Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Graduate Schools His Father-On

Celebrate with me. 

May is graduation month, and my children are among the graduates.  My son marched two weeks ago for his Masters, and, if you are reading this on Memorial Day, it might be at the very same time I watch my daughter receive her Bachelor of Music. Go get ‘em, kids.  

Perhaps your joy need not be vicarious—you have your own family skittering across the podium. One of the special pleasures of this time of year is that so many of your friends and relations are also submerged in a sea of caps and gowns, blurry pictures, hugs, and the dreaded Elgar Pomp and Circumstance Earworm. They announce themselves with each vibration from your iPhone, a kaleidoscope of happy, and occasionally goofy, images. Can we all stipulate that the whole outfit looks a bit silly?

Graduation also reminds you that time passes (way too fast). Your kids’ time, and your time. You’ve changed, just as has the five-year old who came bouncing out of her room, a huge grin on her face, ready for the first day of Kindergarten. You are a little older (just a little) and a little more “robust,” and your times in the Road Runners races are “moving” in the wrong direction.  

It doesn’t matter.  There are your children, not looking little at all, promising you a peculiar type of immortality. They are going to go do things, great things, going to change the world. They are the discoverers, the communicators, the creators. They will wash away any imperfections you’ve left and build things bigger and better. They really are the future.

You’ve celebrated with me. Now, indulge me.

I’m optimistic about the future, but there’s still the present, and the present is awfully noisy and challenging and pretty darn ugly.  Regardless of what side of the Trump chasm you inhabit, you have to acknowledge that we are sitting on a lava field a lot bigger than Hawaii’s. Blame whom you want, but volcanology should be a required course along with political science. And it’s our kids who have to traverse the heated landscape. Perhaps, before we inevitably become the burden on our children that we insist we never want to be, it’s incumbent on my generation to do something about it.  

Meaning no disrespect to our daughter, who is tied up with last minute packing, discarding, and whatever else college seniors want to do in those last few days (no need to probe), I asked our son what he (and his cohort) wanted from me and mine.  What follows is abbreviated from several hours of discussion.

I was floored by his first response, disarming in its simplicity, and a little damning in its implication. He wanted us to lead. Full stop.  His logic was impeccable. His generation is largely powerless. My generation is in charge. Even if every girl and boy in America could grow up to become President, they still can’t do it before they are 35.  Twenty-somethings can start new technology companies, discover tremendous advances in health and science and math, star in billion-dollar movie franchises, write immortal fiction, beguile us with great music, even literally lay their lives down for us, but, in our system, they can’t lead. Their time will come, but, for now, Baby-Boomers hold the keys to the castle. And we haven’t been using those keys, except maybe to raid the treasury.

At first I didn’t quite get his drift, suggesting that we could make political progress, maybe elect more centrists (as I’m a Democrat, someone like Mark Warner) who could then work across the aisle. If we could change the culture, we could together tackle the big issues. He waved it off. Warner would be fine, but Warner wouldn’t solve the problem. None of the Boomers could. My entire generation had demonstrated, over and over, that we couldn’t be trusted to end the petty bickering because we were the petty bickerers. So, stop pretending to make an effort that is clearly not genuine, forget the moral relativism, and start leading on issues that are really compelling. Leadership is about moving confidently without pandering, about leaving safe spaces to take risks commensurate with the stakes.  

Lead on what, I asked?

Lead on climate change. Conservatives mock the idea of climate change, but my son, who is no economic liberal by any description, takes it seriously, particularly as it relates to the huge social and economic costs of delaying action. There may be nuance between denial and being anti-environment, but that nuance is irrelevant if it results in inaction or willful vandalism. The world we despoil now will be the one he gets to live in later.

Lead on the deficit. It should be obvious to everyone, no matter where you come down on the tax cuts vs. government spending argument, that exploding deficits are being funded by borrowing that will inevitably have to be paid by him and his peers. As will Social Security and Medicare (something he and his cohort hold no hope of receiving themselves). As will the drain of the inevitable commitment of time, energy, and sheer pain of caring for older adults whose life spans may exceed their capacity to live them well. While we still have the energy and ability to choose another path, we Boomers can agree that we shouldn’t be takers—especially from our kids.  

Lead on the economy. Millennials need good jobs, with real prospects, in which they can take pride. Sure, some will fail, and many others will be on a low-salary treadmill, where they will always be dodging the next productivity-designed obsolescence.  But the slacker-kid-in-his-parents’-basement meme is this generation’s Cadillac-driving Welfare Queen—a strawman to raise resentment, so as to obscure not actually doing anything about structural problems. Millennials may not all be economic policy sophisticates, but they can see clearly that what is being done now doesn’t work. I’m going to insert one personal observation here. This is a trap for Democrats: solutions like guaranteed income leave my son and many of his peers wondering where the opportunities for finding and keeping meaningful work will come from. They would rather make it on their own—and, in his words, “the role of government should be less mandate and direct payment, and more convene and incentivize”.

Lead on international relations (which includes trade treaties). Trump may be an exemplar of what American Foreign Policy should not be, but what should it be?  What are our end goals? Do we care enough about democratic and humanitarian values to intercede when they may be threatened? When should we express military power? How much of the common defense should we be providing to our allies?  Is Isolationism wise when the Chinese are willing to engage everywhere, and, being a true dictatorship, can do so decisively and without regard to cost?

All great questions.  This would be about the time when Fred MacMurray would exhale, deliver to one or more of his Three Sons a sober, Dad-like “Well…,” and offer up some profundities. I didn’t—I’m not that smart.

That’s where our conversations ended, and it wasn’t until the following week that I realized I’d had a “curious case of the dog barking in the night” moment. What he hadn’t raised at all was any social issue—things like guns, gays, abortion, the role of religion. I knew he had strong opinions, and yet he didn’t prioritize them.  So, I texted him (how else would one communicate?) and got an intriguing response. Social issues would have to wait for his generation to resolve in a way that met their needs. They would be the ones to debate and resolve the core philosophical question of the scope of government in either supporting, interfering with, or mandating certain types of personal behavior before resolving the specifics. I wondered about the impact of waiting so long, but “the fundamental philosophical debate falls in the bucket, for me, of things I wouldn’t trust Baby-Boomers to do reasonably.” Yet, he’s optimistic.  “I believe our society is strong enough and malleable enough that there will always be a way forward on these issues in the future.”

Interesting to be told, in effect, that my generation lacks the capacity to act rationally when it comes to red-meat issues.  But he has left us with a full plate of other questions, and there are no easy answers to any of them. We are too large, too rich, too powerful, too indebted, too challenged around the world by other countries, too polarized and too swampy to go without some serious upheavals in crafting solutions. Given how inadequate both parties have been in actual governing, I suspect there will be a huge distance to travel, and we quite possibly won’t get far. But my generation ought to start, and Millennials need to keep us honest until they can pick up the mantle. They may not yet be able to lead, but they can vote, and make their needs clear. That’s my son’s challenge to me, and mine to him.

And that brings me back to graduations. I had said at the outset that, if you were reading this on Memorial Day, it might be at the very moment my daughter is getting her diploma. But if you are seeing this first on Tuesday, you will likely find us in the rented minivan, surrounded by crammed boxes and luggage and ripe laundry, somewhere between Ohio and New York.  And at some point, maybe around Snowshoe, Pennsylvania, there might be one or more sleeping graduates in the back seat.  It’s one of the first rules of parenting: You can always count on a moving car.

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