Living in Borrowed Times
Institute of Policy Studies
Communities are facing their personal debt—while learning why we can no longer fund economic growth by borrowing from future prosperity.
Originally published in
Yes! Magazine, 5 March 2010
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
One of the last times I saw the
late historian Howard Zinn, he had agreed to serve as a judge for a
In June 2008, the Nation magazine published a special issue on the New
Inequality that I helped to co-edit. We proposed a contest to
“Name Our Epoch." “Historians divide history into epochs,” we
wrote. “The Gilded Age and the Great Depression, for example, are
familiar to most Americans. Our current epoch, however—a period that has
seen soaring grand fortunes for a new American superrich and a fading
American Dream for nearly everyone else—lacks a label.”
We received over 3,400 submissions and waded through them. Our
panel of judges, Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich and Walter Mosley,
wrestled with hundreds of finalists. But the name they chose—note this
is before the economic meltdown accelerated in September 2008—was “The
Howard Zinn said the label was perfect: The Borrowed Times “reflects
the economic reality that the illusory wealth and prosperity of this
time is built on borrowing from the future. People and governments are
borrowing at unprecedented levels, but we are also borrowing from the
earth’s carrying capacity.”
In the curriculum for start-up Common Security Clubs, we have
a unit inspired by Howard Zinn called “Living in Borrowed Times.” It is
one of the places where club participants face our personal debt,
whether student loans, credit cards or mortgages. We also learn how the
celebrated consumption and growth of the last epoch was built with
borrowed money, not real wage growth.
We also watch videos, like “The
Story of Stuff,” and discuss articles that help us understand the
ecological crossroads where we are.
The takeaway lesson is this: We are NOT going back. We’re not
going back to 2006 or 1996 or 1966.
A healthy economic future means we’re not going back to past levels
of borrowing and debt. Wall Street and the phantom
wealth creators would like to revive the debt bubble economics that
they benefited from. But we should reject this economic model.
We can’t go back to a model of economic growth based on unlimited
cheap energy and dumping tons of carbon into the atmosphere every day.
And we don’t want to go back to an economy that produces extreme
inequalities of wealth and opportunity.
In common security clubs around the country, participants wrestle
with the questions: What does it mean to live in these “borrowed times?”
How do we prepare ourselves and our communities for the economic
transitions ahead? How will we live? What will the new economy look
One thing we know for certain: none of us can figure this out alone.
That's the value of forming clubs, affinity groups, neighborhood
groups—we need to strengthen
our kinship networks in order to sit face-to-face and grapple with
the practical questions of the future. In most common security clubs,
people learn together, help one another, and take social action
together. But most important, they face reality together, refusing to be
lulled to back to sleep.
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