The Only Thing Missing From "The New Declaration of Independence": Any Sense That Adults Are Responsible for Their Choices


I linked to it yesterday, but there was something about Salon.com's "New Declaration of Independence," something reminiscent of a lot of Occupy Wall Street-inspired commentary, that stuck in my craw. It was the common theme running through these sentences:

What unites the outraged 99 Percent is that we have all "played by the rules," only to learn belatedly that the game was rigged. Having been promised modest rewards for working within the system, by taking on debt or voting the party line, we find ourselves, bluntly, shit out of luck. Let the facts be submitted to a candid world:

For the young, higher education was said to be a ticket to class mobility, or at least a secure career. Instead, middle-class students have taken on billions of dollars of inescapable debt during a prolonged jobs crisis. Lower-income students are blatantly ripped off by usurious scam artists working for educationally dubious for-profit schools. Even those seeking to join the professional class, through medical school or law school, find themselves with mountains of debt and dwindling job prospects. The rapidly rising cost of higher education pushes bright students into lucrative but socially destructive fields, like finance. […]

For millions of middle-class and striving blue-collar American families, the promise of homeownership as the world's safest investment became another money-making bubble for Wall Street that remains Main Street's intractable mess. Those members of the middle class unfortunate enough to do as an industry of wise men counseled them and invest in the stock market and real estate have seen the fruits of a lifetime's worth of labor evaporate in multiple busts and crashes that the wise men always escape from economically intact. […]

It is not in the national interest to force the impoverished to become wage slaves to pay off insurmountable debts owned to payday lenders and hugely profitable bankers. […]

Every other rich nation on earth heavily subsidizes higher education. We force mere kids to mortgage their futures, then ensure that the debt follows them the rest of their lives, regardless of their living circumstances. […]

Even millions of homeowners who "did everything right" find themselves underwater, or illegally foreclosed upon by banks running roughshod over the rights of homeowners by robo-signing fraudulent foreclosure documents by the thousands.

Who are these wise men, and what are these rules, these promises, this ticket to class mobility, or at least a secure career, this singular notion of the one "right" way to do things? At the risk of going all "Generation X is sick of your bullshit" here, count me as one Gen Xer who does not recognize the world that Alex Pareene and the Salon staff (many of whom are even older than me!) have sketched out here.

Cradle-to-grave employment (at least outside the public sector) has been dead since at least the end of the Cold War. Undergraduate degrees in English and Film and Sociology and Philosophy (and a thousand other subjects) have had debatable workplace utility for as long as I've been alive. There have even been previous housing bubbles and busts in Alex Pareene's lifetime.

I don't recall anything like the promises so cruelly unkept in Salon's list. I do remember my father warning me that an engineering degree would be much more useful in the workplace than English, to which I uttered a phrase available to 18-year-olds everywhere: Thanks, Dad; not your call. Ditto for the legions of well-meaning adults urging me to finish my undergraduate degree, to sign up for the Selective Service, and even (when I finally attained a decent living in the second half of my 30s) to pay a mortgage instead of paying rent. One of the best perks about being a grown-up is that you get to make your own choices, and to own the results, good and ill.

Which is why phrases like "wage slaves," "inescapable debt," and "force" "force" "force" leave me feeling like a brother from another planet. Adult human beings have agency, the ability (even responsibility!) to run their own cost/benefit analyses and choose accordingly. You could go to a state school (or community college) instead of an over-inflated prestige mill. You could pay for a 10-year-old car in cash, instead of a new one on installments. You could try to make it in Minneapolis before living the dream in Williamsburg. You could stare into the face of a no-money-down, adjustable rate 30-year mortgage at the tail end of a housing-price run-up and conclude "Maybe that one's not for me." You could even choose to turn down a bad if high-paying job when you're living below the poverty line. If we indeed live in a "candid world," let us state bluntly that offloading 100% of the blame for your own mountain of debt on a group of Greedy McBanksters who "forced" you to "play by the rules" is more than a little pathetic.

And since when have right-thinking liberals from the creative class bragged about "playing by the rules" anyway? Is it really my imagination that the point used to be something closer to the opposite? I am old enough to remember when the whole aspiration–or at least the defiant self-acknowledgment of status–was to declare yourself a marginalized "one percenter." As Jane's Addiction sang, in a less playing-by-the-rules kinda time:

All the people I know wanna be left alone
Some people! I don't know
They won't leave you alone
You gotta be just, be just like them

Biggest gang I know they call the government
Gang is a weapon
That you trade your mind in for
You gotta be just, be just like them

The gang and the government
no different
The gang and the government
no different
The gang and the government
no different
That makes me 1%
That makes me 1%

I totally understand that it would be frustrating to emerge with a university degree into this lousiest-in-three-decades economy, even though you're still much better off statistically being credentialed than not. And higher education is too often too damned expensive, though some of that is the inevitable result of the federal government trying to make it cheaper (paradoxical, I know!). I even think that exempting student loan debt from bankruptcy protection is both unwise and unlikely to last, given the alarming trends and the political climate. Unemployment and poverty are awful, soul-wrenching experiences.

But. The Organization Man died decades ago, long may he rot. There are no "rules," and even if there were, you don't get an extra pat on the head for playing by them. Your "Debt Jubilee" will not be a party, unless your idea of a wild time is to eliminate consumer credit as we know it. And if you have any intention of building up a political case for bailing out your bad decisions, you might start with taking even one percent responsibility for them.

Reason on Occupy Wall Street here.