Gary Horton | Let’s Get the Basics Straight

Gary Horton
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Everyday real life in America continues, despite our never-ending soul-grinding infighting over guns, reproductive rights, MAGA coups, and residue COVID concerns. Heaven knows, Americans love to torture ourselves with these and other forever diversions rather than solving persistent, everyday problems. 

But on this much, hopefully we can all agree: We’ve got to productively move forward or risk our international competitiveness and leadership being surpassed by more purposeful international competitors. There’s little time to dawdle but dawdling and distraction seems to be what America has perfected – all parties responsible – as we’ve made little progress on the biggest issues of our day. 

Yet real life goes on, along with persistent real-life problems. A large envelope received from the Coast Guard Foundation yesterday provides a good example: 

As a hopelessly addicted boater, I’ve been a long-time supporter of the Coast Guard Foundation, which funds Coast Guard Auxiliaries and boater safety. They’ve apparently noticed my continued giving because the large envelope this time came with a very large request for cash. And the purpose? To provide college scholarships for Coast Guard families. Certainly, a worthy cause. Advanced education is critical for nearly anyone hoping to get ahead in our competitive world. 

But the cash request itself exposes lingering core problems in our American life. Quoting from the letter: 

“Our men and women in uniform risk their lives to protect our country. Despite their dangerous jobs, Coast Guard members’ base pay averages only about $45,000 after 15 years of service. Because of that, even an in-state college can be too expensive – threatening the dreams of young men and women who have already sacrificed so much, as their parents are often absent, deployed at sea for months at a time…” 

This fund-raising campaign may well solve the problem of tuition in the immediate short term. But it is also asking private citizens for a work-around to government priority shortcomings, which should have been resolved decades ago. 

The root of the matter? Coast Guard salaries are too low to properly raise a modern family. And our public colleges and universities are also often too expensive for everyday working Americans. 

Pretty basic stuff, and not rocket science to fix. Full-time, professional service men and women dedicating their lives to our protection should be paid sufficiently to live reasonable and secure lives. These folks shouldn’t have to depend on public donations to meet their basic educational needs… 

And knowing America faces tough international competition in all areas of business and technology, why won’t we address the high cost of educating and advancing our nation’s most important asset – our rising generation of workers and leaders? Our kids are our future, yet we as multiple generations of adults have created an education system that both blocks many and indebts many more. 

When I attended CSUN eons ago, a full 15-unit semester was a scant $110, equal to about $700 today. Not too long ago our UC system was tuition-free to all who qualified for admission. Compare that to basic tuitions of $6,000 and $18,000, respectively, today, and that’s before books, expenses, and room and board. Figure $35,000-$60,000 for a realistic annual enrollment at most of our four-year universities. 

No matter how you slice this, this is serious money for most all families. And while some states have higher costs and some lower, nearly all states stiff their kids, their futures, with stiff tuition bills and often with decades-long student loans, just as they begin their adult life, working to better our world. 

I don’t believe this is an appropriate expression of our “American exceptionalism.” Rather, it’s America clinging to misguided priorities. While competitor countries provide tuition-free advanced education, too often we charge a crushing debt. While we expect dedicated professional service men and women, we then often pay too little for these dedicated folks to make ends fully meet. 

These are basic, clear-cut root cause problems with straightforward solutions if we valued our people more than the next tax break or trillion-dollar military adventure. The basics we should stand for are simple: Living wages, affordable education, and affordable health care for all. 

Resolving these important societal pillars happily solves many of the other social issues perpetually plaguing us. And, perhaps our infighting would lessen, as we’d have less need to fight over vexing scarcity among us. 

We must gut-check our values as to what really matters most, and then put our money where our campaign promises are and make these basic changes to American life. If we will it, we can make America great and secure a promising, rewarding and secure future. 

I’ll happily make the Coast Guard Foundation donation this year and the years to come, as will thousands of others. But it would be far more rewarding to see America become fairer and just, providing more accessible opportunity and livability for all. 

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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