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Everything 'they' told us is wrong

November 06, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

When I was a grad student, I took out a student loan in the amount of $4,000. I didn’t need the money, I just thought it would be cool to have $4,000.

Grants and scholarships paid my tuition, it was easy to find work for spending money, and beyond all that, the government was sending me monthly checks for reasons I never entirely got to the bottom of. My dad had retired, and somehow, since I was in school, this qualified me for a Social Security check that more than covered the rent.

So the $4,000 just kind of sat there, more or less as overdraft protection until I left school and paid it back.

Few of these advantages exist for college kids today, which certainly makes Occupy Wall Street a little easier to understand. Yes, people in the 20th century fought, toiled and made their own way, but be it WPA, Pell Grants, GI Bill, housing bonds or a myriad of other assistance, we always had a government tailwind at our back.

Today, kids are being told, it’s you against the world. The only way you can possibly get ahead is with the best and most education you can get. You’re going to have to pay for it all, and when you get out of school, $80,000 in debt, you are going to have to scratch and claw for jobs that don’t exist.

What’s a kid supposed to think?

They have seen their parents or more likely grandparents who have grown fat and happy on wages won by unions that no longer flourish. They know that we got jobs because we furthered our educations, back in the day when not that many people graduated from college and the competition among educated people was not as stiff. They have seen people who have chosen government careers retire and buy second homes at age 55.

They wanted this for themselves, so they dutifully went to school as they were told and did all the right things.

And now this. Not only has their golden pathway failed to materialize, but they have seen the golden pathways of their elders crumble as well. Their parents might have bought into the same established models — home ownership is good, corporate loyalty will be repaid, steady investment in the stock market guarantees riches and an early retirement.

Occupy Wall Street might be foggy on who “they” is, but their basic rip against the status quo is resonating because the movement is tapping into this simple postulate: Everything “they” have told us is wrong.

An education, it turns out, can land you in deeper financial trouble than if you had just joined the labor force and worked your way up. A home in America has become more nightmare than dream. Blue chip companies that supposedly offered rock-solid careers will cast aside thousands of employees in the name of beating quarterly Wall Street expectations.

“They” told us of the merits of hard work, dedication and giving people an honest product at an honest price. Yet even this constant is wrong.

Mac Nation mourned the loss of Steve Jobs, one, because he delivered products that we loved, and two, because he, as an executive, was an anomaly. Most of the richest people today produce nothing. They just rearrange numbers on a ledger and traffic in nonproducts like derivatives and credit default swaps that destroy more value than they produce.

“They” told us we are a meritocracy, that the best and brightest would always succeed. Yet today, hopelessly clueless CEOs take home millions of dollars, profiting exponentially on their unending mistakes.

The bosses of Bank of America, Netflix, BP and AIG will not go to bed hungry tonight, yet these corporations have trafficked in boneheaded decisions that the average homeless man would not make.

The curiosity is that Occupy Wall Street has been so roundly criticized for not having any leaders. But maybe they’re on to something. Just about every troubled walk of American life these days has more “leaders” than the market can bear, and how’s that working out?

I don’t pretend to know anything about Occupy Wall Street, but it does remind me of the Dr. Suess book, “Horton Hears a Who.” Lest the upcoming generation gets boiled in Beezlenut Oil by the Sour Kangaroo, it needs to emphatically state in one voice, nationwide, that “We are here!”

This group, it appears, wants to work. It would be honored to pay taxes. It doesn’t want to believe that those purely American tenets of hard work, home ownership, loyalty, industry and thrift are just empty talking points to enrich the very, very, very few.

The Hippies of the ’60s, to whom Occupy Wall Street has been compared, was anti-establishment. Near as I can tell, Occupy Wall Street wants to believe that the establishment of American ideals exists, and to be a part of it. If Wall Street had any sense, it would let them.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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