Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I Owe My Soul to the Company Store

 "You load sixteen tons, what do you get
   Another day older and deeper in debt
   Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
   I owe my soul to the company store"
("Sixteen Tons", Tennessee Ernie Ford)  

This morning I had a conversation with one of my coworkers about various social and economic issues affecting the US currently, and it dawned on me:  Our capitalist society is the equivalent of the truck system era, where employees of factories and mines bought their necessities from the company, using company scrip that they were given in lieu of wages, and lived in company-owned housing.  That was a form of debt bondage - the workers could never leave because they could never save any money. 

Likewise many of us today can never stop working for the banks that hold our debts.  We're all slaves trying to buy our way to freedom, because we've bought into this American capitalism:  Own a house, own a car, send your kids to college.

How did we get here?  What happened in America that made us think we have to have all this stuff - and go into debt to get it?  In other parts of the world most of the population doesn't own homes.  Many countries have no mortgages.  If you don't save enough money to buy a house, you don't own a house.  If you live in an urban area you rent a flat.  You don't have a bathroom for every member of the family, and the kids might have to share a bedroom.  Your flat isn't big enough to host a party of 40 people, you don't have a backyard or a garage or even any built-in closets.  And people presumably don't sit around feeling like their lives are incomplete because they don't have granite countertops in the kitchen.. 

There are some European countries where higher education is free.  That's right, you don't have to pay $30,000 a year to go to college, let alone have student loan debt for the rest of your life.  I don't know what kind of limits those countries set on who can get a university education, but I do know that not everyone goes to university or is expected to go.  Somehow in the US we've reached a situation where we think a university degree is a requirement to get a job, any job.  My own opinion is that a lot of the current emphasis on getting a degree is encouraged by banks that give student loans, because those are guaranteed sources of income for them.  It was determined by the financial institutions that not paying off your student loan is a high crime, because there's not much you can do to escape it besides die - and I'm not sure even that will free you.

Of course, the biggest difficulty of all is the way our political system has responded to this situation by giving up our modified representative democracy in favor of treating corporations as people.  As long as politicians pay more attention to what the corporations want than they do to what their constituents want, we won't see any improvement in our debt bondage.

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