Open Letter to the Class of 2020

The following letter (lightly edited for this reissue) was posted in late 2010 (many comments there, worth a read). In the last several weeks, I’ve been asked by a variety of friends and colleagues to post it again. I wish I could report that it’s out of date, but the trends it discusses have worsened if anything, as more states accelerate the destruction of their greatest assets–Jefferson wanted most to be remembered for creating his state university–and half of our two-party machinery degrades into fact-free, willfully ignorant armies competing to sow hate, fear, and spite.

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You’ve been admitted to colleges, and chosen Berkeley, probably still the best public university in the world. Next fall, you’ll meet your classmates, the best group of partners you can find anywhere. The percentages for grades on exams, papers, etc. in my courses always add up to 110% because that’s what I’ve learned to expect from you, over twenty years in the best job in the world.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that you have been the victims of a terrible swindle, denied an inheritance you deserve by contract and by your merits. And you aren’t the only ones; victims of this ripoff include the students who were on your left and on your right in high school but didn’t get into Cal, a whole generation stiffed by mine. This letter is an apology, and more usefully, perhaps a signal to start demanding what’s been taken from you so you can pass it on with interest.

Swindle-what happened? Well, before you were born, Californians now in graves or nursing homes made a remarkable deal with the future. (Not from California? maybe, say, Kansas, or North Carolina, or Michigan, or Wisconsin? Keep reading, lots of this applies to you.) They agreed to invest money they could have spent on bigger houses, vacations, clothes, and cars into the world’s greatest educational system, and into water systems, roads, parks, and other public facilities, an infrastructure that was the envy of the world. (One of those educational institutions, just for example, taught the world how to make lots of affordable, excellent wine with science instead of myths and habits, and with the water system, also made California the national cornucopia of fruits, nuts and vegetables.) They didn’t get everything right: too much highway and not enough public transportation. But they did a pretty good job.

Young people who enjoyed these ‘loans’ grew up smarter, healthier, and richer than they otherwise would have, and understood that they were supposed to “pay it forward” to future generations, for example by keeping the educational system staffed with lots of dedicated, well-trained teachers, in good buildings and in small classes, with college counselors and up-to-date books. California schools had physical education, art for everyone, music and theater, buildings that looked as though people cared about them, modern languages and ancient languages, advanced science courses with labs where the equipment worked, and more. They were the envy of the world, and they paid off better than Microsoft stock. Same with our parks, coastal zone protection, and social services.

This deal held until about thirty years ago, when for a variety of reasons, California voters realized that while they had done very well from the existing contract, they could do even better by walking away from their obligations and spending what they had inherited on themselves. “My kids are finished with school; why should I pay taxes for someone else’s?  Posterity never did anything for me!” An army of fake ‘leaders’ sprang up to pull the moral and fiscal wool over their eyes, and again and again, your parents and their parents lashed out at government (as though there were something else that could replace it) with tax limits, term limits, safe districts, throw-away-the-key imprisonment no matter the cost, smoke-and-mirrors budgeting, and a rule never to use the words taxes and services in the same paragraph.

Despite the appearances of current politics, this story is not just a matter of the rich looting systems essential to the middle and working classes: it’s the whole society cutting off its nose because we’re looking in an evil magic mirror with mountebanks whispering in our ears. Bob Frank’s new book includes the example of a really wealthy citizen, who would be forced into a $150K Porsche 911 instead of the $300K Ferrari he really wants by increased taxes. Now he can buy the Ferrari–and drive it on potholed roads at the same stop-and-go rate at which hoi polloi traffic is crawling, but if we fixed the roads and had a first-world transit system he could drive the Porsche to the country club on a nice road, maybe experience what his ride can actually do, and have just as classy a car to show off there as his friends who were dinged by the same taxes.

Your infrastructure is falling to pieces under your feet, and as citizens you are humiliated by crudities like closing parks, and inhumanities like closing battered women’s shelters. It’s outrageous, inexcusable, that you can’t get into the courses you need and even worse that Oakland police have stopped taking 911 calls for burglaries and runaway children. If you read what your elected officials say about the state today, you’ll see things like “California can’t afford” this or that basic government function, and that “we need to make hard choices” to shut down one or another public service, or starve it even more (like your university). Can’t afford? The whole California 2015-16 state budget is about $115b, or about 10% of our total personal income. Of course we can afford a government that actually works: the fact is that your parents have simply chosen not to have it.

I’m writing this to you because you are the victims of this enormous cheat (though your children will be even worse off if you don’t take charge of this ship and steer it). Your education was trashed as California fell to the bottom of US states in school spending, and the art classes, AP courses, physical education, working toilets, and teaching generally went by the board. Every year I come upon more and more of you who have obviously never had the chance to learn to write plain, clear, English. Every year, fewer and fewer of you read newspapers, speak a foreign language, understand the basics of how government and business actually work, or have the energy to push back intellectually against me or against each other. Or know enough about history, literature, and science to do it effectively! You spent your school years with teachers paid less and less, trained worse and worse, loaded up with more and more mindless administrative duties, and given less and less real support from administrators and staff.

Many of your parents took a hike as well, somehow getting the idea that the schools had taken over their duties to keep you learning, or so beat-up working two jobs each and commuting two hours a day to put food on the table that they couldn’t be there for you. A quarter of your classmates didn’t finish high school, discouraged and defeated; but they didn’t leave the planet, even if you don’t run into them in the gated community you will be tempted to hide out in. They have to eat just like you, and they aren’t equipped to do their share of the work, so you will have to support them.

Your kids are in even more trouble than you, because while we’ve been doing small-minded politics and niggling over things like roads, schools, and health care, we’ve been ignoring something much bigger sneaking up on us: the habitability of the planet. We wasted twenty years letting people who can’t see beyond their dividend checks from energy companies hoodwink us about “uncertain science” and “economic cost of greenhouse gas reduction.” Seriously??!! What’s the economic cost of, say, South Florida and the Houston basin going under water? Of a hundred and fifty million Bengalis on the hoof looking for a dry place to live, in a crowded neighborhood? Climate stabilization is expensive but it’s also a great deal: sane people who find something that costs way less than it’s worth try to buy a lot of it!

You need to have a very tough talk with your parents, who are still voting; you can’t save your children by yourselves. Equally important, you need to start talking to each other. It’s not fair, and you have every reason (except a good one) to keep what you can for yourselves with another couple of decades of mean-spirited tax-cutting and public sector decline. You’re my heroes just for surviving what we put you through and making it into my classroom, but I’m asking for more: you can be better than my generation. Take back your state for your kids and start the contract again. There are lots of places to start, for example, building a transportation system that won’t enslave you for two decades as their chauffeur, instead of raising fares and cutting routes in a deadly helix of mediocrity. Lots. Get to work. See you in class!

UPDATE: Like your political science in musical form? Here’s the way people thought about this stuff back in the day, and maybe should again. Bet there’s a good rap along these lines waiting to be born…

UPDATE 2: Bob Reich added still-current insight here.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.