A Message for My Generation:

He’s a fab guy, but he isn’t going to fix the horrible things we’ve done to our society and our species.

We have a lot of shit to do. Our nation’s balance sheet stands somewhere in the region of -$50 Trillion. With a ‘T’. That’s over $10 Trillion in federal debt, about $10 Trillion in state and local debts, $20 Trillion in cash borrowed from the Social Security and Medicare trusts to fund war and corporate subsidies, and well over $10 Trillion in consumer and commercial debt.

The point is, we owe a shitload of money. Our society has been living on its credit cards for a generation and the party is over. Asset-price bubbles can no longer support this fake wealth, exhausted Chinese and Russian workers can’t keep paying us to buy their cheap plastic junk and hydrocarbons, and now our parents want to retire, and they actually expect that they’ll be able to liquidate all that wealth they’ve tied up in stocks and houses by selling them to us kids who are weighed down with more student loan and investment debt than any other population in history.

Most of the debt our society is carrying was run up by those same parents who now want to spend a few decades spending even more money that they’ve accumulated by investing debt. And they taught us well: in a few short years, if we don’t change our ways, we’re going to have more invested debt and consumer debt than them, in about a quarter of the working lives. Now that’s what I call ‘leaving your kids well off’, assuming you mean ‘off’ the way mafia bosses do.

It’s time we grew up. We need to be adults. We’re in charge now. The ‘baby boom’ is about to voluntarily give up control of our society and we need to step up to the plate, and not only take the reigns, but turn around and be the disciplined, frugal, austere parents to them that they never were to us. It’s time to take this country to a great big debtor’s anonymous meeting.

We must be prepared to work our asses off. The log hours we work now will continue, and the workplaces we now enjoy will become slimmer and more austere. No more video games or climbing wall. Cubicles and used 15-inch monitors all around. And we won’t be working long, dedicated years to invest in Google shares and retire at 45. No, we’ll be working until we die at the desk. Because we let this world get this way.

And we must be prepared to work this hard for less money. Even if our pay doesn’t go down, I guarantee we will be paying more tax and spending more on food, clothes and transit. Deal. Our money isn’t worth much since we inflated our debt down as far as we could. Chinese plastic pumpkin makers are getting paid as much as us now, and Bengali weaver women are earning enough to feed their families. We can’t have $5.00 shirts anymore. The oil-intensive agriculture we practice is going to disappear as our oil runs out, so a lot more human labor will have to go into that food we eat. Be prepared to start paying minimum wage or better to the millions of humans that will be replacing the billions of hydrocarbon slaves that have been making our food for 75 years. We’re going to be so broke.

And yet we’ll still have to pay lots of taxes to get our governments out of this crushing debt. And we’ll still have our own credit cards and mortgages to pay off. And we’ll have to pay it off, because every time we pay them down a little, the banks will be lowering the credit limit, stranding us in max-out land until we give up the habit permanently.

And we will also have to start saving money, because we will no longer have access to much credit. Investment will be about putting your savings toward a hard good that retains its value, not about speculating on assets that have no realistic and rational way to hold wealth for decades.

Add all this up and it is clear: we must spend decades scaling back our standard of living. We will never have the quantity of ’stuff’ our parents had, and everything we have will be a store of our own, personal labor, and it will have to last.

We must be savers. We must consider wise taxation and prudent government regulation a form of saving. We must look to our local governments and local communities for many of the services and funds we currently rely on the feds for. We’ll be settling for a lot less from our government so that they can put a lot more of our (higher) taxes toward paying off our war debts and infrastructure debts and finally fixing the crumbling roads, bridges, and buildings we’ve ignored whilst we’ve been blowing up or expatriating our wealth.

We’ll have to localize our lives. We can become involved in our local communities and municipal governments and ease the fiscal burden of hordes of paid professional bureaucrats. We can ease our schools of bond servitude by home-schooling the youngest children and putting kids to work as soon as they are able, rather than coddling them through their mid-20s like our parents did. We can care about and invest in our public schools and universities rather than wasting our money on private schools and indebting the next generation with student loans.

We can become involved in our neighbors’ lives and ban the homeowners associations that destroy more communities than they create. We can support one another and care about one anothers’ lives. We will then expect less from local and municipal government and ease their need for federal transfers, keeping federal money dedicated to the federal debt. But we’ll also be paying much higher local taxes, due to the massive debts which will go unfunded by federal transfers as local governments try to cope with energy shortages and devaluing assets.

We’ll need to support local businesses, because large companies will stop moving to our cities. New factories and plants will not be enticed to move every few years as building materials become prohibitively expensive and municipal and state governments so strapped (and creditless) that the generous incentives they’ve ladled on corporations for decades will cease to exist. But those businesses that are already there will become cash cows because their existing scale will make them the most able to pay, and they won’t be able to move away anymore.

Basically, the shiny future your parents taught you about was the future they wanted, but were too spendthrift to make real in their own lifetimes. Now we need to clean up their mess and stop ourselves before we make one of our own that’s even worse. It’s gonna be hell.

The world won’t end. We won’t starve (provided we stop playing ostrich in time). But things will never be the same. We can’t ignore the signals being sent from every corner of the planet, whether coming from peak oil, empty mines or oceanic dead zones. Ignoring it will mean the end - the real end.

Charismatic and humble leaders will be a great asset in the journey ahead. But they are not the answer by themselves. If they think we aren’t up for the task, they’ll do their best to maintain the status quo until the total crash comes. Let’s rise to the challenge, clean up our lives, balance our books and learn to live lives that don’t have to be existentially threatened 100 years from now.

Forget the sob stories of our parents and grandparents. We’re the greatest generation. We can continue to be the innovators, provocateurs, and challengers to the status quo, but we have to act, and we have to take charge now, while we have time on our side, and leaders that can listen to us because they’re a part of us, finally.

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