Wednesday, June 20, 2012

America, the gated community

    Somewhere in pledging allegiance to trickle-down schemes, buying warfare on credit, and putting the interests of millionaires ahead of our own, a lot of us forgot what government does.

    Here's what we forgot: More than transporting us, lighting our streets and making our taps flow, government invests in human potential.

    Or at least it did.

    When did that change?

    First, a lot of us, including electoral majorities, convinced ourselves we could afford no more government, when in fact all we needed was a tax system that paid for all the government we refused to pay for (see: "wars," "nation-building," "Bush," "unprecedented peacetime military buildup," "Reagan"). Hucksters convinced many of us that tax cuts would pay for themselves and more. Meanwhile, the deficit numbers said, "You gotta be kidding."

   Somewhere along the line, adherents who believed they had all the government they needed started thinking of it as simply an impediment to what else they wanted.

   The American experience ceased being one of improving on its potential — our potential — of maximizing what was shared by us all. Instead it became a system of parceling out its assets, like selling public open spaces or privatizing everything that moved.

   This syndrome clearly is at play in the debate over President Obama's decision to block deportation of young people whose parents came here illegally and who have been educated by our schools.    

    Despite the hyena screams of Obama's incessant enemies, the only thing wrong with what the president did on this was taking three years to do it. (Notice that Mitt Romney won't say he'd reverse it.) But when Obama did it, he said exactly the right things.

   These are people whose educations have been our investment. It's in our interest to reap the fruit of those investments. Not to mention, it's the right thing to do on behalf of people who broke no law.

    The arguments against allowing these young people to remain and obtain work permits run counter to every notion this country has harbored about investing in the potential of its people.

    Those arguments were in play recently when Metro State University in Denver decided to offer a special tuition rate to undocumented individuals who live in Colorado, sparing them crushing non-resident costs. This was an option blocked statewide by House Republicans in the 2012 legislative session.

    To critics in the Colorado statehouse, this is simply a zero-sum matter — that doing this for these people will cost more ("these people" who still will be paying dearly for their share of the higher education they attain). Republicans cited costs in California and Texas, which have offered similar arrangements for undocumented students.

    Of course, that "costs" argument can be used against public education itself. Why pay for colleges and public schools if it doesn't directly benefit me in my fortified lair?

    Thank goodness previous generations didn't think of the public schools, land grant colleges and the GI Bill in the same way.

    The reason why we cultivated all of the above is that everyone would benefit from the improved education, the improved productivity, the unleashed ingenuity, the intellectual multiplier effect, the general and massive contributions of educated people.

    Is this so hard to understand?

    Anyone who starts thinking of education solely as a zero-sum matter has lost touch with what made America what it is.

    What this attitude spawns is less of a general community in this land we love than a bunch of gated communities in which individual needs are met because those on the inside have the means. The rest of you can simply keep out.

    In that atmosphere, one can understand why illegal immigration could be seen as a mortal threat, even when the "threat" in question is the person insidiously repairing one's roof after the storm, cleaning one's hotel room after the weekend getaway and busing one's table after the three-cocktail lunch.

    One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for those who have the security code at the gate.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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