Of late, I've noticed what appears to be an increasing number of letters-to-the-editor in various papers written by members of the Baby Boom Generation. Many of them decry what they perceive as an almost total lack of energy, involvement -- even anger -- on the part of today's college students -- I call them "Generation Text".
"We were out there on the front lines protesting against the war in Vietnam, the killings at Kent State and American imperialism, and in support of things like the 18-year old vote and the Equal Rights Amendment," one writer noted. "What about the current crop of college students? Why aren't they out there protesting against this endless war in Afghanistan?"
"During the sixties," another letter writer stated, "we took over the administration buildings at Berkeley, Wisconsin and Columbia, and flocked to Washington D.C. by the hundreds of thousands. Today's college students just in their dorm rooms tweeting one another . . ."
Indeed, why is this? Is it because the issues confronting us 40 years ago were so much more cut-and-dried, so relatively black-and-white? Is it because in those long gone pre-social networking days the only way we could express a commonality of concern was face-to-face? Or is it something else?
The answer, I believe, can best be understood by an expression many believe was first coined by mega-investor Warren Buffett: "Skin in the game." In Buffett's world, "skin in the game" refers to a situation in which high-ranking insiders use their own money to buy stock in the companies they run. The idea behind creating this situation was -- and is -- to ensure that corporations are managed by like-minded individuals who share a stake in the company. "Executives can talk all they want," Buffett said, "but the best vote of confidence is putting one's own money on the line just like outside investors." (Upon researching the expression, it is highly likely that Buffett was not its source. Back in September 2006, the late William Safire devoted an entire column to it, and found it to be both quite old and ultimately untraceable.)
Regardless of its origin, "skin in the game" is synonymous with "stake" or "self-interest." A major reason why Baby Boomers protested the war in Vietnam was that they had a stake in it; a stake called the draft, for which a high percentage were eligible. For "Generation Text," the terms "Selective Service" and "the draft" are as antiquated and unknown as ditto machines and party lines. Again, because it was in our self interest, Baby Boomers came out en masse to support passage of the Twenty-sixth Amendment; it was enacted in time to permit 18, 19, and 20 year olds to vote for the anti-war Senator George McGovern. (For all the good that did . . .) One wonders what sort of stake would get "Generation Text" march, protest or volunteer.
Up until recently, a majority of Americans did not seem to see themselves as having any significant "skin the game." We are a largely apolitical nation; witness our appallingly low voter turnout. Moreover, it has long been in the best interest of those who do have significant "skin in the game" -- i.e. multi-national corporations, their lobbyists and political puppets, a majority of millionaires and billionaires, much of the communications /entertainment industry -- to keep the public diverted, often by spoon-feeding us a diet of pap which although somewhat filling, lacks sufficient nourishment for what should be a robust citizenry. (I wrote about this phenomena precisely one year ago today in a piece entitled "An Illusion Worthy of David Copperfield." It is just as true -- if not more so -- today as it was 52 articles ago. )
It would seem that perhaps -- just perhaps -- after witnessing that mind-numbing debt-ceiling-vs.-deficit-reduction-debacle on Capitol Hill, we -- average workaday Americans -- are beginning to figure out that we do have skin in the game; that it is in both our individual and collective (oy, such a term!) self interest to recognize how little respect we are being shown by our leaders, representatives and the folks who keep them in campaign gelt. When Standard & Poors downgrades our national credit rating and the financial markets rise and fall as precipitously as Six Flag's "Superman" roller coaster, it matters to each and every one of us -- not just to billionaire investors and titans of industry. When so many of our politicians put their partisan political interests way ahead of America's economic wellbeing, which is a nightmare that affects us all. When promises of "jobs, jobs, jobs" take a backseat to eviscerating labor unions, shutting down women's health centers, scuttling public education and turning a blind eye to America's crumbling infrastructure, that is cynically orchestrated turn of events that calls for a united front; a front made up of everyday citizens who, for the first time in perhaps a generation, realize that all have "skin in the game." When the 2012 presidential election looks like its going to be a replay of the Christian Crusades -- i.e. the "Forces of Light" versus "The Forces of Evil" -- that should get our attention. When our children are transported across dangerously creaky bridges to attend physically substandard schools that are dangerously underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded, that should make us awaken us from our doldrums. When we are told time and again that the "real" causes of our joblessness and economic stagnation are deficits, entitlements, high taxes and too much regulation, it is time to throw off the shackles of "Foxification" and begin acting in our best interest.
Although America is currently tettering on a precipace of contraction, our problems are not insoluble. It doesn't take a genius to understand that the three most important ingredients that go into any first-class recovery are courage, resolve and the ability to compromise. At present, we are lacking all three. But it is not just the fault of the people we elect, for after all, we are the ones who elected them in the first place! For too long, we have abnegated our responsibilities as citizens; given them over to men and women whose names, faces and agendas most Americans cannot identify. And then when they fail us, we complain. And we elect a new batch of men and women whose names, faces and agendas we cannot truly identify.
As if we did not have skin in the game.
But we all have a stake in this glorious compact called America . . . whether we know it or not.
When oh when will we start acting that way?
-2011 Kurt F. Stone