed bin Salman will probably be forgotten. The most enduring consequences may come from two developments that have drawn far less attention: new warnings about climate change and a big increase in the federal budget deficit.
The United Nations released a report this month highlighting the hazards posed by the growing quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said this phenomenon has raised the earth's temperature and "has already resulted in profound alterations to human and natural systems, bringing increases in some types of extreme weather, droughts, floods, sea level rise and biodiversity loss."
These effects will grow worse over time, though they could be moderated with firm global action to reduce emissions. But the chances of that happening are slim. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, which commits every other country to ambitious measures to curtail global warming.
Congress has also shown minimal interest in remedies, which would require sacrifices on the part of the voting public. Despite the clear scientific consensus and the growing evidence, it's proved far easier to ignore the problem than to attack it.
Opponents have managed to block action by denying that climate change is occurring, questioning the human role in it, suggesting it won't do much harm or insisting we can't afford any feasible solutions. Mostly, though, they have succeeded by exploiting the natural tendency of people to do things that suit their needs even when they will put a heavy burden on posterity.
That same impulse was behind the 2017 federal tax package, which slashed rates on individuals and corporations. Supporters insisted the cuts would boost economic growth so much that they would pay for themselves.
But Monday, the Treasury Department reported that the deficit for the fiscal year that just ended totaled $779 billion, a 17 percent jump over fiscal 2017. Total revenue as a share of gross domestic product fell by 4.6 percent. At a time of economic prosperity, the Treasury should be raking in a windfall. Instead, it's falling behind.
Though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the deficit is "very disturbing," he blamed it on the high cost of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But outlays as a share of GDP have fallen sharply since 2009. What mostly accounts for the enormous deficit is the decline in revenue — a product of tax cuts.
It's not impossible to balance the budget. We did it in the 1990s. But restraint soon gave way to recklessness. We have entered an era in which trillion-dollar deficits will be the norm, not the exception.
In June, the Congressional Budget Office reported: "At 78 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), federal debt held by the public is now at its highest level since shortly after World War II. If current laws generally remained unchanged, CBO projects, growing budget deficits would boost that debt sharply over the next 30 years; it would approach 100 percent of GDP by the end of the next decade and 152 percent by 2048. That amount would be the highest in the nation's history by far."
What do congressional Republicans propose to do? The House voted last month to make the tax cuts permanent — which would raise the 10-year cost of the tax package to a staggering $2.7 trillion.
In both the environmental and the fiscal realms, Americans are living high at the expense of our children and grandchildren. Instead of taking corrective measures that would yield benefits to future generations, we are creating ecological damage and government debt that will sorely afflict them.
It's not too late to act to undo many of the mistakes that we've made. But our policymakers show no desire to act soon, if ever. In 2118, our descendants will look back and wish we had.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.