It was 1989, I was ten years old and in Social Studies class with Mr. Rehmer. More than eating my vegetables, I dreaded his depressing lectures on the National Debt.
Mr. Rehmer would start by writing large dollar amounts on the blackboard. He then told us how he was concerned for our generation and how, if things did not get better, there would be nothing left for us, no retirement or health care, etc. etc. The idea that the United States could befall any kind of bankruptcy seemed unlikely to my young mind. To me, there were more important things, such as: fame, riches, glittery bracelets and Michael J. Fox.
Like my 5th grade perspective, the ostrich effect has become a perfect depiction for the United States. We have raged on, spending money that simply does not exist, entering wars we cannot afford, lowering taxes for the rich, and, for reasons I still do not understand, funding political campaigns. I am not an economist, but I do know there are more important items than oil prices and the Hilton Family's tax deductions.
Flash forward to my personal story of why I will not move back to the states: I cannot claim a single thread on that American Flag. As Mr. Rehmer predicted, it has already been spent by the generations before me. No jobs; no affordable health care; no social security - nothing left.
Right wing extremists say I should be thankful for being born in "the land of the free." My adult life has been a lot of things, but "free"? Freedom is an ambiguous term.
The freedom I struggle to find is the freedom of equality - equal opportunity: Equal Opportunity to improve my quality of life. I am sure I have heard this idea from somewhere before.
I was brought up to believe that if I worked hard, went to school and got good grades, I would be successful - maybe not rich, but successful in some way. I wasn't looking for much, just maybe a nice apartment and the ability to go grocery shopping without my credit card.
This did not happen. I spent the majority of my twenties working hard to finish my bachelor's degree only to find nothing at end of the rainbow. Student loans hovered over my head and credit cards covered any additional expenses that my bartending shifts could not.
So, in a nutshell, I took out loans on an education I could not afford but apparently needed to get a low-paying secretarial job. I paid taxes for a war I did not believe in and I continued to use credit cards to pay for medical and dental care that my "great" health insurance plan did not cover.
Basically, I spent my twenties funding upper class well-being and ideals, and I got to serve them drinks and make copies for them at the same time.
I have heard right-wing conservatives say that people are not entitled to such things as education, medical care and retirement, yet, generations before me received these things in an affordable way, why not me?
I have friends teaching English overseas, friends who want to return to the states and start their lives back in the U.S., but they can't, without risking several months of unemployment and loss of their savings.
We are left - with no country to claim. My passport says "United States of America", but it means very little to me now. How can I claim a country as my own if I cannot afford to live there?
Meanwhile, a small number of upper class thirty-something's are spending thousands on decorating their homes and driving SUV's, and I am overseas, learning Swedish. When I hear people bemoan higher taxes, I wonder if they know I live with no car, no iPhone and all my clothes can fit into two suitcases, yet my quality of life is ten times better than my life in Chicago.
Here, the Swedish government offers me free education, health care and the opportunity to work in the field in which I study. Yeah, the taxes are high, but so is the quality of life. I may never own 3 SUV's and 5 flat screen T.V.'s, but when I get sick, I can afford to go to the doctor, and so will my children.
Now those days of sitting in Mr. Rehmer's class are just a memory. Now, the U.S. is simply a place I left, a home I cannot afford.