I just heard about Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-somethings Can’t Get Ahead, via the Oregon Bus Project‘s dandyslick email list. My response to most of the reviews I’ve seen and the quick facts on the site were “Oh good, I’m not completely insane.” The author says this is happening to 60% of people my age, which jives well with what I’ve observed. Among my group of friends maybe it’s a little less, as I would expect given the number of techies.
But this terrible, knee-jerk, straw-man review from Slate sums up a broad alternative response pretty neatly in it’s subhead: “Twentysomethings who can’t stop whining about how the economy is screwing them.” How bad is it, really? Click for the extended entry…

The thing about credit card debt, which is one piece of this puzzle, is this: for some of us, the revolving cycle of debt never gets that bad, but it never goes away completely either. Which means we’re sending at least a few dollars and sometimes more than that, every month, to some giant credit card company, which is in turn funding the races of candidates that make it increasingly more difficult to get out of debt. Is that whining? I find it genuinely frustrating.
Apparently though this is a really easy topic to be dismissive of – especially if you’ve arrived at a certain level of comfort yourself, as the Slate interviewer admits too. It’s so easy to say “oh people are just whining,” or, like my Dad said when this topic came up, “it’s always been like this,” even though for him it was “like this” on one salary at 40h/wk, not two at 50+ hours per week per person. The flip side of this coin here is, “well look at the truly poor in this country, look at the Katrina victims, those are the people who really need help.” Or you could even go further, as a conservative I was talking to recently did: “the poor in this country have it great to the poor in central America or Africa or India. That’s who we should focus on!”
But the mistake here is in trying to separate these groups out, in trying to untangle the crazed messiness of how the global economy really works. This is the classic mistake of a dualism-based worldview. Reality is “no cuts,” but to get our heads around a big problem we try slicing it into pieces, which ends up just making a mess. The question shouldn’t be about who is really suffering and who isn’t. It should be how we design an economy that works for everyone, because that is truly the only way to broadly relieve the suffering at whichever level it’s occurring.
But aside from this, I’m curious as to why people are so quick to dismiss these issues, when the data clearly backs them up as being real. Lakoff says when the facts don’t fit the frame, the facts get tossed, not the frame. This is a textbook example.
Where did people’s thirst for improvement in the economy go? My theory is that this is one of the huge wins of the conservative movement. This is how “The job of the conservative is to stand athwart history and yell stop” plays out in people’s everyday mental landscape. This idea that the economy can’t get any better, coupled with the destruction of people’s faith in the institutional expressions of democracy, are the twin pillars of getting people to think conservative. Undoing these thought patterns, reminding people that things used to get better and that it’s no big mystery as to why, is going to take a lot of work.
Tthis, in turn, is why “progressive” is exactly the right word for this moment, not liberal. This moment is about restoring a sense of promise, about moving things forward again. Progressive is exactly the right word.