A few weeks ago, I heard a young man on the radio. He had just heard Ron Paul, the Libertarian candidate for the 2012 Republican primaries, speak at his university, and he was ready to cautiously endorse Mr. Paul.
Then he said something that caught my attention: “I just want to have, like, what my parents had. You know?”
I have so many complex feelings about this.
I deeply sympathize. Young people his age are moving into a period of rapid social flux, and will likely live through to see the other side. A lot of institutions are going to collapse. Sureties will crumble. And in particular, members of his generation will find themselves holding a college degree and an enormous burden of debt for decades, with no idea how to turn either into an asset. A lot of them have no more confidence in their personal futures upon graduation than they did when they first started college — in fact, they probably have a lot less. I feel for all of them.
I’m also frightened along with this young man. Nothing protected me from the pre-quake rumbles that hit in the late 1980’s, and in 2001, and again in 2008. Nothing will protect me from the earth-splitting quake and tsunami that is coming. I have the advantage of age and experience; I have the disadvantage of age and inflexibility.
I’m angry, too. In part at the unconscionable mistakes that we, their elders, have made, and at the criminally blind, insane, and even evil choices we’ve allowed the privileged elites — financial and political — to get away with in our name.
But I’m also a bit angry at these young people. Here is the scolding AND the hope I would hold out to them:
Your parents never had what you’re asking for.
Let me tell you a little about your parents’ generation.
I was born in the shadow cast by The Bomb — nuclear annihilation, a world reduced to radioactive ash. We all knew, even as children, that if we lived to adulthood at all, we’d be digging up half-buried bodies for food while dying of multiple forms of cancer. That was the future we looked forward to. Live fast, die young. There wasn’t much more time.
My early teen years were spent worrying about the war in Vietnam, the draft, and an endless stream of televised body bags. You all know the Vietnam War as a war that ended. When I was a young teen, it was the Endless War, the perpetual escalation required by Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex so it could stay in business and make its almighty profits while “keeping the world safe from Communism.” I had a math teacher in junior high who had lost his arm in the Korean War: the sequel to World War II, and the prequel to Vietnam. I had friends with older brothers who never came back from the jungles. Or others who came back maimed, with broken minds. I automatically assumed that if the US ever left Vietnam, it would be to pursue a bigger, better, more expensive war in some other theater: perhaps even the Big One against the Soviet Union, which would end in radioactive ash. The political world back then was divided, not into Conservatives and Liberals, but into Hawks (“patriots”) and Doves (“cowards.”) My own eighteenth birthday was coming up far too fast.
In college, under Carter, monetary inflation reached thirteen percent. That meant the dollar was losing half its value every six years. I didn’t understand then that this was a direct result of the government deficit that had supported the Vietnam War, coupled with Nixon Shock — Nixon’s unilateral abandonment of the gold standard — an economic time-bomb he dropped in Carter’s lap. Economists then, as now, didn’t talk much about economic fallacies in-play in government — better for them to cook up excuses for what was going on than to criticize. All I knew was that saving money was an obvious fool’s strategy, since saved money lost value. The rule was, buy “stuff” whenever you could, hard goods, and shop for endurance. Buy on credit, if possible, and put off payments as long as possible, since the debt would get eaten away by inflation faster than interest made it grow.
I came into the job market in 1982, right after Ronald Reagan had taken up the battle against inflation by pushing interest rates through the roof, and killing as many jobs as he could to reduce the middle class to terror over keeping their jobs, thus preventing “wage-price” inflation. The Reagan years were filled with the “wage-price spiral” and “stagflation” and the “Laffer curve” justification for lowering taxes while increasing expenditures, and other insane perversions of economic theory: a whole cluster of fallacies and lies known collectively as “Reaganomics.” The reality was that landing a job in the 1980’s was tough. Trading up was nearly impossible. I had friends with “balloon mortgages” that soared to 21% interest and nearly lost their homes before they were able to refinance on very unfavorable terms. I sold my first house in the middle of the HUD/S&L scandal and walked away from the closing table with the price of a pizza. Literally: we spent our entire closing check on dinner at Pizza Hut. We were grateful we got that much out of it.
Through the 80‘s and 90‘s, I did the “economically wise” thing of packing tax-free money into a 401K. In 2001, I watched my entire portfolio dwindle away to half the value it had held in 2000, wiping out every dollar of gain it had accumulated over the past twenty years. I had effectively put my money into an interest-free sock under the bed. Inflation had eaten away most of its real value.
I’ve started four businesses and watched three fail — the failures never had anything at all to do with “taxes” or “regulation.” The failures had to do with unlearning conservative fairy-tales about how business works in the US.
I’ve lived through corporate mergers, corporate bankruptcies, and outright business failures. I’ve faced personal bankruptcy.
I’m not in any way trolling for sympathy: I have no regrets in any of this. What I want to convey is that my story is not an isolated instance of hard luck or poor judgment. It is the common story of your parents’ generation. The real story.
I could go back in time and tell the same kinds of stories about my parents’ generation. Or my grandparents’. Not even one member of your generation has had to leave your country and families, forever, to escape being hunted by soldiers, or to avoid starving to death. That was pretty common in your great-grandparents’ generation.
You will never, ever have “what your parents had,” because what you think they had is purest fantasy. It is a child’s vision of your parents’ world. It’s appropriate that you had this vision — it means your parents did their job right. But it’s time you grew up.
That all sounds like a scolding, and it is. Here’s the hope part.
You get to create your own future.
It’s that simple. That has always been the real truth, in any generation.
You need to understand that no one from my generation is going to hand you anything at all. My generation’s mindset has become deeply polluted by the endgame of a Protestant/Libertarian individualism taken to perverse extremes — I, me, mine. Most of my generation cannot even conceive that there is any other way to live.
Those of my generation who actually believe in any kind of “commons” — anything that we hold in collective trust and thus something you can count on being there for you — are outnumbered and outshouted and branded “communists” and “thieves” by the supporters of the very people who have actually shrink-wrapped the commons and stolen them from all of us. Those thieves aren’t going to give it back to anyone. They’ll sell it back in pieces, to those who can afford it, always at a profit to themselves. The only intergenerational trust now is the private fortune. If your parents aren’t rich, you are entirely on your own.
Where your generation goes from here is your own choice, but you’re going to have to stop whining and do it yourselves, just as we did, just as our grandparents did.
You can join the existing game and become a better thief than those already in the game. You can create your own economy and wealth out of whatever is left over, and slowly push the thieves into King Midas’ dilemma. You can take over the government through concerted political action and force the thieves to give back the commons through legislation. You can have a bloody, violent revolution and start chopping heads — Lord help us all if you haven’t got a solid plan to replace it with something better.
Or you can invent a whole new way of thinking about this, and change the world.
The one thing you cannot do is expect anyone — myself, or Mr. Ron Paul — to give you anything. Ours is a generation dominated by the ethics of self-centered, self-righteous takers, and the sooner you figure that out and stop playing our game — which nearly all of you will lose — and start playing your own game, the better.
For all of us.