Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Outrageous Today, the Norm Yesterday

Odds are, I had more student loan debt than these kids do, yet I never thought to ask to have it "forgiven".  What has changed in the last 20-30 years?  The system, or people's expectations?

In a series of recent posts, I noted that what seems an outrage to today's generation was quite the norm for my generation and earlier.   What sort of things are we talking about?

1.  Traffic Tickets:   For the young and poor these can be devastating financially, yet these two groups drive the fastest and most recklessly.   When I was young, there was no talk about "indexing" traffic citations based on income.  And we knew that when you got a summons to go to court, you didn't just blow it off!   For some reason today, this is an urgent debate.  What changed in the last 20 years to make this a raging injustice?

2.  Student Loans:   Many students are graduating with what they consider massive student loan debts and no way of paying them off.  I have heard people - with a straight face - say they are "burdened" with $25,000 in student loan debts.  I had $38,000 in debts, from 1992.  I paid them off.   While there are some folks who are indeed graduating with more than $100,000 in debts, they are generally people getting graduate degrees.  Moreover, these debts were assumed voluntarily by people smart enough to go to college.    Granted, in the far distant past, people went to college and their parents paid the tuition and room and board - as was the case for my siblings.   But back then, only rich people sent their kids to college.   Why are these debts an outrage today but not an outrage when I graduated in 1992?

3.  The Economy:  For some reason, we are told that the economy today is the worst ever, and that the generation graduating from college has it so much worse than everyone else.   Inflation is less than 1%, Mortgage rates are about 4%.   Unemployment is about 6%.   These are good numbers, compared to when I graduated and inflation and unemployment were running 10% and mortgages were 14% or more.   Our parents had to deal with the Great Depression and a World War.  But to hear it told by young people today, we had it "easy".

4.  Getting Arrested:   Not too long ago, when you were asked to "Step out of the car and put your hands behind your back" you complied, because the other fellow had a gun, and your realized he would shoot you if you didn't - and be justified in doing so.  Today, an arrest is supposed to be a chance to negotiate with the Police and try to talk them out of arresting you.  And if you resist arrest and start fighting, the Police are supposed to just let you go.

5. Consumer Debt:  People run up debts, often with odious "e-z pay" consumer loan agencies.   Whiles these places charge scandalous amounts of interest, their practices have been well-known for decades now.   In the past, you'd be called a fool for borrowing money at 30% interest.  Today you are a victim and are profiled in a weepy story in the newspaper.

6. Drug Busts:  Kids have been "set up" by cops in drug stings since I was a kid.  Since they are stoned, they end up falling for these obvious cons.   They get busted and often face long jail sentences.  In my youth, it was the "Rockefeller Drug Laws" - today it is Mandatory Minimum Sentences.  The net effect is the same - and the consequences are well-known.

* * *

The list goes on and on.   For some reason, kids today are outraged when everything doesn't go their way.   Have things really gotten that bad, or have young people changed over time?

I am beginning to think the latter.  When I was a kid, you got spanked, or even whipped, when you did something wrong (sometimes by a teacher!).   Mess around in school, and you got detention, suspension, or expelled (I did the trifecta!).   There were consequences to your actions, from your parents, your school, your employer, or the government.

Today?  Less so.   Spanking a child is considered child abuse and on a par with breaking his arm or even  murdering him.    Schools can't suspend or expel a child without expecting some protracted and expensive lawsuit from the child's parents - as well as media attention as to "the injustice of it all!"

Perhaps it is just my perception, but it seems that "kids these days" are pampered, coddled, helicoptered, and laden with praise (often undeserved) all in the name of promoting "self-esteem."

We've raised the drinking age to 21, and some propose raising the driving age to that level.  We have infantilized an entire generation.  Adults, who once would have been given onerous responsibilities, today are treated like little children -well into their 30's.

And this is not the kids' fault.   I am not blaming these young people, but the environment we have created for them.   Children today are fawned over in a manner that previous generations never had.   When I was seven years old, I was allowed to ride my bicycle several miles to the candy store, with other kids, to buy candy.   Today, parents don't even let their kids wait for the bus by themselves, lest they be snatched by kidnappers.

So consider the plight of the middle-class adolescent today.   He's been told he's "special" since the day he was born, by his parents, well-meaning teachers, and the bumper stickers on his Mom's car.   And he's been given a staggering amount of bling, his entire life - a computer, a game system, a smart phone, and of course, his own bedroom and bath as well as a brand-new car.   Children come to expect a certain level of comfort, and get upset when it is taken away.

For the first 18-22 years of their lives, pretty much everything they do is consequence-free.   High schools pass kids from grade to grade, lest they feel the wrath of outraged parents.  When kids fail, it is the teacher's fault, not the child's.   And if you think I am kidding, I have seen this, in person, more than once.   I have been treated to the long-winded treatise by the outraged parent about how their stupid child flunked fourth grade because of a "bad teacher" - all the while the kid flies around the room on his seventh Mountain Dew.   The parents and the child are not to blame - someone else always is.

So, these kids graduate from college.   They had a good time, as they expected to.  They took easy classes and got a useless degree.  And they lived the high life, racking up student loan and credit card debt.  Now real life kicks in, and it sucks, big-time.  

Suddenly, there are rules and consequences and it seems all so "unfair".   After all, whenever they got into trouble before, the parents bailed them out, or someone else or some other entity could be blamed, right?   Whatever it is they did, they cannot be at fault, right?

To some extent, I saw this pattern as I lived it in my own life.   My life wasn't quite as pampered as middle-class kids today.  I had no computer, no game system, no cell phone.   I drove a series of junkers in high school.  I did get a van when I went to college, as I was a GM employee and got the employee discount.  But I did have to work in a factory, and in some respects, that was the best thing that happened to me.   I learned at age 18 that I needed to get serious and be taken seriously.   My compatriots, going to "regular" colleges, were going to frat parties and learning to act silly and stupid.

But when I left college and started a life of my own, I remember the outrage well.   Suddenly, everything I did had consequences and often expensive consequences.   Borrow money?  You gotta pay it back, with interest.   Get a speeding ticket?  Your insurance goes through the roof!  

The techniques I developed as a youth for dealing with adversity (crying loudly and decrying "It isn't fair!" and throwing a tantrum) didn't work as an adult, and in fact, they often made things worse.

Needless to say, this wasn't a lesson I learned overnight.   It took a long while, and I started to get an inkling of the things my parents were trying to teach me but were not able to.  Life isn't all about Rights, but also about Responsibilities.

As I have noted before, the epiphany came when I was 25.  I realized that the road I was going down wasn't going to end well.   Continuing to behave irresponsibly and indulging my every whim (with as much as I could afford and borrow) wasn't a winning solution, even though initially, it seemed that I was getting lots of "stuff" and getting into altered states as often as possible.

It took a decade or more to figure out.   And I am still figuring it out as I go along.   What I discovered, over time, is that you have to pay attention to things more closely, because if you don't, you end up screwed big-time, and no one has any sympathy for you (the subject of my next posting).  Your bank balance, your credit cards, your investments, your driving habits - everything.   Because there are consequences to screwing things up, and no one to blame but yourself if you don't pay attention.

I think the kids today are going through what I went through as a kid - only on steroids.   When I was a child, we were treated a little more indifferently.   While we were told to get good grades in school, this "everyone is special" nonsense wasn't practiced.   We were allowed to fail and get bad grades and be told, "No, you are not on the honor roll".   We didn't have these staggering amounts of after-school activities that kids have today.  And if we did, we took the late bus - mother didn't shuttle us around in a mini-van with juice-box holders and a complete entertainment system to amuse us.   Kids today are chauffeured in a manner than the Billionaires wouldn't have known, in the past.

So what's the answer?   To some, it is to continue this trend - to keep giving young people a "get out of jail free" card.   Ran up student loans?  We'll forgive them!   Got a speeding ticket?  Skipped a court appearance?   No problem, every first Thursday of the month is "amnesty day" and all tickets are settled for $15, and you get a discount with every third ticket.  Unemployed?   Hey, it isn't your fault you majored in something stupid and got shitty grades.  It has to be Wall Street and those rich people!  Over-extended on a mortgage on your mini-mansion?  No problem, we'll just adjust the balance of your loan!

The first problem with this model, is that it keeps training the neural network that is your brain that easy answer are always available to any problem.  And when people seek out easy answers, they often get ripped off.  The second problem is that such "get out jail free" deals are unfair to other people who acted responsibly.   Moreover, why should a "rich" person pay $500 for a speeding ticket and the "poor" person pay $50?  Are we "indexing for income level" or just punishing rich people for being rich?

And when society provides easy answers, well, people live consequence-free lives.  Well, they do, that is, for a while.   But there are forces in this world - forces of nature even - that cannot be denied through legislation.   Eventually, people have to face consequences for their actions - or inactions.  You get a parking ticket, you have to pay the fine, or it doubles, triples, or quadruples.   You run up a debt, you have to pay it off, or a nasty collection agency will come after you.  No one can be completely insulated from consequences.   Well, if they were, no one would obey traffic laws anymore, and no bank in their right mind would lend anyone money.

The idea that someone eliminating consequences for our actions will solve these sort of problems, is appealing at first.   But then you realize that down the road, it only creates more problems.   And you realize that the reason why people are outraged today by things we took for granted in the past is that today, people are leading relatively consequence-free lives for the first two decades of their existence.   

They get into their 20's and suddenly the rules have changed and no one told them about this.  Mommy and Daddy won't intervene with their employer the way they did with the High School Principal.  Suddenly it all seems so "unfair" and they throw a temper tantrum like a small child - and that is all these "Occupy Wall Street" protests were, a temper tantrum that accomplished nothing, other than to make the participants look like fools.

I suspect that most of these kids will go through what I went through - just as my elders did when they morphed from Hippies to Yuppies.   Even my dirty stinking Hippie brother eventually realized that sleeping in an unheated barn in the middle of a Vermont winter in some sort of "commune" was really going nowhere fast - although the got the memo a lot later than most (today he drives some sort of Jumbo SUV Tahoe, according to his last voicemail.  The circle is unbroken).

This transformation, however, will be painful and protracted, just as it was for me, perhaps moreso.   It takes a long, long time to realize that you can't always have your way, and that "unfairness" is part of life, and that throwing a fit isn't solving anything.   A long, long time.   And the more one is coddled and the longer one is coddled, the harder and longer this process will be.

So, we are not doing our kids any favors by raising the drinking age to 21.  We are not doing them any favors by telling them they are all "special".   We are not doing them any favors by shielding them from consequences of their actions.   In fact, by doing all of these things, arguably we are being cruel by giving them the false impression that life is just easy street, and if you holler loud enough, everyone else will do what you want.   In a way, it is bully training.

But you'll pardon me if I don't think the latest outrage-du-jour is really an outrage at all.   Not when I was faced with the same situation and had to face the consequences myself.