Friday, September 01, 2006

SPECIAL EDITION: Generation Debt -- Why Now Is A Terrible Time To Be Young, Words of Power Interviews Anya Kamenetz

SPECIAL EDITION: Generation Debt -- Why Now Is A Terrible Time To be Young, Words of Power Interviews Anya Kamenetz

“What would you do if you grew up and realized that everything America has always promised its children no longer holds true?
I am twenty-four years old, and I was born into a broke generation. I look around and I see people who have borrowed more to go to college than they can repay, who can’t find a good job, can’t save, can’t afford basic necessities like health insurance, can’t make solid plans. Their credit card bills mount every month, while their lives out on the first uphill slope. Born into a century of unimaginable prosperity, in the richest country in the world, those of us between the ages of eighteen an thirty-five have somehow been cheated out of our inheritance.”
Anya Kamenetz, Generation Debt: Why Now Is A Terrible Time To be Young

I recently had reason to walk across the campus of the University of California (Berkeley). Strolling the grounds of great academic institutions has always inspired me. And this sunny East Bay afternoon was no exception. But something strange did strike me. There was an undercurrent of docility in the atmosphere.
I remember the sixties and early seventies. I marched on Washington, DC numerous times, both to oppose the war in South East Asia and to support the civil rights movement at home.
I remember where I was, and what I felt, when Jack Kennedy, RFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. were killed.
There was turmoil and upheaval on campuses and ghettos throughout the country, and “the whole world” was “watching.”
I remember the courage of people like whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, FBI leaker Marc Felt (aka “ Deep Throat”), Washington Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee and US District Court Judge John Sirica.
I remember how the serious investigations undertaken by the Church Committee and the US Senate Watergate Committee helped to restore the balance (at least temporarily).
I remember the music, the paranoia and the exhilaration.
I remember believing that the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate had been learned.
But here we are…
Predicated on lies to Congress and the public, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, has led to a Mega-Mogadishu that has already taken the lives of over 2500 US military personnel and over 100,000 Iraqis.
The Bill of Rights, FISA and the Geneva Accords have been blatantly and wantonly disregarded.
And that’s just the beginning of a long list of abominations…
So why isn’t the Berkeley campus already electrified with resistance to the USA's disturbing slide toward a new Corporatism (i.e., fascism)?
Well, it isn’t as simply as apathy or selfishness or the absence of a military draft.
There are two contributing factors of great significance. One of them is reflective of a change for the good, and the other is reflective of a change for the bad.
The good change is that we have entered the Information Age. The messages that were scrawled in spray paint and silk-screened on posters in the Sixties and Seventies now adorn the World Wide Web. The political harangues that used to be blasted from loudspeakers in the lush green commons are now blogged and podcast in the digital world. Cyberspace is on fire with articulate, engaged young reformers and dissidents, you just have to jack in to feel their heat.
The bad change is that the harsh realities of the sell-out and sell-off of the US economy have hit college students and twenty-somethings harder than almost anyone else in our society. Today’s youth are focused on day to day survival and improving their very slim odds of success in life. They don’t have the time to shut down campuses or the money to make bail or the carefreeness to gamble their future careers on getting labeled as malcontents.
These ruminations led me to the work of Anya Kamenetz.
Anya, a young Village Voice writer, has provided some great coverage of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe (she grew-up in Baton Rouge and New Orleans), including recently:
When the Levees Broke: Hurricane Katrina unravels the threads of a fragile New Orleans society, 8-31-06
MY Truth about Baton Rouge, Huffington Post, 8-25-06
New Orleans' Housing Fiasco, Tom Paine, 8-25-06
She has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Salon, Slate, and The Nation.
Anya’s first book, Generation Debt: Why Now Is A Terrible Time To be Young (Riverhead Books, 2006) delivers both a poignant perspective on the dilemma that confronts today’s young people and a compelling analysis of its root causes.

Facts on the Ground for Generation Debt

Just as security, sustainability and spirit are interdependent, so are economic security, environmental security and national security.

Here are some excerpts from Generation Debt to give you some sense of the sweeping scope of economic security issues that threaten the youth of the USA:

Spiraling Tuition Costs: “An unprecedented explosion of borrowing has made up the difference between what colleges charge and what families can afford….Nearly a quarter of all students, according to a 2005 survey, are actually putting their tuition directly on plastic.”

Low Wages & Unemployment: “In 1970, remember, high school graduates entered the world of GM and $17.50 an hour. In 2006, they enter the world of Wal-Mart and $8 an hour. If they don’t have the money, merit, social connections, perseverance, and luck to get a valuable credential, they are shut out on the wrong side of an ever-widening divide between high-wage knowledge jobs and lower-wage service jobs….There are plenty of young people who flushed out of the school-to-work system altogether. A rising number of sixteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds in the ‘000s -- a record 5.5. million by 2002 – became officially “ disconnected,” not employed, not in school, not in the military.”

Increasingly Exploitive Labor Market: “In 2005, contingent workers were twice as likely as non-contingent workers to be under age twenty-five….In all, about 30 percent of American workers now fall into the various categories of alternative work arrangements, including contingent as well as freelance, part-time, independent contractor, an on-call work….The changing labor market is the fundamental reason recent grads have fallen behind….To a surprising degree, the jobs haven’t disappeared or been sent overseas. They have been downgraded into crap jobs.”

Soaring Health Care Costs & Shrinking Retirement Benefits: “We live in an age of what political scientist Jacob Hacker calls “ the Great Risk Shift,” in which individuals are compelled to take more responsibility for their own fate. Guarantees that over the past century were provided by employers and the government are being withdrawn. The only way for us to manage this raft of new risks is to plan better than anyone has ever planned before.”

Crushing Burden of The Federal Budget Deficit: “Tax revenues are at their lowest level, as a proportion of total economic output, since 1950…Well, the current budget deficits amount to skimming the wages of young people to fatten the wallets of today’s moguls. As low earners, with the lowest net worth of any age groups, we gain little from tax cuts or tax breaks on investment. We will however, be paying down the national debt with higher taxes throughout our working lives. And with most of our careers ahead of us, we will suffer more than other living Americans from the likely consequences of deficit spending.”

A Generational Dialogue

Here is a brief Words of Power interview with Anya Kamenetz:

Words of Power: The Bush-Cheney tax cuts, which gutted the surplus and plunged the federal budget into deficit spending, have exposed this country great harm in a world gone mad. But the deficit isn’t the only economic problem that has either been brought about or exacerbated in the past six years (e.g., the trade deficit, the weak dollar, the outsourcing of US jobs overseas, the bankruptcy bill, the cost of health insurance and student loans, etc.) But of course the big battles are about illegal immigration (largely a red herring issue when you contrast it to the impact of outsourcing) and the inheritance tax (which only impacts the super-wealthy). In this context, your book, Generation Debt, is an important one. In a few sentences give us a thumbnail sketch of the issues that people in their twenties and thirties are facing now and in their futures?

Anya Kamenetz: As America’s manufacturing base declined, the quality of the average job in this economy, and the average income for high-school graduates, slid off a cliff. So the premium on higher education has risen, yet at the same time, the cost of college outpaced inflation and federal loans replaced grants. Two-thirds of young people have no college degree and make up the bulk of the minimum-wage workforce. The lucky college-educated third has nearly flat income compared to their counterparts in the 1970s and $20,000 in average student loan debt. Whatever their class or education level, all young people face a far greater exposure to risk than in the previous generation: averaging $3-$4000 in credit card debt by age 25, unaffordable housing, over half now have no health insurance for some period in their 20s, and most have no pension plan. Meanwhile, looming, is a great demographic shift and a record national debt, both of which have the potential to hurt our earnings and increase our lifetime tax burdens. And I haven‚t even gotten to the environmental threat that casts a shadow over all of our futures.

Words of Power: I have been thinking a lot about corporate culture, and what it expects of people. In particular, it expects that no one will voice opinions on social or political issues (e.g., opposition to the war in Iraq or calls for divestment from anything related to the genocide in Darfur) that might stir controversy, or on any view on the life of the corporation itself which is at variance with its own official version (e.g., rosy press releases that omit news of layoffs). This silencing of all dissent allows for the creation of a world of denial. Noam Chomksy once observed that if you want to understand totalitarianism that you should study the modern corporation because it offered a much more insightful and relevant example than that the history of the former Soviet Union. What I am getting at here is that the extraordinary economic duress and insecurity that young people are facing today coupled with this pervasive corporate culture that discourages all free-thinking and dissent creates an atmosphere in which many are not only intimidated about speaking out about global warming and the need for corporations to go green, but are tempted to not even look for fear of thinking or talking themselves into a place were they will lose their job or their chance at advancement. Does this concern resonate with you? Is frustration with this corporate culture I describe something you have come across in your research?

Anya Kamenetz: The irony is that the 20somethings I talk to are so underemployed that they're not embedded enough to feel oppressed by corporate culture. They know they could lose their jobs tomorrow regardless of what they say or do. One man I interviewed had been a temp for 10 years, and he said that remaining a temp allowed him "to distance myself" from the corporate mentality, and to say, "okay, that's not me." And yet it was that same distance--the “temp” label--that allowed the companies he worked for to pay him so little and not offer him benefits.

Words of Power: Spinning off of this issue of a corporate culture that promotes and cultivates denial, let’s discuss the news media. Five corporations own most of the media in this country. The number of news outlets, the budgets of news organizations and the airtime allotted to real news has all been slashed. On 8-17-06, US District Court Judge Anna Diggs Taylor ruled for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and against the Bush-Cheney regime in the NSA domestic wiretapping case, and saying in effect that Bush violated numerous laws for several years, including the Bill of Rights and his own oath of office. But that historic ruling was buried under an avalanche of 10 million stories (literally) about John Karr’s “ confession” in the Jon Benet Ramsey case. Now we find what anyone listening to Mike Malloy on Air America the first night would have heard, that this story was a hoax. What are your thoughts about how people in the twenties and thirties perceive the mainstream news media? Is it credible at all for them? How reliant are young people on alternative news media? How sophisticated in their selection of sources are they? Do people you talk with understand that they are not getting real news from network and cable? What do you think about new media like Internet radio or pod casting or Al Gore’s Current TV? Will the power of alternative media increase as people in their twenties and thirties take on more influential roles?

Anya Kamenetz: Young people can be very well informed, but selectively informed. Television news does not matter to us whatsoever unless we need to follow a breaking news story, like Katrina. Most educated young people I know get their regular news and commentary from and/or NPR (either listened to at home or in the car or downloaded to an iPod), and then often stories or short videos e-mailed around by friends. New Yorkers often subscribe to the Sunday paper, as well. If they’re real news junkies, on top of that they may check a couple of blogs a day, they may read one or two print publications like the New Yorker or the Economist, and they may watch the Daily Show. The source, be it mainstream, extreme, local, national, doesn’t really matter except for a few trusted brands, and the medium really, really doesn’t matter. The “alternative media” label doesn’t really make sense to us since we came of age in the time of high speed Internet. What you do by getting your news this way is you learn to be a critical reader, and one thing all my friends have the natural ability to do, is hit Google and hit Wikipedia and get comprehensive in-depth background information on any news story we like. I was discussing the Israel-Hezbollah war recently and my friend, not at all a news junkie, said, “Hezbollah has an amazing flag, and the slogan is this,” which was something he had researched on his own, not something they’d show on Fox News.

Words of Power: After the 2004 election ended in the debacle of Ohio, and Kerry who had sworn to fight rolled over, it occurred to me that there was an entirely different agenda that needed to be put forth, an agenda that really had nothing to do with ideology or 20th Century thinking of any kind. From my perspective, there are four overriding priorities: election reform, campaign reform, media reform, and sustainability. Neither major political party would cite these four issues as even in their top five priorities. Why? Perhaps because they would turn over the trough at which the pigs (to borrow Arianna Hufffington’s metaphor) have been feeding for so long...My view is that these four issues, i.e., election reform (bringing US electoral system into compliance with internationally accepted standards), campaign finance reform (publicly financed campaigns to end the legalized bribery of the lobbyist culture in D.C.), media reform (if not the break up of the existing monopolies at least an end to further consolidation and a return to the Fairness Doctrine), and sustainability (a nationally mandated initiative to move to renewable energy resources within an accelerated time frame) trump every other issue...If our society could deal with these four issues, we would elevate our public discourse, renew our democratic institutions and guarantee the flourishing of life and prosperity, then with vibrant public discourse, healthy democratic institutions and a healed environment, all of the divisive hot button issues (e.g., abortion, gay marriage, illegal immigration, etc.) would work themselves out. My hunch is that although, as I mentioned, neither major party understands what is wrong with in this way, many people in their twenties and thirties do see this issues as central. Your thoughts?

Anya Kamenetz: I have to put sustainability at the top of that agenda since it is not just a national issue, but an international human issue, and really both the history and the future of Western civilization are at risk here. A large percentage of the young people I’ve talked to over the past few years would agree with that and have environmental issues close to their hearts. Also, I think in order to heal our democracy we may need to face a common enemy that big. I am not sure how many twenty-somethings or thirty-somethings have the issues of campaign reform, electoral reform, or media reform at the top of their minds right now, although record numbers of us volunteered in the 2004 election and were sickened -- not to mention suspicious -- at the results.

Words of Power: It is, of course, the first anniversary of the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. Both of us have written about this tragedy, I have written about it from the point of view of a security professional, you have written about it from the point of view of someone who grew up in New Orleans. For me, Hurricane Katrina revealed several important truths: it demonstrated the imperative to come to grips with the security implications of global warming and climate change, it highlighted the inhumanity of the Bush-Cheney philosophy of government, and it underscored the plight of the poor and the urgent need to achieve the UN Millennium Goals, both in the US and throughout the world. What would you like to say about this first anniversary?

Anya Kamenetz:All that you’ve said is absolutely true. Katrina was a bellwether for the rest of the country. Everyone in the world who came near a news report was absolutely horrified by what they witnessed take place last year and throughout the year, the continuing and blatant betrayal of public trust, the threats posed by nature, and the sheer human tragedy. “This can’t be America” has been the refrain throughout the year. Well, this IS America, and if people don’t take a hint, this will one day soon be all of America. Yet the most powerful lessons I have personally taken from this event have been about people’s resilience. The residents of this city, including my close friends and family, went through their own London blitz, and they came through it with all the gallantry, charm and compassion historically associated with that disaster. I have been constantly surprised by the extent of people’s determination to rebuild their lives with so little effective help or leadership. The result has been that I no longer fear the worst-case scenarios that threaten our country’s future. Instead, I am more focused than ever on thinking about solutions, because for people in dire straits, apathy and pessimism are luxuries we can’t afford.

Other Special Editions:

SPECIAL EDITION: “The More Nefarious Form of Corruption is That Which is Legal” -- Words of Power Interviews David Sirota

SPECIAL EDITION: “Until this issue is burning on the mind of every citizen” -- Words of Power Interviews Mark Crispin Miller

Richard Power is the founder of GS(3) Intelligence and His work focuses on the inter-related issues of security, sustainability and spirit, and how to overcome the challenges of terrorism, cyber crime, global warming, health emergencies, natural disasters, etc. You can reach him via e-mail: For more information, go to

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