Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Austerity and Hard Times

He was listening to the news, and his granddaughter was proudly making a hat for him with the new knitting needles she got for Christmas.  “Grandpa,” said the little girl without looking up, “what’s ‘austerity’ mean?”  

It’s funny what kids will pick up when you have no idea they’re paying attention to what’s happening around them, he thought, not for the first time.  He studied her for a minute.  He’d known this day would come, but he hadn’t expected it to come so soon.  Was she old enough to have this discussion?  “Heck,” he finally said to himself, “if she’s old enough for Harry Potter novels, she’s old enough to be told about austerity.”

“‘Austerity’ is another word for what we used to call ‘hard times’ back when I was a boy,” he began.

Giving her a different name for it didn’t give her much to go on.  He knew that.  She needed to picture it in her mind to make it come to life, so he wasn’t surprised when she said, “Oh. Well, what’s hard about hard times?” 

In some ways he hated to tell her.  She was young to be carrying the freight of that knowledge.  But you couldn’t shelter kids forever.  You needed to be honest with them about the world they were growing into.

“In hard times--what they call ‘austerity’ nowadays--lots of people lose their jobs or their farms.  They can’t find a new job, or the job they have pays less and less, with fewer benefits. After a while they can’t pay their bills.  They lose their home.  They lose things they were buying on credit.  They sell off whatever they have that’s valuable, just to get some cash.  They can’t pay their loans.  They can’t afford to go see a dentist or a doctor.  They buy cheaper and cheaper food.  They get discouraged and depressed.”  

“Gosh, Grandpa, that sounds horrible,” she said.  “What makes austerity happen?”

Now came an even harder part: talking about the dark side of human nature to someone who had been cared for and cherished all her life, who had never known anything but consideration and kindness. 

“It doesn’t happen by accident,” he said.  “Some people choose to cause hard times for other people.  They make it happen with laws and policies that benefit themselves and hurt the other people.”

“What kind of people would do that?” asked the little girl, clearly struggling to understand the notion of a world with those kinds of people in it.

“Austerity is caused by rich people who want to get even richer,” he said.  “They do things to squeeze more money out of people like us, and they don’t care whether people who don’t have as much as they do get poorer or even lose everything.”

“That’s mean!” exclaimed the little girl.  “Why are they so mean?”

And how do you answer that, in a way that’s fair but honest?   He tried.

“Some of them are mean because of the way they were raised,” he said.  “They were always around other rich people, and they thought they were entitled to good things because they were better than other folks.  We know that’s not right, but they never learned it.  They weren’t brought up right.  Others are mean unintentionally, because they have rigid ideas that they think are right, and they get stubborn.  They stick to those ideas, even when there are all kinds of evidence they don’t work.  Others choose to be hard-hearted.  They decide they’d rather be mean and rich than kind and poor.  And some work in big businesses called corporations, and they do mean things to make the corporation more profitable, things that they’d probably never think of doing to people or places on their own.”

She thought for a moment, still trying to puzzle things out. “Where is austerity, Grandpa?”

Now that was really a tough one.  He wasn’t sure how to answer.  He got up, walked over to the bookcase in the corner, and took the globe off the top shelf.  

“I’m not sure I can answer that, sweetheart.  It seems to be almost everywhere.  Over a hundred countries--119 I think the man just said on the radio--cut their budgets last year.  The ones that get all the publicity are the ones in Europe, like Greece, Spain, Ireland, and Italy,” he continued, pointing to them. “But three-fourths of the countries being hit are in developing countries.  Most of those are down here.”  He ran his hand over the southern hemisphere. 

The little girl nodded.  “Can you show me where Greece is again?” she asked, and he did.  “What’s it mean they cut their budgets?” was her next question.

“You ask a lot of questions,” he said.  “That’s a good habit to get into.  Keep it up.  ‘Cutting their budget’ means they didn’t spend as much money,” he said.  “Mostly they eliminated jobs and cut what we call public spending.  That means they cut money for things like health care, education, housing, pensions, and unemployment.”

“Why did they have to do that?”

“Well, sweetheart, they didn’t have to do that.  Instead of taking away things from ordinary people--what some folks call the 99%--they could have provided jobs and improved the lives of most of the people in their countries.  All they had to do was change their tax systems, so the richest people contributed more and corporations paid a fair share.  They could have stopped rich people and corporations from hiding their money in places called tax havens.   They could have eliminated tax gimmicks that kept rich people from not paying taxes.  They could have cracked down on people who cheated on their tax returns.  But they didn’t do those things, because those cheating rich people and corporations were their friends and supporters.  So they took the money instead from the rest of us.  The rich have more than they’ll ever need, the poor don’t have enough to live on, and the people in between are having a harder and harder time.”

“That’s not nice,” declared the little girl firmly.  “I don’t want to be that way when I grow up.”

“I’m glad to hear it, sweetheart,” said the old man.  “Just remember that if the world tries to change you.”

She seemed to catch the solemnity of his words.  “I won’t change,” she promised.

“That’s my girl,” he said, giving her a hug.  Then he turned off the radio.  “Enough of listening to that thing,” he said, and picked up his fiddle, plucked the strings, and adjusted the tuning.  “Here’s an old song we used to sing when I was your age.  Do you know it?  It’s called ‘Hard Times’.”   He began to sing as he scratched out the tune. 

“Oh, I know that one,” she said.  “Mommy sings it sometimes.”  And she joined him, adding her sweet young voice to his as they sang Stephen Foster’s opening verse:

As we pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears:
Oh, hard times, come again no more.

“Could we change ‘hard times’ to ‘austerity’ in the chorus?” she asked quickly.

“Sure,” he said.  “We can do whatever we want with a song.”

© Tony Russell, 2014

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