Self-styled conservatives are the cheapest generation


I was brought up to believe that we had a moral obligation to leave our corner of the world better off than we found it. In recent years, I am haunted by the notion that the people we have elected to represent us — many of them self-styled conservatives — may be the first in modern American history to fail to meet this obligation.

There are many signs that the legacy of the governing generation will be a world worse off. It is not limited to the bungled Iraq War and a destabilized Middle East, the looting of the public treasury by rampant cronyism, the pillaging of natural resources, the incompetence that led to the slow drowning of an American city or the shameless legalization of torture after the fact. These are symptoms of a larger ill.

The fundamental problem with those in power is a lack of respect for the public patrimony created by the work and wealth of generations that came before us.

From the Bush regime's squandering of our reputation in the world, to cynical congressional efforts to destroy Social Security, to the neglect of national, state and local parks and to the refusal of state governments to adequately finance public colleges and universities, the governing generation is turning its back on the work of earlier Americans.

The source of this lack of respect for the public realm is specific. It is the narcissism of a selfish philosophy combined with the libertarian libel that there is no such thing as the "common good." The only legitimate interest is self-interest, and taxation to support the common good is theft. This ideology denies the fundamental reason that societies organize communities in the first place — to respond to needs people cannot meet individually.

Our present patrimony was created largely by "The Greatest Generation," as retired TV anchor Tom Brokaw named them. This was the generation that lived through the Great Depression or was raised in its shadow. it created Social Security, the single most successful program in the history of public government. Members of this generation fought and won World War II. They generously rebuilt Europe and Japan. They passed the GI Bill offering a college education to those who interrupted their lives to serve their country.

They understood the "common good" because they had been deprived of it for nearly two decades. From 1927, when American agriculture went into depression, until 1946 when the war ended, this generation endured the privation of the Depression and the rationing and wage and price controls of the war. They passed legislation to assure that this would not happen to any future generation.

In the name of "conservative reform," most of those safeguards have been repealed or dismantled. They no longer exist.

Nowhere is this destruction of the public patrimony more flagrant than in the systematic destruction of public higher education. When I attended the University of Oregon in the mid-1960s, my undergraduate tuition of about $1,000 for the school year reflected 25 percent of the per-student operating cost. Taxpayers paid the remaining 75 percent, which has since been returned to them in the form of higher income taxes I have paid over the last 40 years.

Today, undergraduate tuition at the University of Oregon reflects 75 percent of the per-student operating cost. Taxpayers are putting up only about 25 percent. And students are being encouraged to borrow the money to pay their bills. Students are graduating owing between $18,000-$23,000, mired in debt before they even start their lives. The story is much the same at other Western state-supported universities.

We have destroyed the engine that was a major underpinning of the prosperity the self-styled conservatives enjoyed but are unwilling to grant to the next generation. It is ingratitude of criminal proportions.

I spent the last week of September manning a 30-foot trawler in the state of Washington's magnificent San Juan Islands. Friends on the boat included a mother and her 8-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. As I watched the three of them napping in the forward berth after a sun-drenched day of whale-watching and exploring tidepools and the islands, I thought about the problems we are dumping on these innocents, and the silent tears just flowed from my eyes. What will they think of us when they find out what we've done?

Kids, this column's for you.

Russell Sadler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes in Eugene, Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds