Home Commentary Op-ed The Age of Irresponsibility … And Junk

The Age of Irresponsibility … And Junk

The Age of Irresponsibility … And Junk

Comparisons are a great way to learn. If you want to light up a problem, there are two questions that almost always help. First, what is it like? And, second, how is it different?

Different eras get different names: “the golden age,” “the Jazz age,” “The Great Depression,” “the industrial age.” What should we call the last 10 years in the United States? I have two candidates.

The first is the “age of junk.” In the age of junk, we spend our time buying cheap stuff from China that falls apart fast, and then we replace it with more cheap junk. (That is, of course if we are able, in the first place, to get through the plastic packaging that the junk came in.)

My second candidate is more serious, although I think it is pretty serious that we have gotten used to being a culture that lives on cheaply made, disposable trash, and that we don’t make things anymore.

My second choice is the “age of irresponsibility.” While our society can probably survive living off of junk, it may not survive the age of irresponsibility as a functioning democracy with decent standards of living.

And this is where “IBG/YBG” comes in. The Great Recession that we are beginning to crawl out of was caused by the behavior of Wall Street enabled by 30 years of deregulation and mass media blindness to what was happening.

Among the very small group of heroes in this sordid story is Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan. In a hearing on the financial collapse, Levin asked one of the witnesses, a mid-level Wall Street genius, “What does IBG/YBG mean?” The answer was a true blockbuster: “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

Once you have wrapped your mind around “IBG/YBG,” you have a basic understanding of how our financial system and economy have been brought to their knees.

It may be the single most important, if unstated, concept driving our society. It means beyond any shadow of a doubt that the people running things don’t care. They will have made their killing, be out the door, and it will be someone else’s job to clean up the mess.

The fact that the savings of millions were wiped out, that we now have a vast army of apparently long-term unemployed people, well, that’s what the military calls “collateral damage.” That is, it is damage to someone else.

That these same people have shamelessly gone back to business as usual, now with the active support of Republicans in Congress, is a clear sign of how desperate our situation is.

The Virgin Islands has always had its share of IBG/YBG types. These were mostly mainlanders who arrived looking for a quick hit and weren’t very particular about how they made it. There was a particularly large infestation in the 1980s. Over the years, these individuals have done a fair amount of damage and left messes behind when they cleared out.

But, there is another dimension to the V.I. story. It is the mirror of IBG/YBG. It can be called “IBH/YBH.” It results in a different kind of irresponsibility. Instead of “who cares?” because we won’t be here, IBH/YBH produces “everybody does it.” And since “I’ll be here, and you’ll be here,” we should probably do it too.

IBG/YBG is a system for big places, where you make the quick hit, get rich and then move on, maintaining your respectability because nobody really knows how you did it or the harm that you have done.

New York is awash in such people.

IBH/YBH is a small-place system in which the “distance” that is required to keep things on the up-and-up isn’t there, partly because everyone knows that everyone else is going to be around for the long haul. “Everybody does it” is a powerful source of temptation in these situations.

IBH/YBH produces a different kind of irresponsibility, but the result is pretty much the same as IBG/YBG. The larger community is screwed by insiders who reap all of the benefits and are totally indifferent to the “collateral damage” that they cause. The age of irresponsibility. I think it’s the right name for our sorry times.


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