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Living in Borrowed Times

Communities are facing their personal debt—while learning why we can no longer fund economic growth by borrowing from future prosperity.

One of the last times I saw the late historian Howard Zinn, he had agreed to serve as a judge for a contest.

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.”

Dump the Debt, photo by Dave Morris

Photo by Dave Morris

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 Borrowed Times.”

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.

Moldova, Photo by Stelios LazakisSharing the Good Life
Research shows that what the healthiest and happiest societies have in common is not more income, but more equality.

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 like?

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.


Chuck Collins auth pic

Chuck Collins wrote this blog for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical solutions. Chuck is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies where he directs the Program on Inequality and the Common Good. He is co-author, with Mary Wright, of The Moral Measure of the Economy.

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