We’re barely more than a century removed from the year an entire town in South Dakota nearly starved to death.
Giggle at me if you will for referencing Laura Ingalls Wilder, but really? This is important.
History is taught as though those members of the human race who came before us are somehow less than human. We sit here and sneer at the past as though it were populated by particularly bright hairless monkeys rather than full-fledged members of the human race. This makes it very difficult to understand history: if you start with the assumption, conscious or not, that all of those people nearly starved because they were stupid, you’re not going to be able to get much perspective on the thing. History looks simple and inevitable because it already happened. That doesn’t make the people starring in it any less people.
A similar misperception seem to happen when people look across economic classes. I’ve long said that a lot of folks attribute to their own brilliance what can better be explained by pure luck, and that attitude is becoming more and more pronounced the more the current state of the economy gets discussed. For a certain class of pundit, everyone who has run into trouble in all of this deserves it, and the slow-motion trainwreck is the best show in years, because it never occurs to said class of pundit that life may come after them next. They’ve done the same things, but having gotten away with it so far, they assume immunity, because they assume, naturally, that the others–being other–must have done something wrong. If everyone were as smart as they are, the world would be a perfect place.
The thing is that all of the smarts in the world aren’t going to save you when the trains don’t run. And right now? The trains aren’t running. Folks have built their lives around a set of assumptions that turned out to be bad. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last.
The truly depressing thing about this is that the masses who are in trouble did exactly what those same pundit classes (and the government, and the rest of the media, and their teachers, and…) told them to do. You can’t get anywhere without a college degree, they say, and children need a backyard. The government pushes home ownership, so it must really be important, right? And we all go and get college degrees we can’t afford, because the only way we’ll be able to afford them is to get them, and we get credit cards because you can’t do half the things you need to do without one anymore (which is a post of its own, for sure) and because without the proven credit record we’ll never be able to afford a house, and then we buy houses that we really can’t afford because that’s what people do, dammit, and you want to appear as though you’re living at the class level above yourself, not the one below. And if you’re even tempted to examine your motives this closely and realize why it is that you want what the Joneses have, Oprah is standing there to tell you that positive thinking is what ensures your success, and the rest of the media join in with a chorus of fake-it-til-you-make-it, babe.
Until you don’t make it, when suddenly you find yourself characterized as the worst sort of pond-scum lowlife, too stupid to add and subtract, too corrupt to care that you’re thieving from your betters. You have children in the schools and you don’t even own a house! (Never mind that there’s not a landlord on the planet who doesn’t factor taxes into the cost of rent. You don’t own a house! Never mind that very few people below retirement age actually own their houses, and never mind that ownership is illusory, anyway. You don’t own a house!)
You can’t win. You’re an idiot if you don’t listen, and you’re an idiot if you do (at least if things go badly).
The thing is that I don’t expect that people can do much other than listen. Firstly, I don’t know where folks are supposed to find the time in their days to think about whether or not they’ve been set up by a de-facto ruling class that will rip them off and then excoriate them for allowing it to happen (all, mind you, while promoting the rip-off as the only way to avoid being ripped off). Secondly, have you ever tried to buck a trend? It requires a massive effort of will. People are programmed to follow along with whatever they’re hearing at highest volume, and I suspect the extent to which folks are able to hold distinctly odd views generally has more to do with their individual definition of “highest volume” rather than any substantial ability to truly resist the opinions of others. (Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, but remember that this natural tendency–does anyone want to be separated from the tribe in the wilds at night?–is specifically encouraged in our children in the schools, making it that much harder to escape it. When you’re given bad information, then taught to try not to reason about it, then given faulty skills for doing the reasoning if you just can’t resist…well, it’s damned difficult to overcome that, no matter how smart you are.)
So you take people who just want to get along and live lives that don’t look too much different from that of their neighbors, you tell them that they’re failures in life if they don’t do A, B, and C, you build industries to sell them these things at ridiculous interest rates, you tell them that if they don’t make use of those industries they are, again, doing something wrong, and then–having set them up to fail–you tear into them when they actually do. Nice work, if you can get it.
We tell people that they’re stupid if they don’t go along with this, then tell that that they’re stupid because they did. There is absolutely no way to win this game. And that’s why even if my family weren’t in a bad financial position at the moment, we’d be getting off the everloving treadmill at the first possible moment. I suspect we’re not alone, and I suspect that it’s going to be very interesting to watch the shape things take if enough of us say, “Enough!”