As Americans, I think we need to decide how we’re going to pay for the things we want. I know…I know…what a terribly quaint and dated idea! Somehow we’ve gotten ourselves into a culture of debt where it’s simply accepted that one of our monthly expenses is the payment of interest…on a mortgage, on a car loan, on credit cards, on second-mortgages, on loans for recreational vehicles, etc. This attitude has made many in the financial community very rich, growing this part of our economy dramatically during the last decade. In addition, we seem to accept that a large part of our taxes also go to the payment of interest on our national debt. I’m not going to spend time on the financial crisis in this post…I’ve shared my thoughts before and will again I’m sure. Today I want to raise the issue of debt as a lifestyle choice. What troubles me most about this topic is not that we would make this choice for ourselves, but that our children and grandchildren will have debt as a lifestyle inheritance…they will have no choice.
Now that we’re so far in debt, it might seem strange to propose a new public conversation about our addiction to debt. We’ve been in denial for a long time…why not continue? Of course, the first step in dealing with an addiction is accepting it…and people generally have to be in the gutter with nowhere else to fall before they see the reality of their situation. The first part of our public conversation then would have to be a national intervention. An intervention is an event where people who care deeply for the addict confront him or her with the stark and ugly truth about the terrible consequences of their addictive behavior. We care about our debt-ridden friends, family members and neighbors…don’t we? We care about our country…don’t we? In a national intervention, we’d have to look into each others’ eyes and say from the heart, “I’m a debt-addict.”
Unfortunately, we also have some very powerful enablers. An enabler makes sure an addiction continues, protecting the addict from the many of the consequences of their actions and sometimes even feeding the habit. Of course, we also know that enablers are always serving their own needs in keeping addiction going. Our primary enabler is the banking and financial industry…their marketing practices can be compared with those of the tobacco industry, specializing in getting young adults addicted with easy credit and very low minimum payments, and then increasing the credit limit to encourage more debt and long-term interest payments. Politicians are also very accomplished enablers in terms of public debt…spending more money than they know will come in through taxes, even in times of economic prosperity, for some things, and borrowing against future tax revenues for other things. Consumers are great enablers of one another…we’ve even created vast shopping malls where we can gather to give each other support and encouragement in one of our primary forms of entertainment…purchasing things we don’t need, we don’t have space for in our homes and we can’t afford. We have created a pervasive and addictive culture of debt, and it is many people’s job to keep and grow that debt.
So…what are we going to do, other than to face our cultural and individual addiction to debt? I (perhaps naïvely) believe we can still turn our debt future around. Yes…that would require huge and selfless sacrifices on our parts. But, on the other hand, do we want to wait until our kids and grandkids sit us down for a deservedly, angry intervention…or, worse still, do we want them to simply curse us in our graves for our unwillingness to deal with our self-destructive, debt behavior? We’re not powerless in this matter…we can still choose the honorable course of action. We can still choose to sacrifice ourselves for what we want rather than to make future generations shoulder the burden of our decisions. I don’t like this anymore than you do, but somehow we need to take responsibility for our actions, no matter how we got lured into our debt habit. We’ve got to decide…are we willing to pay for what we want, or are we so weak that we have to steal from our children’s piggy-banks?