For more than 20 years now, we Americans have become addicted to excessive and unsustainable consumption funded by unreasonable debt. Our economy, based around service with outsourced production, led to a dependency on debt instruments, an explosion of SUVs and, of course, Wall Street profits. Today’s financial crisis reveals our modern, debt-fueled economy as a majestic but unstable house of cards. Yet, just as the nation’s consumers and financial institutions begin to see the dark side of debt, the U.S. government’s solution is to prop up the economy with even more debt in the form of fiscal stimuli and “bailout” packages.
This is a familiar cycle: While trying to convince ourselves that we are not addicted (to debt), we dig ourselves deeper into the hole while trying to get out. Like many addicts, we know we need to quit. But the only way to motivate change is by allowing ourselves to use our drug of choice one more time. Ironically, the one-more-time philosophy only leads to one more time.
Sadly, this is the present approach to our economic woes. We have been on a debt binge for the last 20 years, incurring more debt as our standard of living rose. But it seems we have been living on “borrowed” time. We owe our standard of living and recent economic successes (and failures) to our ability to constantly back up our purchases by taking on new debt — and printing trillions of dollars to do it.
This debt and credit addiction has beset all facets of our society and has severely distorted our economy, driving us toward services and consumption and away from the manufacturing and production that leads to real, sustainable growth. Indeed, cheap debt has bloated our economy with income and jobs for not only the brokers who sold homes to people who couldn’t afford them, but also to the bankers who originated their loans, the investment bankers who packaged and sold these bad loans and, of course, the landscapers, car dealers and baristas across the country who benefited from their new wealth.
Unfortunately, this new wealth allows everyone to buy mortgages, coffee and SUVs and to open new lines of credit. The traps of easy debt are only widened by our materialistic culture, which makes us all too willing to assume debt in order to “keep up with the Joneses.” As more and more people have been drawn into this thriving subprime economy, America has allowed its manufacturing base to languish, preferring to outsource more menial jobs to developing countries. The problem is that we send more and more of our means of production overseas and thus become ever-more dependent on foreign credit to finance our rampant consumption.
The solution to this problem, as with addiction to drugs, is not to go more deeply into using. Instead, we must stop the self-feeding cycle by quitting and look more deeply into the reasons for our use. Then, I expect we will find the true cause of the problem: American materialism. In the past 20 years, we have put so much stock in our debt-purchased possessions rather than building up personal savings, credit and systems of education.
How much longer can we indulge our debt addiction before domestic and foreign debt holders start worrying about our ability to pay them back? The “credit crunch” is the equivalent of going cold turkey. And the severe withdrawal symptoms (e.g., the subprime mortgage crisis, the closing of investment banks) that followed have made us desperate for another fresh infusion of debt, this time in the form of a $700 billion bailout.
Although kicking the habit will be painful, America must wean itself off debt. Otherwise, the consequences could be fatal.