Posted by: Bill Tracy | August 23, 2010

The Old Country

In that starry dome of silence I could have heard a falling pin
She was smiling in the starry crown of grace and I watched her stars ascend
Where words end that’s where my love begins
And reaches just as far as any distant star

-Johnny Rivers from his album Shadows on the Moon

-Jimmy Webb song, Where Words End

The moon was closer in the old country. The “old country” is a term once commonly used by immigrants in this country. Sometimes proudly, sometimes wistfully, always nostalgically, the place they had come from was the “old country.” I don’t know if immigrants today still use that term. Strangely I find myself using it lately. My mother and I were talking last week about differences in this country between the time she was a young adult (and I was growing up) and today. We found ourselves calling that world from a distant past, “the old country.” She is 84, I’m 63, and it truly feels like we come from a different country than the one we’re now living in. While there is no going back, and the old country wasn’t perfect, my mother and I agree our “old country” was much better in a lot of ways that matter.

Moonlight On the Road Home

Moonlight On the Road Home. The moon still shines on our land, but I'm not sure that many people care anymore.

Today, I know a young couple struggling to survive when they should be thriving. They are not struggling to build a good life and family as young people should; they are struggling just to survive. Bright and well-educated, they don’t have even one full-time job between them. One has been unemployed nearly a year now. The other works retail in a system that will not allow enough work to attain full-employment status. Rent, car expenses, medical, food and the crushing burden of student loan repayment are all conspiring to make them the “almost-working poor,” a growing class in this new country. Their light at the end of the tunnel is moving in with a relative when their apartment lease is up. The couple lives in terror that she may accidentally get pregnant. By contrast, my time at their age was one of prosperity and confidence. I was thriving.

My total undergraduate college education at Rutgers University cost less than $3000 in the 1970s. I didn’t require loans that would mortgage my future for 20 or more years. During that time I was getting as many hours part-time work as I wanted in trucking, and the Veterans Administration was sending me checks to cover educational expenses. I was working hard and studying hard, but I was thriving. My total monthly income was around $900, and my apartment rent was $150, including all utilities except my phone. A friend who went to the University of Pennsylvania through 1971 tells me her tuition ran around $800 per semester and living expenses on campus were modest. Cost of books was almost negligible. And this was the 1970s of recession, energy crises, stagflation, high interest rates, etc.

My college professors stood before classes in well-worn clothing. The broken earpieces of eyeglasses were often held together with tape. They held such positions because that’s what they loved, and they did not expect to be paid like corporate executives. Today, a woman working as Chancellor of the University of California at Davis is being paid over $400,000. Heaped on top of that salary is a liberal benefits package including a house. Somehow she got the idea that she should be paid like a corporate executive. There are young people at that school today who are saddled with years of student loan repayment so that woman can have far more than she needs or deserves. I think it’s a disgrace. People like her are stealing any future this country might have.

Linda Katehi

Linda Katehi, chancellor, University of California, Davis. She does her part to steal the future of her students through an exorbitant compensation package. To make tuition payments, students at her school will enter into loan agreements that will force them into long-term servitude. I say she neither needs nor deserves more than $400,000 per year. Shame on her and a system of greed that she supports.

In the “old country,” I vividly recall a chilly evening in early October, 1957. My father and I stood in the little backyard of our home in Runnemede, NJ and looked up into our autumn sky. A tiny red spot moving across that sky mesmerized us. The red spot was Sputnik, the first human-created satellite in the history of mankind – placed in that sky by our propagandized mortal enemy, the Soviet Union. We were the first humans in the history of the world to look into the night sky and see something other than moon and stars and comets and meteors. We were looking at something created by us. Even at age 10, I understood this was something utterly fantastic in human evolution and history.

As a nation that event sent us off on a tear. Technology was the future, and education was the key to mastering it. People went to school with serious intent. Education was considered crucial to this nation. Only 12 years later, my father and I sat in our living room smugly watching a team of U.S. citizens walking around on the moon, a feat no other country has managed to accomplish even to this day. Not only could we conquer the moon, we could turn it into a television show! That’s the kind of achievement we were capable of in the “old country.” It was the kind of achievement that was expected, and everyone seemed a part of it. There was nothing we could not do. How things have changed today.

The College Board recently reports the U.S. no longer has the most college graduates in the 25-to-34 age bracket. We used to rate number one because we cared about education and made it easily available to those who wanted it. The world admired us and held us up as a pinnacle of achievement. We have now fallen to 12th among 36 developed nations in this category, and the number of our graduates is declining. Russia, believe it or not, now has more college graduates in that category than we do. I suspect there are some cultural issues at work, but economics surely bear some blame.

Bishop Eustace Preparatory School in Pennsauken, NJ, where ordinary people I know went to high school years ago now charges annual tuition of $15,000. You could have had two University of Pennsylvania undergraduate degrees in 1970 for what it now costs for one year of high school at Eustace. Even more outrageous is tuition at the Catholic elementary school I went to. If you’re a Catholic child, it is reduced to only $3600 per year from the $4700 the others pay. That’s $30,000 to $40,000 for an education that gets you entry into ninth grade. Then if you go to Eustace or another comparable school, it’s $60,000 more. If the child continues on to the University of Pennsylvania, basic tuition is now around $40,000. Or you can go cheap (as I did long ago), and now only pay $12,000 per year at Rutgers (if you live in the state).

Once formal education is completed today, a person can enter the job market and stare down the throat of an acknowledged 10% or higher unemployment rate. (It’s closer to a stated 12% in California – and 16% in the county where I live.) Economists and politicians are now making noise to structuralize this rate. Since the economy can no longer generate enough jobs to get the unemployment rate down to 5% or 6%, conventional wisdom, so called, is that we’ll just have to accept 9% to 11% as the new norm. And I could be wrong, but I believe when you defer student loan repayments because you have no job or lose a job, interest continues to accumulate on the outstanding balance. Some people are now spending their entire lives making payments on college loan obligations.

According to the dollar amount now owed on student loans has exceeded the total amount owed on credit cards in this country. If you want facts, and many, many horror stories, (One typical person borrowed $38,000 and is now scheduled to pay $567 per month for the next 30 years – total payment amount of nearly a quarter-million dollars.) go to the site and see what’s being done to people in the name of affordable loans for education.

I heard Andrew Hacker interviewed on the radio recently. A long-time college professor, he says this student loan system is criminal. He and Claudia Dreifus have recently published a book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It. The book seems to question almost the entire current concept of post-secondary education. Like me, he seems to regard the college loan business as a malicious con game. In the radio interview, Professor Hacker said, “Colleges know they can keep raising their prices as they’ve been doing, well ahead of inflation, and the students will come and take out loans. In other words, our colleges are being really built on the indebtedness that young people, starting at the age of 18, are signing papers that they are going to live with until they’re 38. We regard this as totally immoral.” I too think it’s immoral. To hear the full interview, go to:

Higher Education?

The book Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus.

When I was young the idea of not having a job, of not being able to find work, never occurred to me. After college, even though I went late (graduated at age 30), I knew I had a good education and I was bright and industrious. It was only a matter of what kind of work I wanted to do and what employment situation made the most sense. If I were that same young man today, I’d be afraid to finance a new car even if I had a job. This is not how a nation thrives. This is not how we hand off a good thing to a next generation.

Economic Nobelist Paul Krugman writes in the Monday, August 9, 2010 The New York Times one of the most devastating assessments of the current economic situation I’ve seen. Entitled, “America Goes Dark,” he says:

“The lights are going out all over America — literally. Colorado Springs has made headlines with its desperate attempt to save money by turning off a third of its streetlights, but similar things are either happening or being contemplated across the nation, from Philadelphia to Fresno.”

He contrasts our stunning history of transportation achievement with “…a number of states, local governments…breaking up roads they can no longer afford to maintain, and returning them to gravel.”

In education, he says:

“A nation that once prized education — that was among the first to provide basic schooling to all its children — is now cutting back. Teachers are being laid off; programs are being canceled; in Hawaii, the school year itself is being drastically shortened. And all signs point to even more cuts ahead.”

Road Paving

We can't afford this anymore? Do we no longer have money to pave roads in this country?

While we cannot afford to keep the schools open and the streets lights on, U.S. corporations have more cash on hand than at any time in the past 50 years. Andrew Sum, economics professor and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern Univ. in Boston says our employers have used this so-called recession as simply an excuse to cut payroll and expenses. In a recent column Bob Herbert of The New York Times writes:

“ʻThey threw out far more workers and hours than they lost output,’ said Professor Sum. ‘Here’s what happened: At the end of the fourth quarter in 2008, you see corporate profits begin to really take off, and they grow by the time you get to the first quarter of 2010 by $572 billion. And over that same time period, wage and salary payments go down by $122 billion.’ That kind of disconnect, said Mr. Sum, had never been seen before in all the decades since World War II. In short, the corporations are making out like bandits. Now they’re sitting on mountains of cash and they still are not interested in hiring to any significant degree, or strengthening workers’ paychecks.”

“Having taken everything for themselves, the corporations are so awash in cash they don’t know what to do with it all. Citing a recent article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Professor Sum noted that in July cash at the nation’s nonfinancial corporations stood at $1.84 trillion, a 27 percent increase over early 2007. Moody’s has pointed out that as a percent of total company assets, cash has reached a level not seen in the past half-century.” This is one reason we now see a spate of corporations buying one another for huge sums.

The federal government is now forecast to spend $1 trillion more than it has in revenues every year for the foreseeable future. This is simply not sustainable, and no viable solution is coming from people who are considered leaders of this country. Back in the old country the idea that the government could be financially bankrupt was simply unimaginable. Today, it’s reality staring us in the face.

We the people have been asleep at the wheel while governments at every level became dysfunctional, even arguably illegitimate. In California, for instance, legislators have a legal obligation to put a fiscally responsible budget in place on or before June 30 each year to cover the next fiscal year. I can’t recall the last time they actually did that. Revenue shortfalls and political self-interest have combined to make the government dysfunctional. We can no longer expect a budget to be in place within legal rules. Then we have a round of borrowing and threats to lay off state workers, interrupted services, failure to pay contractors of all stripes, conflicts with labor unions that end up in the Courts. I do not consider that legitimate government, yet we the people tolerate it year after year. We simply don’t have the gumption to make the government operate within the law – or else we just don’t care. It was simply not this way in the old country; these kinds of things were unthinkable.

We seem to be socially bankrupt as well as financially bankrupt. It is no longer unusual for a mentally unstable person to take a gun into a workplace or public place and murder as many people as they can before they are stopped. It happens with a sick regularity here in the new country. We watch the “news” briefly, exclaim it a tragedy and move on to whatever entertains us at the moment. Meanwhile the scared-to-death Second Amendment nutjobs scamper like chickens in a barnyard yelping the ridiculous mantra, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Public schools have become so violence-ridden they can’t operate without a permanent police presence. The term “lockdown” used to refer to prisons; now they use it in schools. Drugs and gangs are the accepted urban norm now. The only police I ever saw in my school were the ones who came to put on a presentation about the school Safety Patrol.

In southern New Jersey recently a young man charged with watching over children beat a two-year-old badly enough to kill him because the child was interfering with his night of “drinking games” and marijuana smoking with his “friends.” Apparently, now if you have no education and can get no regular employment, you can have a life of listless irresponsibility enabled by friends and relatives. In the old country, we did have a few “bums,” but nearly all young men were about the business of establishing themselves and creating stability that enabled them to support a family. Is this no longer possible for the majority of people?

George Lassos the Moon

George Lassos the Moon. Illustration Copyright George Ford. From his Web site: and used with permission.

While it might be embarrassing, I’d be happy if someone could show me that I’m just an out-of-touch geezer longing for a past world that never really existed the way he remembers. Sadly, I don’t think anyone can make that case. This new country we live in seems mean and cold and full of angry and scared people. I wonder what young people think today when they pull themselves away from computer games and television “reality” shows and drinking games and actually look up at the moon. Do they experience hope or confidence or even romance?

George Bailey, the character played by James Stewart in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life tells romantic interest, Mary (Donna Reed) that he will give her the moon. “What is it you want, Mary? You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey, that’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.” And her response? “I’ll take it.” In the old country, the moon was a lot closer. I think as people we were a lot closer too.


  1. Funny your beautiful quote is from a song called “Where Words End”. We are full of words and meaningless communication via Facebook and texting and sexting. None of it is real communication that is a deep appreciation, connection and reverence for one another. If we did have respect for one another, could we justify huge salaries for CEO’s while we relocate our factories, or giant bailouts for the rich, or a poor boy getting a life term for burglary? If we appreciate and honored each other’s uniqueness and saw one another as equals, there would be no overblown salaries or miscarriage of justice.

  2. All too true.

  3. Our country has NEVER prized education, only credentialing. Teaching and learning are bottom of the barrel priorities for Americans. This will catch up with us with a vengeance as the 21st century progresses. American intellectualism is like pumpkin orange: baked in and an essential ingredient. You yearn for a golden era that never existed.

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