Monday, November 19, 2012

Revisiting Deer Hunting with Jesus

Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting with Jesus remains one of the most influential books I have read.  A recent conversation with a colleague to whom I recommended this book has led me to revisit it again. When I first read this book, I wrote the following in this blog:
Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War – This was by far my favorite read of the summer. It is not, necessarily, about deer hunting or religion but is about the ironic circumstances that bring members of the downtrodden working poor to believe that they are middle class. Author Joe Bageant returns to his hometown of Winchester, VA to find that his neighbors have lost ground economically since he grew up in the late 60s. He documents how the working poor tend to tirelessly support the government and economic institutions that have in fact kept them poor. He decries the predatory lending practices of mobile and modular home financing that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to gain real wealth through home ownership. The writing is humorous as well as insightful.
 The truths Bageant revealed in this book were unveiled after the stock market bubble of the early 2000s but before the terrible impact of the housing bubble, and now, the student loan crisis.  If Bageant thought we were in the middle of a class war then, he should see it now!  The problem is, most of us don't realize we are fighting on the wrong side of this chasm and vote to maintain the status quo that created the problems in the first place.

Of all the ideas in Bageant's book, I am most concerned with the impact that the predatory lending practices have on our younger generation.  Those who preach personal responsibility will say that young people should have known better than to take out loans to put themselves through college.  They should have known, not to finance extras with credit cards.  I disagree with these points for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, the idea that every student should acquire a college education has been drilled into us more deeply than the Ten Commandments.  Educators, business leaders, government officials have told students and their parents that higher education is the only way to get ahead, and fortunately, there is money available to help in the acquisition of that goal.  Students must attain that goal at all costs if they hope to have a secure future. What no one predicted or disclosed is that we do not have a job market to accomodate all these highly educated individuals,  who thus graduate with costly degrees only to find work in the local mall as a sales associate.  Being a sales associate does not pay those higher education loans.

Next, high school graduates lack the real-life experience to comprehend the significance of the financial decisions they are making.  In their innocence they have no way of knowing that they have been fed a string of lies about what it will be like to pay off these loans in the face of real-world job prospects.  No one honestly believes that they will not succeed and get a job with decent pay.  No one has told them that a JC Penney sales clerk with a college degree is paid on the same scale as a high school graduate.  Now tell me, who comes out ahead in terms in real wealth in that scenario?

Finally, I, as a seasoned consumer and citizen who has been around the debt-trap block a few times, have fallen prey to the lure of easy money and buying on credit.  All is well until those terms of credit change.  Fortunately I have had the knowledge to work out my debt responsibilities in a way that I can live with,  I am meeting my responsibilities, but if I were not able to, I could bow my head in shame and declare bankruptcy.

Students or former students with student loan debts do not have this luxury.  Student loan debt is cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, no matter the situation.  Wages can be garnished, tax refunds seized.  There is no way out for too many of our college grads.  They have no light at the end of this tunnel. "Taking responsibility" for their actions is a hopeless endeavor.

So back to Deer Hunting with Jesus.

Bageant proclaims that the Scotch-Irish tradition of our upbringing has kept us Appalachians from looking for government assistance.  We spurn handouts and look down on those who have made a career of accepting and expecting them.  We do have a true stubborn pride that allows us, as much as possible, to be self-sufficient.  We help our neighbors and look after our own, but we don't look at this practice as assistance so much as we call it "the right thing to do."  We take personal responsibility to ourselves in our everyday lives and help our neighbors in a crisis.

But this idea of taking responsibility prohibits us from lending helping hands from those we feel refuse to help themselves.  I am as guilty of this as any.  I roll my eyes in disgust when I see the condition of a neighbor's house down the street or when I see one of his immediate neighbors mowing his overgrown lawn.  I am wrong to do this.  There is a problem that I can't see, and personal responsibility has nothing to do with it.   The same is true for many of us who blanch at the idea of forgiveness for those with student loan debts. But if we want our economy to survive it is necessary.

When the student loan crisis comes to a head, we must insist not on bailouts to banks as was the response to the mortgage crisis, but actual forgiveness of student debt.  The government may have to pay the banks as it did in the mortgage crisis, but this time the actual debt must be forgiven.  This will allow the debt-ridden young adults to actually begin contributing to the economy, as they will have some spendable income.  The CEOS of the banks that invented the crisis should not again be compensated with tax money for their Pied Piper roles. Yes, the taxpayers will be paying for someone else's debts, but consider it an investment if you can't consider it "the right thing to do."