The realities of the good life in the USA
Well… After moving back to the USA on 15 May, 2011, I feel like I have a pretty sophisticated impression of the effects that living here has on me, even if they are not the same as for everyone else. To be honest, I’ve been pretty lucky. I’m on track to have my masters completed a week and a half from today (probably less, since I am talking about the day I started writing this), I have met a few incredible friends and a lot of exceptional passers-by in New York city, and I was one of the first in my masters program to receive a job offer in NYC.
Then again, I’ve gotten a ticket for an open container for drinking on my fire escape, been ticketed hundreds of dollars for speeding on my bicycle, and spent a night in jail for my involvement in the Occupy Wall Street protests (although I absolutely cannot consider OWS to be anything but a positive part of my life).
Due in part to the OWS arrest, Columbia has told me I was not eligible to graduate twice, though I still am. I’ve been banned by the department of education from teaching in New York, though, due to a variety of loopholes and appeals, I still am.
The City has been good to me. Or better to me than a lot of people. Though anyone who has tried here knows that making it is a little bit bitter-sweet. You give up a lot on your way.
I don’t think, though, that these are uniquely the effects of life in New York City. Rather, it seems like they are pretty likely to be side effects of western society as a whole, and particularly, the manifestation of western society in the Untied States. We might refer to this phenominon as representing life through capitalist ideals.
Anyone who knows me well will tell you, I can be a bit of a harsh person. When asked about old friends who haven’t seemed to be going anywhere or moving towards their goals/ideals over a significant period, I’ll say that I am worried that they are failing at life. Having taken literally years of time to backpack in different parts of the world, this might sound a little bit ironic, but I see that education as very much connected to my goals of continuing to understand the world, connect with it, and develop as an educator and an activist. I see this as a strength.
But, even for someone with standards as high as my own, there are people in my life whose passion, drive, and work I deeply respect. Unfortunately, under the current framework of our society, it can very difficult to get close with other people who are very good at my craft. After all, we have been trained to compete. The road to success lies in most effectively balancing the highest quality output with the greatest speed, reliability, and efficiency.
Beyond the short term effects of this competition, working towards employment or whatever else, there is one really broad phenomenon: the way our society is structured, that road, or battle, never ends. We never arrive at security or stability or success, we just make it to the next phase of our struggle, and then keep fighting. And this is how a system as exploitative as that of the United States perpetuates itself (as a side note, this is why neoliberal forces in many countries with more public institutions and social support are pushing to change that reality).
For example, the typical, self perpetuating life of a bourgeois in the US:
- Complete primary and secondary school. If these schools are going to prepare an individual to be a critical thinker with doors open to them for their future, this school will be expensive: it will either be private, with a substantial price tag attached, or in a “public community school district” in a community that is socioeconomically selective.
- Snag a Bachelors Degree: This one is a prerequisite. There are a few detours from this path. Military service might be mixed into, or come before, university membership (as an officer, of course, as the upper classes of our stratified society rarely enter the lower ranks of the military). Whether public or private, the cheapest this degree is likely to be is about $50,000 US dollars (though $150,000 is much more typical). Loans will play a part in attaining this degree. Loans that make it increasingly hard for young people with degrees from the US to be employed abroad or compete on a global scale, since we are essentially saddled with an extra rent check every month: a sort of mortgage on our intellectualism.
- (Possibly) Snag a Masters: Tack on another $60-80,000 in debt. In a growing number of fields, particularly in major urban centers, people are virtually unemployable if they don’t have this all important graduate degree. The more elite the institution, the higher the price-tag. But, we are told, access to employment (and therefore the ever-elusive carrot of “security”) lies on having this piece of paper and bit of what is quite often guided reading of literature that could be attained for free.
- Start working: At the end of our formal education, numerous responsibilities shift onto our shoulders, quickly destabilizing our vision of what security might look like. For example, an income of $55,000 USD per year in New York City is about $36,000 after tax. After typical loan repayment, at the very minimum payment level, this is 26,000. Rent and living costs in New York City, at minimum, with a lot of roommates, no TV, and limited heat, is about 18,000 dollars. Alright, you say, that’s a surplus of $8,000. But let’s reflect. If you want to have a child, you need to be able to save up to help with its education, with its healthcare, etc. At this rate, you will take about 25 years to pay off your student loans, so if you’re planning on having a family (as our society pressures us to do) you better put that extra 8 grand into investments, a savings account, or making extra payments on your loans. More on this train of thought in the next section, The hoarding effect.)
- Keep Working: This is a big one. In the United States, if you stop working, a lot of things happen. Suddenly you don’t have access to healthcare. Neither do your children. So a year off to travel, six months to get your life together (unless it is for a “government approved” reason like substance abuse treatment, though you will probably loose your children for this, anyway), or anything other than full time employment are pretty much out of the question. This continues until you are 65 or 70 and have enough money hoarded (again,see below) to retire and hope that your pile of money doesn’t run out before your time on this earth does. Since there is pretty much no helping you (you little burden on society, you) if it does.
- Retire and die: See above. You better be sure your investments hold out, and that enough is left over to pay for the funeral that will cost tens of thousands of dollars, lest you be a burden to your family.
The hoarding effect
But let’s get back to that $8000 dollar surplus from our “start working” section. That’s a pretty good chunk of money. It could build more than 10 houses for victims of violence in Central Africa. It could provide capital or life saving medical treatment in areas of the world where lack of access to these resources routinely results in death for those people deemed “less important” in the grand capitalist scheme of things.
But at the end of the day, the vast majority of people with access to this chunk of money (and an even more vast majority of people with access to bigger chunks of money) decide to keep it. And because of the way in which our economy is structured, inflation essentially forces us to give our money over to major banking institutions or risk it losing value (well, losing even more value than it will when given to the bank). Often, this involves using it to the advantage of the upper class in this country. So it ends up invested. With the good investments of our society. In case you are wondering, green energy isn’t a good investment. Companies like Chevron, Monsanto, and WalMart are. Because those are the companies that the US government, and the economic culture it fosters, will reliably continue to support.
It’s something of a tough conundrum. In order to be even remotely free to use this cycle, one is seemingly forced to claw their way to a position of relative “security” within the petit bourgeoise. Then they might be able to save enough money to go travelling or wandering about for a period of time.
But in the process, they are expected to become imperializers in their own right, invested in a system that is consuming not only the freedom of others, but also their own.
The American Dream. This is what it’s come to. Or, if we are being a bit more honest, we can point out that this is likely what it’s always been.