A Subprime Education in a Subprime World
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Class of 2012, greetings! It’s a deceptively glorious day, even under this tent in the broiling heat of an August-style afternoon in mid-June on this Northeastern campus. Another local temperature record is being set: ninety-eight degrees. And yes, let’s admit it, the heat, the sun, the clearness of the azure blue sky stretching without a cloud to the horizon, the sense of summer descending with a passion, it’s not quite as reassuring as it might once have been, is it? I suspect that few of you, readying yourselves to leave this campus, many mortgaged to your eyeballs (some for life no matter what you do), and heading into a country on edge, imagine personal clear skies to the horizon.
And while we’re admitting things, let’s admit something else about the heat today, as you bake under your graduation gowns: whether or not you have the figures at your fingertips, whether or not you know the details, who doesn’t sense that this planet is on edge, too? I mean, here you are, the class of 2012, and like the classes of 2011, 2010, and so on, you are surely going to spend your first months out of college enduring one of history’s top ten heat years.
As so many Americans have noticed, this was a spring for the record books just about everywhere in the continental United States. And keep in mind that at the moment we also seem to be making a beeline for a potentially record-setting summer, the months of your job hunt for a future, and maybe the hottest year in American history as well.
And records or no, this year is no anomaly. Look at a temperature map of the United States, 1970–2011, and every state—every single state—is, on average, hotter now than it was four decades ago. Imagine that.
And now, imagine this. If climate change is the main culprit and the burning of fossil fuels is threatening to turn Hell, which you were once supposed to visit after death for your sins, into a pit stop on planet Earth, and if you want to do something about it, brace yourself. What you’re up against is the power of the richest, most profitable corporations in history at a time when the sky’s the limit, not just for carbon dioxide but for the infusion of private and corporate money into what we once called democratic (with a small “d”) politics.
In other words, the giant energy corporations that rake in tens of billions of dollars every quarter and whose lifeblood is the burning of fossil fuels are essentially capable of buying more or less anything they want in Washington. That includes continuing massive subsidies—via “your” Congress (via your tax dollars)—of their unbelievably profitable operations.
And what exactly can you buy? How many lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians can fit in your less than spacious pockets? Okay, you don’t want your world, and that of your children, hotter than Hades? That’s understandable, but tell it to ExxonMobil. It has money to burn and specializes in mobilizing some of those billions in profits to employ ranks of lawyers, hordes of well-organized lobbyists, klatches of politicians and even its own armed mercenary warriors. If the planet burns as well, so be it.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
Believe me, I don’t say this to discourage you in your passage into adult life. But who said it was going to be easy?
In large part, what I want to tell you has to do with the grade school principle that what goes up must come down. Consider for a moment just what’s gone up and what’s come down in our American world in these last years.
For more than four decades, in the United States—and possibly a good part of the rest of the world—money, income, wealth, moolah, it’s all been heading upwards, like migrating salmon, toward the top of society, toward the crew that only last year we started calling “the 1 percent” (Thank you, Occupy Wall Street!), although maybe the .01 percent or the .001 percent would be more appropriate terms.
That top 1 percent now controls at least 40 percent of American wealth. Meanwhile, with your student loans (something like 60 percent of you have them), many of you—in what used to be called the American middle class—are already essentially broke, and getting you this far, many of your parents are undoubtedly strapped as well.
It’s not a far-fetched guess that in the audience today are proud parents who lost way too much in the financial meltdown of 2007–08 and the subsequent bad years that show no signs of ending. Some are undoubtedly living in houses that are “underwater,” while their cumulative wealth (largely in housing)—to judge by the most recent figures we have—might have been cut by 40 percent. (If you are Hispanic or African-American, those numbers could look horrifically worse.) And as I’m hardly the first to say, there’s no one around with any intention of bailing you out.
Only the rich have made out like—and it’s a perfectly reasonable descriptive word—bandits. Thought of another way, over these last decades, your people bailed out their people and, ingrates that they are, they now have no intention of returning the favor.
Over those years, their wishes have become the political and legal system’s commands. After all, they have the money, Bain Capital–style amounts of it, to invest in keeping you where you are. They have the money to buy what matters most to them. You don’t. But who said it would be easy?
What goes up must come down, and the money that went up is now coming down big-time. If you want to understand American politics today, just look at the two presidential candidates zipping around like wind-up toys, hustling from one fundraiser to the next, begging the rich and powerful to pour money into their campaigns. What time could they have left for whatever else matters, including you, once they’ve done the necessary due diligence?
And the money? Wow! The predictions are that this will be by far the most expensive presidential campaign in history, with an estimated price tag of $2 billion or more. Just consider that the other day a single casino mogul wrote a check to one of Mitt Romney’s Super PACs for $10 million—and that was just an appetizer. Or consider that, in 2010 in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court guaranteed the future of 1 percent elections (as did Barack Obama, by rejecting the public financing of the last election).
So as those of you who would like to change our political system for the better leave this campus and venture into the “dark money” universe of American politics, don’t forget to bring your $10 million checks with you. Then again, no one promised you a rose garden.
For four decades, money—in the form of your parents’ tax dollars—has also been migrating upward into an ever-expanding national security complex, now so large it staggers the imagination. It doesn’t matter how you measure it—in new office space for the US Intelligence Community (the equivalent of at least twenty-two US Capitol buildings), in the number of people with top-secret clearances (heading for 1 million, with 4.2 million having security clearances of some sort), in the number of government documents classified annually (92 million in 2011), in the 30,000 people tasked with monitoring private American conversations of various sorts, in… well, really and truly, it doesn’t matter. Whatever your yardstick may be, the Complex now dwarfs its previous cold war iteration, when the United States was at least facing a major imperial power armed with nuclear weapons, not a couple of minority insurgencies and small numbers of stateless jihadis and jihadi wannabes.
It is now so much more powerful, so much farther above the law, so much less accountable, and so much more dedicated to perpetual war abroad and a perpetual national security lockdown at home than at any previous moment in your—or even my—lifetime. And of course, even a Pentagon and intelligence bureaucracy engorged on your tax dollars wasn’t enough.
In 2002, a second Department of Defense called the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was set up and, with more than 230,000 employees (who says there are no jobs?), like the Pentagon but in a smaller way, it was quickly embedded in its own mini-homeland-security complex, surrounded by crony corporations and the usual set of former officials and politicians as lobbyists.
And on that same up-down principle, across the country, often with the help of the DHS, specialized military-style training and weaponry are raining down on local police forces, which are being “weaponized” in ways previously unknown here. Some now have robot subs, tanks or armored personnel carriers, airborne drones, or super-sophisticated surveillance systems, the sorts of things with which you might normally go to war. Like the Pentagon and the DHS, they, too, are increasingly surrounded by sets of crony corporations ready to sell them more of the same.
And speaking of what goes up and comes down in the world of weaponry, for the last four decades, money’s been heading upward by the barrelful into the coffers of giant arms manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and various crony corporations like KBR and various mercenary outfits like Academi (formerly Xe, née Blackwater) through which American-style war has been so profitably privatized.
Their CEOs now tend to be in the top .001 percent of income earners who make more than $9 million a year (often way more). Whatever may be on the decline here, however much manufacturing has headed offshore, however much the middle class is going underwater, we Americans still turn out to be great at making things that go boom in the night (whether on screen or on the battlefield).
Just recently, for instance, in the worst of times, the US arms business has experienced a bonanza. With the help of the State Department, it set a 2011 record of $44.28 billion in arms sales to 173 nations (including some that State denounces as human rights violators). This was a rise of $10 billion over the already staggering 2010 figures (and keep in mind that they don’t include arms sales to other governments funneled through the Pentagon, which reached $34.8 billion in 2011). And 2012 has started off—excuse the phrase—with a bang. Those State Department–sponsored sales are already at $50 billion with three months to go in the fiscal year.
Betting on the Future
In other words, you’re about to head off campus into a world in which the concentration of wealth, power and war-making capability is unprecedented, at least in our time, and yet here’s the counterintuitive thing: at a moment when it looks like all of you couldn’t do less, this planet never needed you more. This country never needed you more. American politics never needed you more. We never needed you more. But it won’t be easy.
In societies organized in such a top-heavy way, who can be surprised when a bunch of kids head for Tahrir Square or Zuccotti Park to protest and the powers-that-be strike back devastatingly? Who can be surprised when demands, even requests, are twisted and shredded, when the world doesn’t turn on a dime the way it turns on $10 million?
Think of it this way, class of 2012: for f0rty years, they’ve been busily rigging the game, stacking the deck. Now, with their power at the ready and regularly on display, they would like you to think that you’ve got nothing going for you, that your only choice is to accept the world they have on tap for you on their terms.
What they don’t bother to mention is that you have the biggest thing of all going for you, the one thing their money can’t buy, their lobbyists can’t win over, their lawyers can’t negotiate out of existence, their politicians can’t legislate into passivity, their policemen and hire-a-guns can’t pepper spray or bludgeon into submission. I’m talking about the future, the one thing they haven’t a hope in hell of controlling. It’s yours at least as much as theirs, if not more so, no matter what they do.
Time and again, the future turns out to have its unexpected surprises, and no matter how our rulers prepare, they are invariably caught off guard. That explains the remarkable initial successes of both the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. However much money the powers-that-be can put out, the future’s surprises are their hell on earth.
Yes, of course, they can and will strike back, sometimes all too effectively, other times dumbly beyond belief. Give New York’s Mayor Bloomberg credit, for instance. (“I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh-largest army in the world.”) When he sent thatoccupying army into Lower Manhattan, he seemed to grasp that Occupy Wall Street was less a coherent movement than a location—and that if you ordered your uparmored legions to clear the place (or rather those places, since mayors, supported by the Department of Homeland Security, did this all over the United States), you would set Occupy adrift, as has happened.
Now, they are undoubtedly well prepared for Occupy II, as long as it occurs in more or less the fashion that the last one did. It’s your job to be prepared not for the last time around but for the next.
In the meantime, graduation speeches are, of course, vehicles for advice from the old to the young. Here’s mine. I can’t mainline into the future any better than anyone else, so I have no idea what Occupy movements or Tahrir Squares may (or may not) be lurking around the next corner or the one after that. In the meantime, my advice couldn’t be simpler: make yourself useful. And don’t be afraid to let yourself be used. As a book editor, I can tell you that being used by others and so useful to them is one of the better things in life.
Admittedly, on a planet that needs so much, that’s exceedingly small-ball advice. Then again,we’re small, even when we’re waiting for big things. So do what’s small, what’s around you, what’s possible, and while you’re at it, place your money on a future potentially full of surprises you d help to spring. Put it on the value of acting against the lopsided odds made in Washington and on Wall Street. And don’t spend your time worrying about what effect, if any, you’re going to have. You’ll probably never know.
Meanwhile, it’s still their world and welcome to it, class of 2012. The time has come to form into your serried ranks and ready yourself to cross the grassy expanse of this campus, head through those familiar gates, and out into an overheated, unforgiving world. Admittedly, by now many of you have already mortgaged your lives—$180,000 you didn’t have and may not have sixty years from now when you graduate into your grave. This is the living definition of a subprime education in an increasingly subprime country on an increasingly subprime planet.
So congratulations, class of 2012: it’s one tough world you’re walking into. When the odds are this lousy, stop worrying about them. Bet instead on the one thing they can’t control. It just could be yours. And while you’re hanging in there, waiting for what neither you nor they can even imagine, don’t forget: be useful. Help someone or something on this planet. You’ll figure out how and you won’t regret it.