I attended a small soiree last week at my University (I suppose the proper word is a picnic—but that sounds so Midwestern). At one point, there were 5-6 of us (faculty and students) talking, and the delicate subject of student debt was introduced. A very charming women, wife of a faculty member, mentioned several local organizations that teach and advise college kids how to live within their means. One student added that he visits several websites daily that offer advice on spending habits. The conversation soon turned to how students get into debt as well as the use and abuse of credit cards.
After listening to this interesting conversation, I immediately inhaled 4-5 hot dogs and pondered the discussion (no actual connection between the conversation and my gluttony though).
Anyway, here is my problem with the entire student debt issue. While it isn’t a bad idea to help young people with money management, maybe we need to inch a little closer to the real problem—the source. Maybe we should teach about capitalism first—about the absolute desire and need of the capitalist classes to exploit these kids, and why the American system works that way. Maybe if my naive students knew more about the system they are about to become part of, they would have a better understanding of why college costs are so high, why salaries are so low, why the job market looks so bleak, and why they are getting unsolicited credit cards in the mail every day!
But what we tend to do in this country is blame the "undisciplined spender" even though the entire structure is organized to get money from these students and saddle them with lifelong debts. Let's not fool ourselves, it's planned that way! Many of my students are spending $20-25,000 a year for their college degree. And that price rises each and every year. What kind of job should they expect? You all know the answer to that—the pay will not be very good. In fact, most of my students are going to be burdened with heavy debts for years and years.
And while they are building up these debts, they still get credit cards in the mail—what a great country this is! These kids are also bombarded with capitalist cues to buy…buy…and buy even more. They all have cars and all the electrical gadgets one can imagine. But I guess that is the point of capitalism, they keep making products we don’t need, and we keep buying those products—while slipping further and further into debt.
Yet our Puritanical society too often views debt as a personal flaw. And then when I say negative things about capitalism (which happens often), my students generally take offense. They have been taught by their conservative parents that the system is just fine—individuals screw up. But of course they can get help—they can learn how to control their spending at some seminar. We continually hide our heads in the sand and support this corrupt economic system that only benefits the rich.
Maybe we should start telling our young people about capitalism and how flawed it really is. Let’s go to source of the debt problem instead of expecting them to feel shame. American capitalism is putting these kids in a real bind—and they still refuse to acknowledge the culprit. They still blindly accept the system and spout ridiculous crap about our freedoms and what a great country we live in.
Teaching them about the evils of capitalism will do two important things—it will help them understand exploitation and how they are a necessary part of it. And second, maybe they will be able to understand the primary systemic problem—that capitalism needs to keep forcing people into debt, and it needs a blind obedience from a generation of young spenders to stay alive.
Maybe we can kill it someday—but we must get these young spenders to understand how they are aiding and abetting the monster.