Hold On Tight

I just heard Peter Goodman of the New York Times on a local public radio show.

He said something about our current economic crisis that’s been in the back of my mind for a couple of years now, but it’s never come to the surface, and I’ve never read it or heard it anywhere. He said (paraphrasing) that yes, in the runup to the economic collapse in 2008, people did spend beyond their means, but they did so because they did not have the means to live. Their incomes had been stagnant or falling for decades, and they had to provide homes for their families, put their kids through school and pay for increasingly unaffordable health care.

Most of them didn’t stupidly and greedily buy more stuff than they could afford. The monied class simply took all the money and left the rest of us foundering with the leftovers, while fuel prices and everything else went spiraling upward. The masses turned to credit to cover the gap. The banks then jacked up interest rates and fees, making it ever more difficult to stay out of credit problems.

I’m not excusing the abuses that many people engaged in, or the foolishness of falling for the mortgage broker’s line that you could refinance forever and your house would always be worth more. And it’s certainly true that Americans have come to expect a higher standard of living than any other population in history. But our founding documents guarantee a fair chance for all, not to mention life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and as far as I’m concerned the ability to go to the doctor when you’re sick falls under the heading of “life.”

I’ll forgive those who racked up too much debt so they could go to the doctor, or college; those who thought it was their right to take the kids to Disney World or the Grand Canyon; or those whose faith in our system led them to believe that somehow things would work out in the end.

They didn’t know that the ruling class had changed the rules, that the game had been rigged, that the house didn’t just have an edge — it had the outcome totally locked. In effect, most of us have been playing a game in which we had no chance at all.

Maybe this was inevitable. Maybe human nature was bound to pervert the values of solidarity, fairness, freedom and compassion expressed in those original writings. Maybe we just didn’t notice what was happening because it took the ruling elites a couple of hundred years to pull it off. If that’s true, then religious fundamentalists of all stripes are right after all: humans are essentially bad, and must be watched constantly and threatened with the wrath of God or else they will sin.

Personally, I don’t believe it. I think that most of us — not all, but most of us — are in this sinking boat together. A tiny few have escaped to island paradises, and are safe and untouchable. Good riddance. Those of us left holding the bag must try to keep it together by helping each other, acting like grownups, and holding on tight to our dreams.

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