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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Civics lesson for today—pay attention

We don't call it civics anymore, but maybe we should, as in civic engagement, which is just another way of describing how to get people to think about the decisions made by their leaders and representatives and how those decisions broadly affect all aspects of their lives. One example is welfare reform, which has had the unintended consequence of impacting everything from crime to education. But that's for another post. Today, I'm thinking of banking deregulation and the havoc it has wreaked on housing, credit markets and Wall Street. One word keeps churning in my brain—greed. Not just corporate greed, but also governmental greed and our own greed to own more and have more.

The Washington Post (and The Plain Dealer) has a good analysis on the conditions that led to this storm and what it means for our checkbooks. Essentially it means now we REALLY need to start living within our means. Greed is not good.

Are the lessons of a financial industry run amok going to hold? Not unless citizens engage in learning a bit about the impact of sweeping changes such as deregulation. So I'm reading all of these stories in an effort to better understand how it happened that so many learned men and women could not foresee the long-term impact of unbridled greed. But as a friend said earlier this week in relation to another greed-driven scandal, greed trumps intelligence.

What say we learn something this time around, maybe something that will prevent us from falling into the same Gordon Gecko trap in another 10 years? I'll confess that I'd much rather be reading about immigration or education than the finance world, but this has such an impact on my household that attention must be paid. There's an interconnectedness that is ignored at our peril.

I'll confess that over the past 10 years we borrowed too much against our house and now our mortgage payment is higher than it should be. Sure our home has appraised higher, but both my husband and I doubt we could get that price if we put the house on the market (which we won't). We accept responsibility for our financial position. For the past few years, we've worked hard to bring down our debt and live within our means. It's very difficult and means a lot of sacrifice for us individually, but also as a family. I have to believe that it will pay off in the long term.

Maybe we can do better by our children in understanding those connections than we've done for ourselves. We talk to them often about the cost of things and why putting it on a credit card is not wise. They see us shop at Aldi because of the value not necessarily the quality. They hear us stretch things like buying new shoes, clothes or haircuts over several paydays. But there are other connections to be made, broader more historical connections that these are situations that have been repeated over time when we lose our bearings and get lost in a sea of wants. Attention must be paid lest we forget again the stress of living buried in debt.

I tweeted this morning that my high school sophomore is learning about the 1920s stock market crash and the ensuing Depression in history class, while also discussing the current Wall Street mess in marketing class. Hooray for education that actually connects the dots and makes learning relevant.

Here's a thought for today courtesy of Benjamin Rush, one of the first advocates of public education and a signer of the Declaration of Independence:
"There is but one method of rendering a republican form of government durable and that is by disseminating the seeds of virtue and knowledge through education."
That applies to adults just as surely as it applies to children.

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