I remember a quiz in a late 90’s issue of Seventeen Magazine, the purpose of which was to tell you where you fall on the political spectrum. By that time, I knew I was a Democrat because I was pro-choice, non-religious, and in favor of social programs and environmental protection, but took the quiz anyway. After all, that was one of the fun parts about that magazine. One of the questions asked what the scariest thing would be for us to hear the president say. I don’t remember what all the answer choices were, but my choice was, “We are at war”. This was years before I joined the Army, years before 9/11, years before I got my own front row seat to my generation’s war. I don’t remember anything else about that quiz, but I remember that that one question seemed like the biggest no brainer to me. What could ever be worse than a war?
I maintained that view for a long time. I’m a member of Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War, because war is disgusting, and we had no reason to do it in this case. I’ll always believe that. I will never forget the day my battalion received orders. It was cold and rainy, and the roof of the motorpool building where we were ordered to formation was leaking onto my head. My First Sergeant stood at the front of the formation, and told us we were going, and that it would be soon. I remember thinking I had expected better of our country than this, to start a war for oil. Who does that? My Commander in Chief was George W. Bush, a man I did not vote for and disagreed with on nearly everything, and now he was sending my generation off to die for rich men’s bank accounts. Of course, my battalion would be handling the engineering support for this ill-fated endeavor. In that moment, and the years that followed, I could not imagine we could sink any lower than that.
That has changed. 2017 makes George W’s war seem quaint by comparison. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit older now than I was when the war started, or because I have more to lose now than I did then, but it feels like the interests of the people are truly at odds with the goals of the government now. There was always disagreement before, but this is different from that. The biggest mistake people are making right now is drawing a false equivalence between what’s going on at present, and things we didn’t agree with from past administrations. There is nothing in our recent history that compares to the current state of affairs.
The economic changes alone are enough to keep a person up at night. Many of us, me included, will fare worse under the new tax plan than we did under the old one. I am in a position where loss of a deduction makes a real difference. I make enough money that I don’t qualify for most tax credits, and that my student loan payments are fairly high for the amount of the loans. Yet, I make little enough that in order to buy a house that fit my family, we had to move to an outer suburb, and I’m seriously considering keeping my car for years after it’s paid off because the idea of not having a payment is more attractive than the idea of getting a new car. If it’s like this for a working structural engineer with a good job, then what the hell is it like for everybody else? Most importantly, what’s it going to be like in a few years?
We all grew up hearing stories about what our great-grandparents had to do to get through the Great Depression. It seemed like ancient history. It could never happen to us. Even when the recession and market crash of 2008 put our gas prices through the roof, and drove up the cost of nearly everything, we figured that was probably as bad as it could get. Plus, Obama fixed all that. I remember driving from Statesboro, GA to Austin, TX for less than $50 worth of gas in 2013.
I am scared of what will happen if the economy crashes again. We cannot use the skills our grandparents used to get through the Great Depression because we are living in a completely different world than they were. Families are spread far apart, most people know more people online than they do in their own neighborhood. Far fewer people grow food or produce anything than did so in those days. We’re a service and data economy, not a production economy. If we fall like they did, we’re going to fall a lot harder. With the way wealth is being shifted to the super rich and away from all the rest of us, it’s when, not if that happens, unless something changes fast.
This is far scarier than the war was. War, as we know it in the US, stays far away. We fought our war in other people’s backyards, and while I’m in no way proud of that fact, my kids, who experienced this alongside their father and me, were largely shielded from the ugliest parts of it. “Mommy served in the Army as an engineer, just like she’s an engineer now. She built stuff.”, “Daddy is far away fixing airplanes.” We never felt they needed to know about good guys and bad guys, especially since we didn’t particularly believe in the mission, so we kept it to the fact that sometimes grown-ups have to go away to do their jobs, but they’ll come back. There was no need to burden them with the scary parts when they were young.
This economy is different. I can’t shield them from it, and that scares me endlessly. I became an engineer so that they would have a better life than I did. I worked really hard to get to a place where I could support them in such a way that they would have a nice house to grow up in, good clothes to wear, plenty of good food to eat, and a college education they didn’t have to go into debt for. When I was a kid, people whose parents were engineers got this. My kids don’t get that. They do have a good home. They do have good clothes and food. We’ll help them all we can with college, but will it be enough so that they don’t have to go into debt? I honestly couldn’t tell you. And all of this, for how long? Today, tax restructuring and loss of net neutrality, with its own set of dire economic consequences. Tomorrow, what else will they do?
If I could answer that Seventeen Magazine quiz today, I would say the scariest thing the president could say is, “We are going to rip up everything about the economy that was working for the people, and start over again.” because that’s basically what they did, and I have no idea how we are going to recover from this, but I know that we have to.