Tuesday, September 30, 2008

On the house that greed built:

Several months ago, I began thinking about writing a post on the dangers of credit and how it has allowed the values of homes and tuition to get so out of whack. Well, I’ve been busy and haven’t gotten around to it, but now it must be said. Yesterday the Dow fell more than 700 points and I just know we are living several dismal paragraphs in my grandson’s history text book.

Aces and Kings are dropping off the teetering house of cards that is our economy, and the politicians and the financial analysts and the Wall Street moguls want us to shore it up.

Yes, I am outraged that they are telling me—a law abiding, hard working, barely middle class single mom-- to mortgage my child’s future to bail out people who’ve been proudly and happily stealing from us and undermining our economy in ways they understood much better than I can-- even now. But I’m against the bailout for an even more important reason. I’m not an economist, but it has occurred to me that our economy’s basis in credit may be a major reason for the development of the chasm of inequality that divides the haves and the have-nots in this world. By shoring up this untenable system, we may be unwittingly perpetuating the oppression of the majority of the world’s people and missing the only opportunity in generations to undo it.

Think about it: could the price of a “starter” condo in a city neighborhood reach $300,000 without credit? Could college tuition rise to a similar level? Before borrowing for school was widely done, my parents worked their way through, and on the other side, their wages were their own. I will probably be paying down my education debt (at the rate of over $300 a month) for the rest of my life. And in comparison to recent graduates of private institutions and to those who attended medical or law school, my debt is downright tiny. Having this debt at the very beginning of one’s adult life often means incurring even more debt to own a car and a home. It can mean building up large credit card balances to fulfill daily needs.

Credit may allow us to do lots of wonderful things. It also allows us to live beyond our means, and to pay interest on the debt which increases the cost even further. It allows the prices of things to go up disproportionately in regard to our salaries and for us to continue to believe we can “afford” those prices. Meanwhile, the masters of the universe who run the companies which supply the credit, make greater and greater profits. Relative to them and to the cost of living, we become poorer and poorer.

We may as well be indentured servants--even slaves-- to this credit economy.

Now our masters have driven the plantation into the ground and they want us to rebuild this tool of our own oppression by borrowing against our future and our national security. I say, “Enough!” A house of cards reinforced by still more cards will fall just as easily and with a greater flurry.

I have no doubt it will be hard to quit the credit habit. The next few years may necessitate changing The Great Depression’s moniker to “Great Depression I.” But if there is any promise of freedom from debt and equal opportunity on the other side, I think it will be worth it.

Since I doubt the vast majority of the people will agree to go cold turkey with me, I have a back up proposal. Any money the government puts into the crisis should be used to bail out the individuals who were sold bad loans, rather than the rudderless companies who sold them. If we’re going to intervene, let’s make sure we intervene on the side of the innocent.

Friday, September 5, 2008

On an organizer for our American community:

The other night, instead of telling us what their candidate plans to do in office, Republicans Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin chose to mock the significant life experience of Barack Obama.

They seem to have contempt for community organizing. What is it they find so contemptible? The people of our national community? The fact that, with the skilled guidance of organizers, those people are more powerful than any politician or any one party will ever be?

I spend my days (and sometimes my nights) working to raise funds and friends for an amazing group of skilled professional organizers and about 75 teenage organizers who work for the Hyde Square Task Force in the Roxbury and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods of Boston. I work so hard to support them because the work they do is unique and essential in our community. Last fall, our youth used sophisticated organizing tactics like identifying targets, power analysis, utilizing the media and negotiation to persuade the mayor and school superintendent of Boston that they should add a dynamic civics class to the city’s high schools. This summer, the youth labored with 2 curriculum writers and the head of history and wrought the curriculum they believe will make all students of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) as thoughtful and active as they are.

As a former BPS teacher myself, I can tell you that these “kids” have accomplished more meaningful reform in one year than BPS, and indeed, the federal government has in more than ten.

As someone who has seen first hand the results of community organizing on an inner city neighborhood, I can say that organizing is, in fact, the perfect preparation to be president at a time when reform is so sorely needed. Unlike lifetime bureaucrats, who tend to become part of the problem, community organizers come from the outside, analyze the problems, determine what the community needs—what the people need—and then set about strategic action and negotiation to help the people get those demands met. Good organizers are able to get people fired up; a leader who makes moving speeches about hope and the need for change is exactly what helps mobilize the power of the people to make that change.

No, organizers don’t have responsibilities-- to lobbyists or special interests or even to themselves. In fact, their greatest responsibility is to the people with whom they work. It’s not the positions they’ve held that prove their worth—it’s the skills. They understand how to navigate complicated political terrain—how to bring opposing parties to the table. I believe these are exactly the qualities we need in a leader today.

Yes, the Republicans show a great deal of contempt for great Americans like Barack Obama who do tough, selfless, essential work for little compensation, but I’m not sure that’s what they really feel. It's possible that contempt masks a fear that a President Obama might help bring about changes to a status quo that’s pretty good for the fat cats who run the Grande Olde Party.

How happy are you with how things are today? With the help of a few good organizers, some good people, and a great president we might just be able to change them.