Dudes, Why So Much Debt?

The Wife and I had a good discussion today sparked by Sunday’s first piece in the New York Times series on debt in America. (And thanks to J Frog for sending me that way today.)

I did learn a nice history of the lending industry from the article, in particular the industry’s shift in focus from demanding repayment to collecting fee-based income off of ever-rolling debt. While the credit-card industry, and certainly the mortgage industry of the past few years, often embodies the term “predatory capitalism”, it does seem that the article shifted too much of the onus for America’s debt problem away from the public. This is similar to media outlets who generally avoid putting any blame on the voting public for America’s political messes, for obvious business reasons. (What audience wants to be told that it’s the proverbial box of dull tacks? I prefer my mental tack sharp, thanks.)

Maybe I’m too harsh, though, because the writers and editors might have been making a point on the sly about the general public by choosing the subject that they did. Ms. McLeod — no relation to Connor, who has a far better repayment cycle with which to work — really makes one unfortunate (read: not well-thought-out) decision after another. From spending her already debt-addled medical recovery cruising QVC, to adding her 20-year-old son onto her second home-refinancing and ruining his credit too, I really don’t understand what made her do what she did.

So that raises the question: What really has made debt-laden ‘Mercans turn away from the admirable saving habits of back in the not-that-far-off day? Why is “I gotta have it” such a seemingly more powerful motivator across society now than it was then? This was the topic of conversation between The Wife and me. We came to one important conclusion that’s both seemingly unrelated but not that surprising: television.

The modern debt cycle really started to germinate at about the time the TV-raised Boomer generation was earning enough money to buy homes, sign up for credit cards and pop out Millennials like your gracious host. Boomers had grown up with TV, which based on its sheer volume of audio and visual stimulation was inevitably packed full of product pitches and brand names. Sure, their parents — the Greatests — were watching TV too, but the Depression experience burned the saving ethic into their parents’ heads for life. Greatests learned back then to do things like wearing the same six velour jumpsuits for 30 years. (Which is smart — over time this actually becomes cool, what with the roundabout cycle of retro hipness.)

Boomers weren’t about to wear velour jumpsuits; velour is too hot in summer, and after a childhood of American prosperity and the enveloping nature of TV advertising, they had to get that fine narrow-lapel suit to go with the Commodore 64 for the kids. Advertisers, too, were well-aware of just how good a job TV had done to implant the “buy stuff” message into America’s collective mind. Over time they shifted from making their products attractive to making access to their products a moral right — “You deserve a break today” and “Live richly”, not just “Our McNuggets taste totally rad” and “Hey, peep out this low interest rate.” This newly created sense of entitlement grew strong until too many people didn’t bother to use their better instincts, and the things they felt they needed encompassed even luxury goods that were previously — and still probably should be — considered impractical on the average income. Cue up many of my generational peeps growing up in this environment, who should nonetheless know better than to spend that percentage allotted for savings on Manhattan rent and cosmopolitans, and the cycle continues. (Also, thank you, Mom and Dad, for teaching me how to save cash and how to avoid becoming a spoiled jagoff.)

In conclusion, if we didn’t have TV, we might not have a subprime mortgage crisis and government bailouts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The end.

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3 Responses to “Dudes, Why So Much Debt?”

  1. It’s that, sure. It’s also that, IMO, there is a massive lack of critical thinking going on these days. In addition, it’s that attitude of “You deserve it” that is encouraged.

    I’m not getting rid of my tv – I love SYTYCD to much – but I am very wary of people too eager to sell me anything.

  2. I’ve wondered much the same things about mortgage buyouts. Would you EVER sign a NINJA (no income, no job) loan? A lier loan (where they don’t do a credit check)? How about one with a balloon payment in a few years that you can only cover by reselling the house at a profit? Yet millions did. Why should I feel bad for these fools?

    Thanks to my parents too. They made it so I couldn’t sleep at night with that sort of debt burden looming over my head. Still with no credit debt and no car payment and no student loans, and a reasonable mortgage I was still in the 80th percentile of debt burden for people my age according to that NYT article.

    Posted by Rich | July 24th, 2008 at 9:02 pm
  3. Dude, you totally stole my argument. Though I do disagree with one thing — you can’t just blame tv and advertising. Yes, people get sucked into the “I deserve it” mentality, but that also kind of ignores that fact that those same people then refuse to take any responsibility for their own stupid decisions. Just like you can only blame mortgage brokers so much, same is true for advertisers.

    Posted by The Wife | August 24th, 2008 at 12:45 pm

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