The opinions expressed here are well-reasoned and insightful -- needless to say they are not the opinions of my employers

07 August 2007

Paying for the commons

I enrolled in community college right out of high school, because no self-respecting 4-year school would've taken me. It was the mid-70's, Vietnam was over, FM radio was still kind of subversive, and horrible fashion decisions were ubiquitous.

Through fits and starts, I worked my way through the higher education system successfully and now I find myself trying to help young people who are not so different than I was 30 years ago. There is of course one big difference -- these kids are charged through the nose for a system that was essentially free when I was a student. Until the mid 1980's California community colleges were free for students to attend. The Cal State University system cost a few hundred dollars per semester back then, and fees at the University of California were about twice as much.

Nothing in life is free of course: these low fees were heavily subsidized by the state. The higher education system in California was a gift of the previous generation to the next generation.

Until my generation came along. We boomers gladly accepted all of the stuff payed for by our parents: education, the state water system, highways, bridges, parks, the commons -- and when we became responsible adults we decided that we should only have to pay for that which benefits us directly.

In the last decade Hollywood began to market our parents to us . Our fathers were The Greatest Generation because they answered the call and fought the War, we are told. Books were written, movies and mini-series were produced, monuments were lobbied for and built.

My father passed away before all of the celebrations of his service began. He would have been embarrassed by most of the nostalgia.

We do owe a lot to his generation, because they did a lot for us. They, and the generations before them, built and paid for the world we all live in. They built the railroads and the highways. They built bridges and dams. They built canals and waterways to bring clean water to farms and cities and suburbs, and sewers and treatment plants to clean up the water afterward. They built the primary, secondary and higher education systems that would make sure their progeny had a future at least marginally better than theirs.

How can we pay them back? We can't pay them back, we can only pay forward. We can reclaim the commons, and pay collectively for the infrastructure that our progeny will inherit. Replacing and repairing old bridges and dams and water mains is more boring than building publically-financed sports stadiums, just like paying the electric bill is more boring than buying a new iPhone. But it's necessary.

If we make sure that a good, inexpensive higher education is available for everyone, then it will be available for our own kids, and tomorrow's graduates won't begin have to choose their career based on what will help them pay off their crushing debt. And schools won't need to sell Coke or Pepsi or McDonald's products to fund programs.

And I thus begin my blogging career with a polemic.

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