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‘I’ve-Got-Mine’ Backfires on Nation’s Elders in Time

When Proposition 13 was being debated around the state a few years ago, I had lunch with one of my 1960s students who was making it very well as a free-lance writer. During the Vietnam campus unrest, she was on the hustings demanding an end to the war and marching for all sorts of social reforms, from the vote for 18-year-olds to better treatment of women in the workplace. She was smart, articulate and thoughtful. She was also a good writer.

Our luncheon conversation drifted to the ballot measure, and I asked her whether she were involved in the fight to defeat it. She said, “No,” after a long silence that demanded further exploration. So I asked her how she felt about it and was astonished to find she planned to vote for it.

“Why on earth,” I asked, “would you do that? It’s contrary to everything you fought for when you were in college.”

She was defensive but direct. “It will save me several hundred dollars a year,” she said.

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That simple precept articulated by my young friend is the same rationale that directs a lot of flak at seniors these days: If the greater social good conflicts with your pocketbook, vote your pocketbook.

Proposition 13 was probably the crowning example of that precept. I suppose an argument could be made that it was socially desirable on the ground that it limited the opportunities for politicians to spend other people’s money, but I think few Californians would dispute that the main reason it passed so overwhelmingly was because taxpayers saw a chance to save a few bucks.

I happen to believe that such a motive was shortsighted, that the money was saved at the sacrifice of social services that will end up costing a lot of money and causing a lot of pain for future generations.

A public school principal I know, frustrated by a constant struggle to raise private money to offer his children what he regards as essential educational services, said it well: “The impact of Proposition 13 was a devastating loss of funding for schools. It took away our property base and threw it to the state. Now we’re scrambling for nickels to try and save vital programs that have been decimated by lack of funding.”

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The intent here is not to reopen the debate on Proposition 13 but to use that proposition--and my former student’s reasoning--as an example of the arguments being used with some justice against benefits now enjoyed by seniors. A recent article in the New Republic put it this way: “While claiming that their own benefits are beyond challenge, the old organize to oppose tax hikes to pay for school bonds and other desirable social policies.”

As a generalization, that probably isn’t far off the mark. School bond elections are the best example because for several decades now, they have offered about the only direct opportunity for taxpayers to make a statement against taxes in general--on the grounds that they consider many taxes unnecessary, unfair, too high, inefficiently used or all of the above.

The most recent parallel example was the countywide effort that was called Proposition A, designed to generate funds for improved transportation facilities through an increase in the sales tax. It failed resoundingly.

I believe that Propositon 13 won and these other socially useful revenue measures--especially the school bonds--lost not so much because voters disapproved of the programs to be funded, but because they were protesting taxes, and this was the only avenue available. And I believe that’s the wrong reason for such votes.

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I don’t know how many times I’ve heard older people arguing against the passage of school bonds in their communities. They don’t seem even slightly embarrassed with the argument, “I have no need for new schools, so why should I tax myself to pay for them?”

Some of the tangents of this argument are:

- I’m on a fixed income, and I can’t afford any more taxes.

- The schools aren’t using their resources properly now, so why should they be asking for more?

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- The money will just be used to raise teachers’ salaries, and they’re already overpaid, because they work such short days and have three months off every summer.

Most of these arguments--particularly the last one, which is outrageously untrue--are window dressing for simply voting the pocketbook, period.

There are two things decidedly wrong with this approach. First, someone--including older people--provided us with good schools when we were growing up, and we have some responsibility to return the favor. Second, we can’t abdicate the society in which we live simply because we’re old. We still live in the society, and we can still influence it for the better, both for ourselves and for future generations.

To proceed otherwise is to eat our own young--and to hand a powerful argument to those who would pare the benefits of the elderly. Older people can hardly be critical of the young who want to cut back senior programs to have more money for themselves when we operate under the same rationale.

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