Friday, October 07, 2011

Youth to world: we can do better (Sunday Reflections for October 2, 2011)

Young people are upset and angry with their government:
“We elect the people’s representatives so they can solve our problems, but that is not actually happening. Corruption is ruling our country.”
“The political system has abandoned its citizens.”
“We don’t think they are doing anything for us.”
“We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”
While easily understandable in our own political context, none of these quotes come from Americans. Rather they are the words of young adults in Spain, Israel and India, quoted in a New York Times story, “As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge around Globe.” Young people throughout the developed world are saying what is obvious, but which has been largely ignored until now: that the global financial crisis is the result of a political crisis. For hundreds of millions of citizens, democracy is failing.
The financial crisis is bouncing around the world like a soccer ball: from Iceland to Ireland to the US to Greece to Spain to the US to Japan to Greece to the US to Italy to Greece to . . . . Most of the world’s industrial economies are awash in debt. Normally this isn’t a problem—until it is. Debt is all about confidence. I loan you money on the belief you will pay be back eventually. But we are running out of confidence and now debt is a hot potato. Nobody wants it and it just gets tossed around.
People are losing confidence in more than just international finance. People are losing confidence in their governments’ ability to govern. That’s what the protests that have occurred this year around the world are about, both in Western democracies and in authoritarian countries. The Arab Spring uprisings were certainly due to declining economic opportunities. Yet it took young people, raised in the “open source,” freewheeling culture of the internet and popular music, to boil over in frustration and topple their autocratic elder leaders.
Earlier this year, Great Britain was caught off guard by the sudden irruption of riots and looting in cities across the country. Leaders dismissed the mayhem as simple hooliganism yet everyone knew it was more than that. The recent cutback of government social services was taken by many poor and unemployed young people as yet another brush-off by their country’s political and economic leadership. The frustration and rage was random but not without cause. As British author Owen Jones said, “The young people who took part in the riots didn’t feel they had a future to risk.”
In his 1863 Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln famously defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” More and more people seem to doubt the reality of all three of these phrases.
Democracy is never perfect. There are always suspicions and accusations that some group has acquired undue political power and influence. Yet never have such claims been made from people around the globe, and all pointing in one direction. In short: the process has been bought by the rich and powerful; the game is rigged.
The current “Great Recession” is different not just for its length or depth. Its most glaring anomaly is its inequality. Statistical reports around the world all show that the economic elites have come through this economic collapse virtually unscathed. The disparity of wealth and income in the United States is the greatest it’s been since the 1920s. It is no surprise then that the one sector of retail sales at or above pre-recession levels is luxury goods. (The ultimate symbol of luxury, Rolls-Royce, is on track for a new sales record this year, so far up 64% from 2010.)
In all of this the most incredible story has been that of banking and financial services. Recklessness, greed, incompetence, and fraud by the companies of this sector are recognized as the primary cause of the 2008 financial implosion. Yet they were infamously “bailed out” at the height of the crisis and there have been only a handful of prosecutions of company leaders. Salaries and bonuses are as outsized as ever. Government officials have defended this as protecting a critical part of the economy. Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Wall Street behemoth Goldman Sachs, infamously said his business was doing “God’s work.”
The past couple weeks a small and somewhat disorganized protest has begun to “occupy” Wall Street. Relatively insignificant thus far, it may signal a new phase of disillusionment with the power elites of this country, especially by young people. What is more evident is their rapidly growing dismissal of the political process. A brief rise of enthusiasm for the Obama candidacy has quickly deflated. The gridlock and farcical shutdown battles in Washington have renewed their view that the democratic process has become a joke. They see the shrill ideological battles as sideshows to distract people from the growing economic inequalities that have become the norm.
If, as expected, young people stay away in droves from the 2012 ballot box, this should only be taken as a grave warning. If their frustration with a failing economy and lack of opportunity is not expressed by voting, it will be vented elsewhere. History has shown again and again that gross economic imbalances always lead to social instability. No society is secure or can prosper when few of its members believe they benefit from it or that their contribution to it is fairly rewarded.
So I will send a fire on Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD… because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way. (Amos 2)

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