tax policy

Fam, I’m Not Here for your Millennial Shaming

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1946, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump were all born. The planet may never recover.

The Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation defeated fascism, built the interstate highway system, and most of our modern infrastructure. They electrified Appalachia, ended Southern Jim Crow de jure segregation, rebuilt a third of the planet via the Marshall Plan, and artfully avoided vaporizing the planet in a nuclear holocaust in the Cold War.

In contrast, the Boomers still can’t get over Vietnam.

I was born in 1979, the tail end of Generation X and Boomers have dominated American politics my entire adult life. They’ve waged a pointless, polarizing, five decade long culture war. Boomers wasted billions in a racist and classist war on drugs that has militarized local law enforcement, and fueled mass incarceration. They’ve delayed maintenance on the infrastructure they inherited to the point that bridges are literally falling down and our rail system falls somewhere between Poland and Morrocco’s. They have poisoned our politics through congressional gerrymandering, corporate media consolidation, and dumbed-down-cable news-soundbite politics. Most damaging, they killed the idea of “Americans as Citizens” -- people with a sense of shared obligation and ushered in the period of “Americans as Taxpayers” -- atomized, lone wolves with no appreciation of history, civics nor the common good.

The evidence of decline is all around us. Our most beautiful and important bridges and infrastructure were all built decades ago. I recently returned from a trip to Eastern Washington where I visited the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph Dams. While standing in their respective visitors’ centers, I realized that they, like almost every Park Service or Interior Department facility that I’ve visited, are frozen in amber relics from the 1980s. This is about the time Congress started taking a hatchet to the non-defense discretionary budget in order to pay for endless waves of tax cuts for Boomers.

The Laffer Curve could only come from and could only work on this silly, selfish generation. They have lavished benefits on themselves: Medicare Part D, mortgage interest deductions, and decades of war abroad -- all while demanding tax cut, after tax cut, after tax cut. This is the essence of Boomer economics: after benefiting from more taxpayer subsidies than any US generation, they’ve hollowed out of the commons in order to provide tax breaks to themselves, and debt & deficits in perpetuity for us.

From Bakersfield Observed

From Bakersfield Observed

I am a part of the last generation of Americans who could feasibly work their way through college and graduate debt free. Somewhere in the late-aughts driven by stagnated wages and skyrocketing tuition costs, working your way through college became nearly impossible. In half a lifetime, college tuition costs have risen from under $500 per year to their current levels, where the typical graduate crosses the stage with +$37,000 in debt. Rising tuition costs are driven by declining state support for universities, which is driven by tax cuts. Boomers are the worst.

Boomers have waged inter-generational financial warfare on future generations, all the while calling them lazy, undisciplined, and impractical. How exactly do we build a future middle class if higher education is out of reach for those who need it most -- the working poor? This is a problem the Boomers lack the capacity, willingness, and empathy to solve, but it is one we must confront in the near future.

I’ve had my fill with Millennial shaming. The business press concern trolls debt-ladened Millennials (and soon Gen Z kids) with petty, hot-take articles about them destroying the diamond industry (good riddance to De Beers), bar soap (because it’s gross and unsanitary), Applebee’s (it won’t be missed), and my favorite -- the housing market (spoiler: they're delaying buying homes because of low wages and the aforementioned $37k average student loan debt).

I've met with and lobbied Boomer policymakers at every level of government. It’s an exhausting exercise. But, in my 9-5, I've spent the last eleven years teaching Millennials and now Generation Z kids. It's not even a contest. The kids are more empathetic, less judgmental, more collaborative, and more justice-oriented than the folks running our country today. They're less ideologically rigid and think the current era of partisan gridlock is dumb (which it surely is). The kids are alright. A future built by Millennials and Generation Z kids will be far brighter and egalitarian than the present. I pray I live long enough to see the world they'll create, if the Boomers don't destroy it all first.

 

My Resolution to Talk Like I Teach

Photo from Flip the Media

Photo from Flip the Media

I think New Year’s Resolutions are dumb. I thought about joining a gym for about 15 seconds on January 1, but quickly came to my senses. That said, one of the major “learnings” I am taking from 2016 is about the power of the language we use in teaching, politics, and policy. The terms we use, or allow others to use, establish the realm of possibility and the space for policy negotiation.

In my class, I decline to use the loaded political terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice”. The people who support the death penalty, oppose even modest gun control laws, refuse to condemn excessive use of force by law enforcement, and cheerlead calls to bomb half the nations in South West Asia (I also teach them not to use the Euro-centric nomenclature Middle East) do not deserve to be called “pro-life”. Instead, we use the more accurate and neutral terms "supporters of abortion access” or “supporters of abortion restrictions”.

I think about this often when reading the news. Much of our political discourse happens in terms created by and to benefit those with power and wealth. We unblinkingly use the term “right-to-work” to describe laws designed specifically to weaken unions and their power to collectively bargain. These laws have led to the hollowing out of the middle class and have directly contributed to lower standards of living and wages among “economically anxious” workers in the Rust Belt--the same Rust Belt that Donald Trump swept in the election.

Arguably, the biggest failing of the Obama Administration was conceding to the GOP’s use of the term Obamacare, rather than the Affordable Care Act or ACA. The administration called it Obamacare, the media called in Obamacare, Democratic strategists called it Obamacare, and public approval for the program consistently hovered around 47%. A recent poll showed that approval for Kentucky’s implementation of the ACA is thirty points more popular than “Obamacare” among Kentuckians, even though they’re the exact same thing.

President Obama (unwittingly) allowed a program that provides healthcare to 20 million Americans to become a referendum on him. Now, GOP zeal about repealing the ACA is largely about handing him one final humiliating “L”. All this, even though the individual mandate was originally a Republican policy, even though the program is modeled largely on Massachusetts’ health care program, created by Republican Mitt Romney. They hate Obama, so they hate Obamacare… even if they’re on it. The administration should have seen that coming.

We have to get smarter about the words we choose and how we engage those we seek to persuade. When coastal, college educated, know-it-alls (points finger at self) traffic excessively in jargon we are talking over the heads of folks we need on our side and who share our interests and aspirations.

There are lessons to be learned from the classroom here, dear reader. One of the reasons I am an effective humanities teacher is because I convey complicated ideas in an easily digestible manner; I constantly introduce gestures, create analogies, explain metaphors from pop culture, and on a rare occasion break out a rap. Once understanding is established, I codeswitch to introduce the academic vocabulary for the concept. I teach freshmen about the different types of migration (chain, forced, asylum and labor) by giving historical examples and then assigning each a gesture. Simple language first, then the technical follows.

I plan to keep my classroom in mind this year when talking about education and tax policy. For example, Washington State has the most regressive tax system of any state in the nation. According to The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the poorest 20% of Washingtonians pay 16.8% of their annual income in taxes; for the wealthiest one percent of Washingtonians the number is 2.4%. This creates an unfair burden that harms already struggling low to moderate income families.

Every single person working in the Governor’s office and every member of the Washington State Legislature knows this is true, but for a host of reasons--overly wonky communication by advocates, a slew of corporate campaign spending by opponents, partisan opposition to "all things tax" by one party in the legislature--the sensible solution, one embraced at the federal level, and by 43 states--a progressive income tax is off the table and our schools suffer as a result.

This is at the core of the school funding issues we face in Washington State. But saying our taxes are “overly regressive” is just economic jargon to most. This needs to be put plainly: “If Washington State had Idaho’s tax system (and rates) our schools, mental health and transportation infrastructure would be much better funded.” Y’all, Idaho. This is my begrudging resolution this year--to plain-talk to folks about matters of education, justice and economics that impact my students and my community.

I thought about joining the gym this year, but I think this suits me better.