As punishment for serving chunks of his sons flesh to the gods for dinner, the Greek demigod Tantalus was damned to stand for eternity in a pool of water. Every time Tantalus knelt down to drink from the pool, the water would flow away from his cupped hands. And every time he tried to pluck the fruit from a nearby tree, the branches would lift the fruit just inches away from his grasp.
Now imagine the pool of water and the fruit represent the severity of our current financial catastrophe, and that I, as Tantalus, am struggling to grasp the danger we as a nation purportedly face. No matter how much I try to connect with the sheer panic running through the media, I dont feel the same sense of dread I know I should feel in the face of what many are calling the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Its not that I dont try; its not that I dont want to wrap my mind around the potentially catastrophic consequences for me, the nation and the world. I simply cant.
So far, most of the coverage frames the problem in terms irrelevant to me as a college student. I believe many, if not most, college students feel similarly detached and disaffected from our nations economic woes. Its not necessarily our fault (though Im sure there are students who avoid current events like the plague), but the fault of those charged with the task of presenting the problem to us.
The media have panicked over the short-term effects of the fiscal crisis, but signs of these effects barely exist on campus. A plunging stock market, failing investment banks and scarce mortgages have little direct impact on most students. Stocks are the plaything of adults with full-time jobs who make enough money to invest some of it in Wall Street, not students whose sole financial goal is paying for college. Investment banks, too, hold (or held) the money of businesses and those who have the full-time income to invest. And aside from the sprawling 12-acre estate that I own on the other side of Lake Mendota, virtually no houses are owned by college students, so mortgages barely apply.
Meanwhile, in spite of the meltdown in the adult world of investing, financial institutions specifically connected to college students are doing quite well. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, credit union income statewide has gone up 17.2 percent in the last year. The UW Credit Union, one of the largest credit unions in the state, has been opening at least one new branch a year. This, unfortunately, only adds to the short-term and temporary insulation that students might feel from the current economic crisis.
Coverage of the crisis would be much more useful if it suggested broader long-term or local effects instead of squabbling over what or who caused the short-term mess. How will the entry-level job market be affected? Will local government lose funding, and what programs will they need to cut? Which specific industries could get hit the hardest? What are some ways to adapt to the looming dearth of loans? Answers to questions like these are slowly starting to trickle in. An article in yesterdays The Badger Herald revealed that Madison has already lost $500,000 from its budget due to declining investment revenue from the crashed market. Another article mentions that UW System chancellors will not receive pay raises this year. A particularly insightful article in the New York Times titled Lesson from a Crisis describes the difficulty we will face in getting any kind of loan if things continue their course. We need more of this kind of coverage and analysis; we can only understand the hazards we face and the steps we must take to prepare for them through such information.
Because even though I cant quite grasp the fear that permeates the newspapers and the Internet, I know I must keep trying. This is crisis that could easily rain down on all of us, not just those with a 401(k). Our entire financial system is crumbling from the ground up, everyoneis hurling the blame at each other like monkeys flinging shit in thecages of a zoo, but nobody knows how to fix it. Despite the majordebate over the bailout, nobody is really sure if or how it will work. During the presidential debates last Friday, neither Barack Obama nor John McCain could name any action they would take in response to the crisis, reverting instead to stump speeches filled with buzzwords like earmarks or alternative energy that they would have made even in the absence of a crisis. Frustrated moderator Jim Lehrer, his voice cracking with desperation, pressed them to answer the question, but to no avail. Things could get ugly fast, and we need to know where the shit will fly once its finished hitting the fan.