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Occupying a better future

Nation’s economic policies have derailed next generation’s prosperity, fueled Wall Street protests

POSTED: October 23, 2011 1:00 a.m.
/Associated Press

Kenneth Nieves, right, and a man who identifies himself as One Love continue to demonstrate during a torrential downpour at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park last week.

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Right now the world is convinced that the American market system has failed. To feed our consumption, we have experienced five decades of budget deficits, four of trade deficits, three of easy access to credit cards and one of artificially low-interest loans. Sure we bought lots of clothes, built lots of big houses and planted strip malls all over the nation, but all with borrowed money.

What has been touted as an era of free market economics was really Keynesian economics with a corporate twist. Our economic policy for the last decade has been to launder public debt into very real corporate profits. This happened by way of deficit spending, easy access to credit, artificially low interest rates, bailouts and privatizing government responsibilities such as prisons.

We want the good times to come back but how can they when half of the U.S. population already spends more than they make. This becomes especially dire when 70 percent of our gross domestic product is consumer spending. It would seem the only way to fix the economy is to get people to spend even more money they don't have.

Don't expect our college graduates to get to spending anytime soon. We saw fit as a nation to replace funding for higher education with student loans. We now have a generation of young people in debt and unable to find work.

Perhaps worse than the debt of student loans, we deprived this generation of an education. Education is our pathway to replicating society. In an effort to ensure higher graduation rates, at all levels of education, we have redefined standards. Our educational focus is no longer on reading, writing and critical thinking skills. Instead we've changed the definition of an educated person to one who is willing to sign for student loans, sit still for long periods of time and do well on multiple choice tests, as if the answers to life's problems were multiple choice.

So what kind of society are we replicating? We insist our kids today get into inescapable debt to become educated enough to govern tomorrow while providing them with a less than worthwhile education in the process. We spend six times more on prisons than education. One would think spending on education would reduce the need for prisons. When our society collapses due to lack of talent and foresight, we will only have ourselves to blame.

We are offering our kids a future in which they will work for minimum wage and not have access to health care. In such a situation they will be unable to see the fruits of their labor, such as buying a comfortable home and saving for retirement. Instead they'll be encouraged by market forces to spend on the only thing they can afford: entertainment devices that will both feed their desire for more while distracting them from organizing to change their lot in life.

Despite having utterly failing our children by robbing Social Security, destroying education, squandering our lead in science, weaning them on sugar water and processed food and straddling them with debt, there is hope. More young people are refusing to have their intellects and urge to be activists dulled by the blinking lights of video games and television. More of our youth are self-educating, since we failed at educating them ourselves. Many are taking to the streets in protest. It is from this frustration that Occupy Wall Street was born.

The protesters don't resent the wealthy. They resent being slaves to the debt that made others wealthy. Maybe lower taxes and unregulated free markets are best, but if people start packing themselves 10 to a house and stop working beyond the minimum needed to eat because any extra money would just go to medical bills and student loan debt, the house of cards known as our consumption-driven economy will fall.

Men like Warren Buffett understand this. His generosity is guided by his self interest.

We have severe economic woes but we also have immense resources and technology available to us. We should be focusing on how to offer education and health care in a way to make our workers productive and economy competitive.

We should be ensuring our factories don't face unfair competition from foreign manufacturers who don't follow environmental regulations. Instead we are apparently content to become competitive by allowing our wages to reach parity with China, while arguing over whether or not returning the top tax bracket to 38.6 percent from 35 percent would be class warfare.

Brandon Givens is a Hall County resident and a special-education teacher who writes occasional columns for The Times.


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