All the Money, Part 1

I read an article in the New York Times the other day about the connection between debt and shame. I then spent about an hour in the comments section. It’s not that I hadn’t thought about it carefully before, but something about it hit me.

This particular article was about the hypocritical rage of those who thought everyone should “pay their own way” (legislators accepting millions in now forgiven PPP loans while nobody blinked an eye, anyone?) toward the not-so-lucky who’ve spent their adult lives buried under student debt, the principal of which most have already paid off and others have paid off several times over.

But really, I consider most debt advertised to the poor and lower-middle class as fair game for ample criticism. If workers’ wages had kept up with the rising prices of everything else, after all – hell, if they’d increased at the same rate their CEOs’ earnings had – almost no one would need debt in the first place. For the ultra-rich and sometimes for the merely well-off, debt is a tool. They can leverage it (and abandon it without being judged) to build their wealth.

If they lend money themselves, they can ensure continued monthly income as those much poorer than they struggle to pull together and send an ever-increasing monthly payment from their limited monthly earnings. Interest, of course, is what makes any “investment” worthwhile and what keeps debtors continuing those monthly payments far after the original amount borrowed has been covered.

For most of the rest of us, it’s a delicious-looking house made of candy in the middle of a punishing forest. What could go wrong? Time to carpe that diem…we already know that none of us are getting out of here alive.

Spending is emotional. It’s also social. To refuse to take on debt is to face this difficult question: to what extent are you willing to not let yourself or your children be included in the name of playing it safe? And what, are you not going to buy them Christmas presents this year? The cultural messages are maddeningly contradictory: if there’s anything worse than spending money you don’t have, it’s not providing your children with absolutely everything in your power to provide.

Then there are the intentional (as opposed to latent) forces outside of you. With one hand, an offer of credit, easy, that speaks to the optimist in you. Of course things will be better for you in the future! How could they not?

With the other hand, elaborately-crafted advertising to make you feel just awful if you miss out, or worse, cause your children to miss out.

But then comes a third hand from behind the back, the archetypal devil coming to collect the soul you sold him much later when the effect has worn off: “You knew what you were getting into; what makes you think you should get to walk away from your responsibilities, hmm? What kind of person are you, anyway?”

The above, of course, is debt that’s more or less taken on consciously but unnecessarily. Lots of people take it on very necessarily as well: a job loss, an illness, a car emergency. When you don’t have a lot of resources, and many hard-working people don’t and won’t, the debt itself becomes one of your only resources (while it lasts) – a lifeline. These are the personal, micro-reasons, but we forget that there are macro-reasons one might require it, too: wages that haven’t increased with the price of living. Institutional racism. The failure of your ancestors to have both produced wealth and grown it exponentially to pass down to you. The failure to have a family that could have your back if you really needed it.

So as a society, we’re more comfortable talking about what most of us would see as “justifiable debt” – debt that can’t be helped, like to go to school or from medical bills even when we have insurance – than debt that came about from what we might consider bad decisions, like from buying unnecessary items on credit cards. It’s the same way we embrace a biological explanation of homosexuality (they were literally born that way!) but feel uneasier explaining women who have simply decided that they’re only going to be romantically involved with other women now to the religious right. Nuance has never been our specialty.

When it comes to consumer debt, our moral twisting gets uncomfortable. As a species, we don’t collectively appreciate difficult, multi-layered explanations, and the purpose of those exercises anyway is usually to arrive at a moral judgment.

But there’s a long list of ways, if you look closely, that this system of debt is here very much on purpose. If we must blame someone, I think our cameras are aimed at the wrong subjects.

Personal finance courses, for example, have never formed part of public school programs in a way that would make us believe the “powers that be” don’t actually want us to be falling into these traps. That’s because ensuring that people fall into them is by design: debt is what keeps this economy going, and what keeps a specific set of pockets filling each month while most others are quickly emptied.

That might be a cynical view, but far more cynical, I think, is setting up traps for people to fall into and then wagging fingers at them for having fallen in.

I have more to say on this subject on a personal level, but will be saving it for my next blog; I have no illusions about our collective attention spans for writing over 250 words in length. For those of you who’ve stuck to the end, thank you! More to come.