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HOUDINI Magazine

Erik Houdini

The Mirage of Prosperity - A Reaction to the Student Loan Verdict

We stand today at the precipice, teetering on the edge of an empire’s twilight. We are, it seems, in the fire sale phase of the United States of America. Picture it, a gigantic neon sign hung haphazardly over this great nation, flickering and sputtering out the words “going out of business, grab your deals before it’s gone”. The sentiment is palpable; it's clear that our nation seems to have given up on providing a future for its citizens. It's a feast of exploitation, with the main course being late-stage capitalism.

The evidence is clear to anyone who cares to look. In a land where dreams are supposed to flourish, there are now close to a million homeless people. While the HUD officially reports around 600,000 homeless people in America, one only needs to take a cursory glace at how homelessness is defined to see that number is skewed downwards.(Source: HUD) For instance, those staying in motels are not considered homeless nor those able to live with a friend longer than 14 days, or those sleeping in a tent at a paid-for campground. Additionally there are hoops one must go through to even be "declared" homeless. Even still, that's not just a statistic; it's a damning indictment, reminiscent of the bleak, destitute landscape painted during the Great Depression. And yet, what's the refrain we hear over and over again? The economy is booming, the stock market is soaring! However, this chorus of jubilation rings hollow, as wages plummet and job security becomes a fairytale. It's a landscape that even I, in my relatively fortunate position, have noticed. My salary has dipped below what it was five years ago, and my friends are not even that lucky. Jobs are being slashed left, right and center.

The puppeteers of capitalism pull the strings, skillfully crafting a narrative of neoliberal gaslighting. But the stark truth cannot be disguised. Our living conditions are not improving; they are spiraling downward. I recall a conversation with my mother, a conversation filled with lament about how "everything has only gotten worse since we decided to have children in the 90s". The undercurrent of despair in her voice resonated with me. This is the new working-class reality, a reality of deteriorating conditions and evaporating hope. The widening chasm between labor and its fruits is leaving more and more people feeling alienated.

Just a few days ago, the Department of Education thoughtlessly tweeted out the suicide hotline. The irony was not lost on me. We were all bracing for a court ruling on student loan debt that was supposed to provide some relief. But the ruling came, and it was a hard blow against any hope of relief. It felt like a resounding slap to the face of the working class, as if we were being spat on and then told to appreciate the rain. Our country has become a mockery. Our president, both seemingly oblivious to the suffering and deeply implicit in it, rants about ice cream while declaring the economy to be the best it's ever been. Meanwhile, those of us who are not yet in our 40s understand that we're stuck in the lingering hangover of the 2008 recession. We find ourselves entrenched in an economic quagmire unseen since the days of Steinbeck. It’s a situation that’s only set to worsen, as those at the helm continue to perpetrate the myth that everything is fine.

But this despair is not limited to the economy. We're also staring down the barrel of an ecological genocide, which is systematically ravaging the natural beauty of our planet. All for what? The continued pursuit of profits for the elite few. The reality is, I couldn't care less about the price of TVs when people close to me endure unending pain due to the healthcare system's failings. They're denied the care they need because of the greedy machinations of insurance companies and the neoliberal politicians who back them. We're being asked to give a fuck about 3000 dollar Apple Ski Goggles that can VR project images of what the planet looked like before unchecked capitalism ruined it? Get the fuck outta here dog.

I remember when I lived in Austin years ago. My commute to my third shift job took me through some of the city’s grittiest areas. This was before they reinstated the camping ban and forced homeless individuals further into the shadows and into our prison slavery system. But here’s the thing: the grim reality of Austin wasn’t an isolated incident. That stark disparity of wealth and poverty has become a ubiquitous sight across America.

I recall an instance, just a few weeks ago, at a Circle K store. There was an older woman, maybe in her late 60s. She was resting outside the store in the searing heatwave, only to be dragged away by four policemen. Her crime? Taking a moment to sit down. The absence of benches, parks, or any semblance of public rest space made her act of simple respite a criminal offense. This scene is representative of a chilling question: Are we meant to turn a blind eye to this? Do we pretend that this is the new normal?

As I walked away that day, I wondered how the mother, who was at the parking lot with her young child, would explain this dystopian scene to her 8 or 9-year-old. Is this the future we envision? Because I can tell you this: it terrifies me. It seems like there's no stopping this machine. The powers that be are determined to extract every last cent of profit at our expense. They don’t care about the human cost. Major cities across America are becoming tent cities-Hoovervilles, neighborhoods drowning in the epidemic of fentanyl.(Source: Washington Post) 100,000 Americans died just last year, some of our greatest artists, poets and creatives have been taken by this plight, much like the AIDS crisis, the governance of America does not care about those who fuel its culture. Existence has become a high-priced luxury with rents skyrocketing to $1600, $1800, $2000 for an apartment in any of the few places left in this country who's job markets haven't been completely gutted by neoliberal policies like NAFTA. Good credit, a hurdle for many, is now a prerequisite to have a roof over one’s head. Given this reality, is it any wonder that we're grappling with a homelessness crisis? I am reminded of the film Soylent Green, in which Edward G. Robinson's character asks Charlton Heston, "why don't you move?", do which he replies, "all of the cities are like this, some worse than others, but they are all like this."

Meanwhile, those perched in their internet ivory towers continue to shout: "Just vote harder!" "Vote blue, no matter who!" But it feels like throwing a lifeline into a sea of sharks. Our so-called allies, the Democratic Party, field anti-choice candidates in states like Texas, further cementing the downward spiral into late-stage capitalist fascism. We find ourselves taxed but unrepresented. Picture this: each month, $750 of my hard-earned money is skimmed off to fund devastation and conflict worldwide. In 2022, the Department of Defense, astoundingly, couldn't account for 61% of their $3.5 trillion in assets in an audit. The Pentagon Comptroller, Mike McCord, feebly responded, “I would not say that we flunked." (Source: The Hill) In my book, scoring 61% equates to a failing grade. Breaking down this staggering figure, it amounts to roughly $9,000 per working-age adult in this country (assuming 71% are of working age), or $750 extracted from your paycheck each month. This is money that has vanished into the ether, presumably squandered on waging wars. It's rather baffling, considering a 40-hour week at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 equates to a mere $290 before taxes. And they still maintain that forgiving student loans is an impossibility? Hogwash. This is not democracy—it's a disgrace. In the face of such grotesque taxation without representation, the words of founding father Thomas Paine echo hauntingly: “a government which cannot preserve the peace, is no government at all, and in that case we pay our money for nothing;”― Common Sense. It feels as if we're trapped in a Poe-esque nightmare, ceaselessly funding the Masque of Red Death abroad under the guise of propagandized "freedom".

Compare this with our social services, our schools, our libraries, our hospitals, especially the rural hospitals, which are continuing to disappear due to capitalism choosing profits over people. [At least 40% of rural U.S. hospitals are at risk of shutting down in the near future, according to a new study from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform (CHQPR)(Source: Advisory.com)] We fund social services that are intentionally designed to dehumanize, exploit, and trap people in a cycle of subsistence poverty. From the welfare cliff to the fact that disabled people in America can only hold a paltry $2000 in their bank accounts(Source: AARP), it’s a system set up for us to fail. We've strayed from the ideal of innocent until proven guilty to a much more dystopian reality: guilty until proven not poor. There can be no justice under this capitalist system. Any so-called "Justices" are merely pantomimes fueled by capitalism. Practices like race based redlining and credit score-based housing have drawn battle lines. Should a number really decide if one lives on the street like a dog, or sleeps in the warm comfort of a bed? The neoliberal governance of America is not just misrepresenting her people; it's waging a war against them.

Undeniably, the discussion on the student loan ruling would be incomplete without mentioning the PPP Loan Forgiveness program. Bizarrely, the majority of these loans found their way into the pockets of those who were already comfortably off. The cost of the PPP loans was nearly double that of Biden's proposed student debt forgiveness. Nearly double. This ludicrous state of affairs echoes the egregious incident where Brett Favre managed to swindle $8 million from Mississippi's welfare fund(Source: NBC News). The average amount written off in the PPP program was $70,000, while a mere $10,000 of student loan debt couldn't be afforded the same leniency. Time and again, our government has displayed its proclivity for piercing the heart of the working class to satiate the gluttonous hog-like appetites of the capitalist aristocracy—continually at our expense, at the cost of our health, our time, our futures, and even our planet. Even more galling, Biden approved more federal fossil fuel drilling permits than Trump(Source: Yahoo News), the Willow Project scandal being a case in point. A petition with over one million signatures was dismissively ignored, an alarming silence that should have shaken anyone still holding faith in the decaying capitalist system we're subjected to. All this despite campaigning on a platform of "No More Drilling". (Source: Forbes) It is clear what the neoliberal line "vote blue no matter who" results in, at worst ecocide, at best the extreme wealth disparity, as seen in states like California, masked by democratic gaslighting and an almost religious fervor for the "GDP", the line goes up, life expectancy for the poor goes down. There is no "lesser of two evils". Corrupted by wealth and power, our government is like a restaurant with only one dish. They've got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side. But no matter which set of waiters brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen.

As we weather the storm, it's imperative to remember that change often comes in the wake of destruction. My audience, Generation Z, we have been labeled the "last generation." But as Vladimir Lenin said, “Give me just one generation of youth, and I'll transform the whole world.” It's up to us to seize the moment and shape the future we want. What does this mean? Well, that means organizing, being loud, vocal and open about the issues at hand and the root of the cause-capitalism. Continue speaking out, continue organizing, continue making leftist positions normalized among the youth. Brace for the storm, because once we believe it will come, the levees will break.