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In our opinion: Independence and responsibility

Published: Sunday, Nov. 6 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Signs at Occupy Salt Lake City in Pioneer Park, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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RESPONSIBILITY, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one's neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star. — Ambrose Bierce, "The Devil's Dictionary" (1911)

Earlier this week the progressive online journal Salon attempted to harness the sentiments emanating from the Occupy movement in "A New Declaration of Independence."

Exuberance might explain the hubris of riffing on the title of the nation's most cherished statement of liberty. But only irony explains Salon's use of the term "independence" in the title of a document dripping with a deeply deterministic view of society.

Given the continued amorphous quality of the Occupy movement, Salon's manifesto may not precisely represent all the protesters, but it does seem to capture important elements of the Occupy movement zeitgeist.

"What unites the outraged 99 percent," says Alex Pareene, acting as scribe for Salon's staff, "is that we have all 'played by the rules,' only to learn belatedly that the game was rigged."

"Having been promised modest rewards for working within the system, by taking on debt or voting the party line, we find ourselves … out of luck."

According to Salon, the game was rigged because young people were told that higher education would provide them with secure jobs and class mobility, but all they got was a boatload of student loan debt. And it was rigged because families were promised that homeownership was the "world's safest investment," only to discover that residential real estate was part of an asset bubble.

In proposing massive debt relief, the document uses language like "We force mere kids to mortgage their futures," and, "It is not in the national interest to force the impoverished to become wage slaves."

You get the idea.

Understandably, anyone whose plans for economic security were upended by the financial collapse of 2008, and the jobless recovery is more than a little frustrated and fearful about the future. And some of that frustration is finding a voice in recent college graduates who collectively face one of the highest unemployment rates on record coupled with increased student debt burdens. One Wall Street Journal report indicated that 85 percent of recent college graduates are living with parents because they can't afford to live on their own.

But the underlying premise of the "New Declaration" — echoed in much of what we hear from the Occupy movement — that our economic woes stem from a system rigged by the top 1 percent who have forced us into indebtedness, is not only farfetched, but it is ultimately demoralizing. It tells those who are suffering that they are victims because they had no choices.

No choices? Really? Although the trade-offs associated with each of these choices may have been difficult, people had options in where to go to college, what to study, where to work and where to live. Only in some science fiction story could one envision the top 1 percent having the power (let alone the time or inclination) to coerce the 99 percent as they made those millions of choices.

Such fanciful thinking has consequences not only for how one understands the past but, perhaps more importantly, how one envisions the future. People, especially those who are hurting, need to know that they can improve their lives through effort, and they do have choices — even now. The fatalistic premises of the "New Declaration" can only add to frustration and fear.

This is not to ignore the systemic forces at play in our current mess. Our fiscal, monetary and regulatory policies, let alone our consumerist culture, encouraged indebtedness for housing and education. But does the mere fact of readily available credit absolve someone of all responsibility to evaluate the costs and benefits of taking on debt? Does buyer's remorse absolve someone of the responsibility to repay the money borrowed for the regrettable purchase?

And lest we sound like the accusing friends of Job, we acknowledge that far too many people suffer for no fault of their own. We all share an ethical responsibility to provide assistance to those caught in the demoralizing downdraft of impoverishment or illness. But even this need not be done by large, centralized organizations if it can be done as well or better by smaller and simpler organizations.

Genuine independence is about being free from broader influences. Empowering choice and genuine accountability in financial decisions can help individuals remain independent when broad financial hardship hits. And it is essential to help them return to independence should they falter. That is so much more satisfying than merely unloading responsibility on a star.

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