American-style debt bondage–how much longer can we go on this way?

A propos of this question of what the Occupy Wall Street protest is all about, I would like to raise the issue of debt bondage.

Usually when someone says “debt bondage,” we flash to images of Indian rice farmers or child brick carriers or trafficked women from Southeast Asia.

There is horrendous debt slavery in South and Southeast Asia, and the conditions under which men, women and children labor there are far worse than anything we face here in the U.S.

But at the same time, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to call the average American middle-class lifestyle a form of debt bondage.

This graphic does a good job at giving us the picture:

In case you can’t read the fine print, the end of the “game” shows that Americans will pay about $600,000 in interest alone during their lifetimes.  [Source: Visual Economics.]

Working to pay off debt has become so commonplace that we scarcely even notice it anymore.  But it’s a relatively new phenomenon.  And all that interest, plus all those fees, are among the prime ways that the Wall Street bankers have gotten so phenomenally rich in the past 50 years or so.

What can be done about this?  For starters, a quality education should not so expensive that a middle-class student has to go into debt to attain it.

And we have to think much more deeply as a society about the job question.  We should not make it so easy for corporations to outsource jobs to cheaper labor markets.  Just as we are beginning to think about localizing agriculture and energy, we need to think about localizing jobs.

That’s the way human beings have made their livings for the past millennia, after all.  Only in the last 30 years or so has the world become so small (thanks to cheap fossil fuels) that it was conceivable to export manufacturing and other basic services to the other side of the globe.

Is outsourcing really more cost-effective, when you add in the costs of social welfare for all these displaced workers?  And the costs of millions of foreclosed homes?  And the costs of warehousing millions of poorly educated young people in jail? Not to mention the costs of global climate change?

Well, it depends on who is footing the bill, doesn’t it.  The Occupy Wall Street protesters are speaking for all American taxpayers in declaring that we should not have to pay for the greedy, short-sighted mistakes of the global corporate elite.

If they had to pay the true costs of the agendas they’ve pursued since World War II, well–it would be quite a different world we were living in, friends.  Maybe we would still be able to make a living that didn’t involve constantly adding more links to the chains of our debt bondage.

Unthinkable, you say?

Think again!

Don’t Pepper-Spray Our Dreams

New York Times reporter Ginia Bellafante has totally missed the mark in her coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Where I see a vibrant grassroots movement unfolding organically, she sees a disorganized group, marred by a “lack of cohesion” and an “intellectual vaccuum.”

Where I see a clever use of street theater to get across messages that might be too threatening to convey in a more direct, hard-driving tone, she sees an “apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably.”

Where she sees the cause of the protesters as “impossible to decipher” because of the “diffuse and leaderless” nature of this movement, I see the cause as rather starkly clear, if expressed in a multitude of colorful ways by the individual protesters.

It’s summed up in the movement’s use of the concept of 99% to identify themselves. Last week there were protesters who wore placards saying “I am Troy Davis.”  This week, almost all Americans could don similar placards proclaiming: “I am one of the 99%”–that is, the majority of citizens who are receiving almost nothing in the way of benefits from the vast wealth generated by Wall Street.

Even the disdainful Ginia Bellafante noted the growing economic inequality of America in her article on the protest:

Last week, she said, “The Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, which included more than 50 New Yorkers whose combined net worth totaled $211 billion, arrived at the same moment as census data showing that the percentage of the city’s population living in poverty had risen to 20.1 percent. And yet the revolution did not appear to be brewing.”

Well look again, Ms. Bellafante and you Wall Street billionaires. The revolution is at your doorstep.  It may be young, motley and impulsive, but have’t revolutions always been started by the young, idealistic and passionate of any society?

They may not be arguing from any one intellectual vantage point, but they don’t need to be quoting Marx or Dewey or John Maynard Keynes to be able to pinpoint the source of the problem in our society: that the rich own our political system, and they are more interested in personal gain than in a healthy society where young people who work hard will know that they can look forward to a secure future.

We’ve seen the same kinds of protests from young people living under dictatorships in the Middle East; and in London; and now in New York and other American cities.  They all want the same thing: a social system that prioritizes the well-being of ordinary people over the need of the wealthy elite to accumulate ever more billions in personal property.

Is this too much to ask?

I don’t think so.  And it’s not “communism,” either. It’s what used to be called the American Dream, a dream that has faded for too many of us as cost of living has soared, wages have stagnated, housing values have fallen, and jobs have disappeared.

In today’s harsh world, idealist visions are often met with pepper spray.

That’s no way to treat the dreams and aspirations of our young people.

Mayor Bloomberg, you should be ashamed.

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