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Commentary: Who do we thank this year?

This article fist appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 25, 2009 - You'll be excused if you've forgotten, but Thanksgiving began as a religious holiday. The original purpose of the feast was to give thanks for a bountiful harvest.

Though various cultures have celebrated the harvest since the dawn of recorded history, the 17th century Pilgrims brought the custom to the New World. They originally gathered to thank the Almighty for a favorable growing season and its resultant abundance. With their larders full, they were grateful that they would not starve during the coming winter.

Of course, few of us today earn our livings in the fields. The holiday has thus morphed into a somewhat feckless celebration of national prosperity -- a prosperity now more dependent upon commodities futures, bundled securities and uncollateralized credit default swaps than to plowshares and the more honest brand of manure.

Although it's not totally clear exactly who is running the show on Wall Street, I'm pretty sure it's not God. To whom, then, do we give thanks for transforming what was once the world's most vibrant economy into the bloated, debt-ridden turkey that it is today?

It's tempting to fault the corporate raiders and deregulated investment bankers who pawned our long-term affluence for inflated quarterly profits and the obscene bonuses they generate. But they were merely following the dictates of greed. Blaming them is like chastising a pig for over-eating -- it's the nature of the beast.

How about the regulators? Where was Congress while the economy was being gutted on behalf of wretched excess? Our elected representatives were far too busy collecting campaign contributions from the people who were selling us out and burnishing their credentials as patriots to take any meaningful action to save the country from financial ruin. Who put these turkeys in office? To paraphrase Pogo, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

While much of the electorate concentrated on the unfolding drama of the latest "American Idol" competition, those sufficiently alert to notice that the country was being sold from beneath them were quickly reassured by free marketeers that the process was in their own best interest.

Through the wonders of reverse alchemy, stable American jobs with secure benefits and pensions were converted into cheap goods at Wal-Mart. This development was nothing to worry about, however, because we were to be the hi-tech leaders of the new global economy and the jobs we were shedding came from yesterday's unskilled manufacturing sector. Unfortunately, for a hi-tech nation, we've got a lot of low-tech citizens.

In the St. Louis city public school system, about 41 percent of male students and 63 percent of female students manage to graduate high school. That leaves 59 percent of males and 37 percent of females without diplomas. During the particularly dismal 2007-08 school year, 22 percent of the high school student population dropped out -- better than 1 in 5 students quit during the course of a single year.

While these numbers are nothing to brag about, they're not remarkably different than those of other inner-city districts nationwide. Where are these people supposed to go?

Educators cite similarly grim statistics to argue for increased funding for projects like Head Start. That may be a good long-term solution, but what of the people who have already dropped out? Theses semi-literate prisoners of their own ignorance are loitering on the corner, breaking into parked cars and collecting public assistance in large part because there are no jobs available. For them, a low-skill assembly line job could spell the difference between becoming a tax-paying citizen and remaining a perpetual drain on society.

The constriction in the employment market is hardly confined to unskilled labor. The default rate on mortgages has now reached 14 percent. Though the housing crisis began in the sub-prime sector, more than a third of current defaults involve formerly well-qualified borrowers with conventional loans who were forced into default by job loss. Indeed, the Mortgage Bankers Association reports that in the third quarter of this year, nearly 10 percent of home owners were behind by at least one payment -- the highest delinquency rate since the association began keeping records in 1972.

Meanwhile, the township of Thomson, Ill., is vying to house terrorism suspects from Guantanamo Bay for the economic stimulus their confinement there would provide. What's next -- communities competing to store nuclear waste?

In 1992, as the movement toward globalization picked up steam, the U.S. trade deficit was $50 billion. By 2008, it stood at $673.3 billion -- and that figure was actually down from the year before due to decreased domestic consumption brought on by the recession. On Jan. 1, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect. What happened to our standard of living in the ensuing 15 years?

The unemployment rate is currently 10.2 percent, but that number does not include job seekers who have simply given up. Adjusting for these poor souls, the true rate is estimated at 17.5 percent. Add in the under-employed -- people who lost real jobs and are trying to survive on minimum wage or part-time work -- and you have close to a quarter of the work force in crisis circumstances.

As the supply of labor is plentiful and the demand for workers is sparse, wages are stagnant or falling across the board. Consumers thus have less money to spend and record levels of debt to service. Ironically, the very corporations that boosted profits by out-sourcing are now experiencing decreased sales because fewer people can afford to buy the goods and services they produce -- which, of course, results in even more lay-offs.

On the brighter side, I understand that the greeters at Wal-Mart are invariably cheerful. For that, I suppose, we can give thanks.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.