Thursday, June 7, 2012

Giving It All Back

I just got home from the Florida Keys. Mom and I took John home. We stayed a few days - gambled a little at the Hard Rock, gorged on grouper and yellowtail and shrimp, shopped at places that sell things like teeshirts and flip-flops, carved pelicans, blown glass palm trees and shells, lots of shells. This was the first time we've been there when the Royal Poincianas were blooming spectacularly in masses of vivid orange. The kids' condo is on the Gulf and I spent much of my time on their balcony or out on the pier watching the water and the boats. It was a nice time, being in a completely different environment than home and visiting with the kids.

The trip back was long but uneventful although Mom traveled the whole way with ghosts. Sometimes, she thought two of John's friends were with us, hitching a ride back to Indiana. "They're napping in the back seat," she'd tell me. Sometimes, it was "the other Vicki". Once she said she thought I was being mean, making the "other Vicki" do all the driving. She asked me if I knew where she lived because she couldn't remember so I had to assure her that I knew how to get her home.

It is heartbreaking to see the person who used to be your mother slipping gradually away from herself. Still, I can't feel too badly. She is 93 and over all, her life has been good.

In fact, I think it may turn out that her generation, the "Greatest Generation" will be the last to have it so good. Ironic, how it has turned out. Our parents had it tough in their early years. I grew up hearing about World War II and the Great Depression. But the country pulled itself together. It believed in a strong middle class then and it honored its soldiers. They came back to the G.I. Bill and VA home loans and strong unions to fight for decent wages and working conditions. My mother spent her career working as a Quality Assurance Representative for the Department of Defense. During her productive years, the gap between rich and middle class continued to narrow.

Meanwhile, their children, the Babyboomers, had it easy early on. Mom and Dad made sure of that. We had clothes and cars and college degrees. We had the freedom to be foolish and we often were, but we accomplished some things along the way too, like civil rights and women's rights and environmental awareness.

But it started going to hell early on. While our folks endured the Last Good War, we had Vietnam, a decade-long  undeclared war of attrition, one that we lost in the end. Instead of streamers and parades, our soldiers arrived home to scorn and disrespect. Unions did too good of a job in some ways. They moved autoworkers and miners and steelworkers to the top of the labor heap, so much so that those of us who weren't in those elite occupations became jealous of those who were. Instead of hoping to move up to their level, we wanted to bring them down to ours.

We were ripe for the picking when Ronald Reagan busted the air traffic controllers. "Yeah, that'll show'em!" It was the start of the downhill slide unions have been on ever since. Once manufacturing unions were decimated, the corporations and their Republican lap dogs started on the public employees' right to collectively bargain. The recent recall election in Wisconsin is just the latest example of the working class cutting its own throat (not to mention my own state becoming a "right to work" state, although I don't recall our governor campaigning on that issue).

I'm retired now too. Like Mom, I spent most of my working life in government. Her retirement income is almost exactly twice as much as mine. Her health insurance is so good, she pays zero for anything. Meanwhile, I have substantial co-pays despite Medicare and a Medicare supplement. At that, I'm luckier than most of my friends who don't believe they'll ever be able to afford to retire. For many of them, pay and benefits have steadily eroded over time. We laugh a little bitterly now about the tarnished promise of the so-called golden years.

And it seems to be even worse for our kids as jobs are out-sourced and here in the U.S., industry accepts workers' increase in productivity without any corresponding increase in reward. They renege on our pension plans even as our government squandered what we pay into social security on unjustified wars (oops!) The banks go on a greed rampage and our houses are foreclosed on as a result.

But what upsets and disappoints me the most is how we cooperate in our own destruction. We say we want freedom from the government but I guess that means freedom not to have healthcare when we're sick and freedom not to be able to plan our families and freedom not to have equal pay for equal work and freedom not to have to collectively bargain and the freedom to pay higher taxes than the rich. Evidently, we don't even want to have the freedom to decide our own elections, instead we'd rather let the billionaires do it for us via gazillion dollar contributions, as the Koch brothers and others poured money into Wisconsin and as Wall Street is dumping multi-million dollar donations into the Romney campaign.

Our parents were the Greatest Generation because they were fighters. They fought the Depression and emerged stronger than ever. They fought the Germans and saved Europe. When the war was over, they came home and fought another war for their families and themselves. They battled the bosses and the corporations and the politicians on the other side to create a prosperous middle class. My generation and the ones after mine seem to have given up that fight. We fall all over ourselves to give back all those gains and we're doing a pretty good damn job of it.