We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation’s sixth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue facing their generation. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-one states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Bryce Wilson Stucki of Virginia Tech University and Hannah Moon of Brooklyn College Academy in Brooklyn, New York. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. —The Editors
“The proper purpose of an economy is to secure just, sustainable, and joyful livelihoods for all.”
Bertie is among the poorest counties in North Carolina. It is known for severe racial polarization, failing public schools and underpaid workers suffering hazardous conditions at the Purdue Chicken plant. Its plight is the symptom of a global economy that has neglected many localities and spurned community wealth creation in favor of wealth extraction.
Recently however, Bertie has made broadband internet access available to its residents, installed computer labs in public schools and started a project to resurrect a farmers market in its largest commerce center (Project H). Projects like these shift the dominant paradigm of global capital flow, which has seen wealth and resources flow from the hands of communities and into the pockets of few individuals. My generation faces a corporate global economy that exists beyond the means of our planet and is disconnected from the needs of our communities. This economy has created hunger and need while destroying an abundance of common ecological wealth.
Margaret Thatcher’s famous response to the detractors of global capitalism explained that while it is easy to pinpoint a few problems with any system, there is simply no alternative to the liberal global market. Many economists born of the cold war era were eager to endorse her claim and add their evidence for the success of capitalism, often citing that it brought democracy to the world and freed nations from the tyranny of communist economies. They jumped to the conclusion that a McDonald’s on every corner of the globe meant resources were spreading and wealth was growing; they trumpeted a world run by multinational corporations and financial institutions like the World Bank and IMF; they strong-armed countries historically pillaged of their resources by colonialism to take on restrictive debt burdens and slash public spending through structural adjustment programs (applying the same formula to each nation of course, because the wisdom of the market is that it needs no personalization). These policies gave virtually unlimited power to the powerful. In a cruel twist, nations and institutions that became wealthy by stealing from the poorest areas of the globe were now hailed as the saviors that would lift the masses from their plight by making everyone just like them. Instead, they kept on stealing.
Today growing wealth inequality both within nations and across global political boundaries has hampered economic stability and democratic representation. Multinational corporations continue making record profits while people are left without work. Governments (under pressure from international financial institutions) have allowed companies like Monsanto and BP to externalize costs to the public, often in the form of pollution, which has left our environment on the brink of ruin and tax evasion which has drained collective wealth from citizens. This has left little public funding available for community initiatives, hampering the development of community economies and leaving populations fractured and disenfranchised. Corporate capitalism has reshaped the global order—transcending national boundaries, privatizing collectively owned resources and extracting profits from those with minimal agency. Its proponents simultaneously exploit old inequalities and create new ones.
My generation must take on the task of building strong community economies and re-establishing collective wealth for all people. This will advance equality and diversify our social and economic possibilities. We must create a space for community empowerment, provide collective tools for community development and change the playing field to nurture scalable, community-based economic connections. Creating structural economic change along the lines of the reforms mentioned above will not be possible through existing systems of political actions. It will require a groundswell of grassroots economic activity, and a breadth of government support to nurture this radical economic transition.
In the United States today, there are more than 300 worker-owned cooperatives that together generate over $400 million in annual revenues. While this is a sliver of the national economy, it represents a tremendous opportunity for galvanizing support and shaping further growth. In a recent interview, economist Joseph Stiglitz spoke to the growth of economic discontent in this country and described the growing swell of support for increased economic equality. He stated that “a successful economy requires collective action and wealth.”
It is time to challenge the story that paints us as nothing more than a society of self-maximizing economic units and rediscover the great wealth that lies in a living economic cooperation with each other and the natural world—time to fashion the type of economy that Stiglitz is suggesting. We must build community wealth initiatives that create equality, promote diversity and sustain our relationship with the planet we call home; we must stand on principle and build coalitions to demand a new economic future in which greed is not a virtue and sharing is not a sin.