A Letter To My Students

A Berkeley professor:

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 dead or in nursing homes made a remarkable deal with the future. (Not from California? Keep reading, lots of this applies to you, with variations.) 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 building and operating water systems, roads, parks, and other public facilities, an infrastructure that was the envy of the world. 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.


  1. I spent several years of my youth in California and my mom’s side of the family are from there for generations. Out of all my relatives, only my parents thought this trend was a bad idea – which would be surprising if you knew my folks. They were old-style conservatives, so they really believed that you have to prepare and save for the future.

    Although this letter touches on problems beyond one state, I am grateful that we moved away from California when I was still just a kid. I hope this letter gets a spread a lot. I hope people take it to heart, or California is going to be what our entire nation eventually will look like. Ugh.

  2. I grew up in California and went to UC Berkeley. I’ve lived outside the country for the past four years, since I graduated. I read the letter, and nodded, and though “nothing really new, but as a generalization this is pretty much bang on”.

    And then I read the comments and was shocked. So many people seem to WORSHIP money, beyond what I could even imagine at my most cynical. They worship “the top earners”; they want the people who have benefited most from the civilization that governments provide to keep as much as possible to themselves; they worship the possibility of more money for themselves personally in the future; they worship the pursuit of money above all others and at the expense of all others. Reading it, their comments would only make sense coming from the mouth of a person so deeply worshipful of individual wealth that it goes, I feel, beyond the kind of fundamentalist beliefs that can compel people to blow themselves up to kill others.

    I follow American politics. I know what the level of debate in the media is. But these individuals stunned me more than the most unhinged Fox News clip. How were so many people raised to completely devalue all quality of life outside of material (and once you’re actually rich – simply immaterial, numeric) wealth? Where did this disconnect between the idea of “having” something, and the “how and why” of having, arise? Was it the material comfort of the generations of the past 60 years? Will we have to starve like dogs in the street again before the need for general understanding of social responsibilities becomes clear and present enough?

    Most importantly, why do I live in a country that is not so very different culturally and politically from the United States, and not know anyone who lives with this same level of worship?

  3. “Not from California? Keep reading, lots of this applies to you, with variations.”

    This is so true. The whole “fuck you, I got mine” attitude that is so prevalent now makes me sick. I can’t understand why some people are willing to throw away their children’s future for a slightly more comfortable lifestyle.

    Why am I not surprised—the very first comment is along the lines of “blah, blah, blah, bootstraps” So very depressing.

    “Who gives a fuck about the planet!? I might be slightly inconvenienced!”

  4. I grew up in the 80s when this mindset first arose. It’s always made me sick the way the the Gordon Geckos were not just tolerated, but respected and encouraged by their peers to be selfish backstabbers. Now those people’s children are old to enough be attaining positions of power. They never even saw the change – they were raised in that environment. It’s no wonder things are so screwed up.

  5. Well, I’m of “the parent’s age” and not all of us voted the way described in this letter. I agree that it’s mostly true, but many of us fought against the stupid short-sightedness. Even now I’ve hope that the new redistricting law will make a difference. *sigh*

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