Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Mess of 2009, Part 3

In part 2 of this series, I outlined the use and effect of consumerism on American culture, particularly in the service of publicly-held for-profit corporations. Convincing Americans, first and foremost, that they are consumers, that some part of their self-identity is tied up with being a consumer of things, was a significant step in insuring the profitability of corporations. I consume, therefore, I am. Once a person on some level accepts the notion that they are consumers, that they consume and do so in increasing quantities, that person becomes more and more vulnerable to the machinations of corporations through advertising.

We can see how successful this effort has been by reflecting on the casual manner in which the word consumer is tossed about. A prime example is the monthly publishing of the Consumer Price Index, or CPI. This index is a measure of the average price of consumer goods and services purchased by households. We frequently hear references to consumer confidence as a barometer of how people in this country feel about buying things. Low consumer confidence is bad, high consumer confidence is good.

Think about that for a moment. This idea rests upon the notion that buying more things is good, in and of itself. So, then, high consumer confidence works against such notions as thrift, frugality, conservation, modesty, and other qualities. The more we buy, the higher consumer confidence rises.

I now want to move to another associated handmaiden of corporations that, combined with identification as a consumer, is a powerful hook to close the circle for endless profits. I’m referring to the notion of debt and credit. It is this idea, and the manner in which it has evolved over just a handful of years, that lies at the center of most of our current economic problems. The key, however, in understanding this idea lies in full awareness of what debt serves. Understanding that debt serves a specific purpose for corporations is vital in discerning a solution to this issue and the role of corporations in American and world culture.

Americans are bombarded with endless offers to get more and more credit. Of all things that corporations attempt to sell us, credit is the single element that is the basis for almost all advertising. Corporations try – and largely succeed – to sell us on going further and further into debt. There is hardly an item sold under any venue where we’re not also encouraged to buy the item on credit. Whether the item is a large item like a house or a car, a moderate item like a vacation or a TV, or a small item, that we can purchase for six easy payments of $14.95 (plus shipping and handling), nothing escapes the grasp of debt and credit.

More importantly, we’re sold debt on the basis of debt being at least a neutral experience, perhaps even a good thing. There is rarely a situation where anything negative is associated with increased debt. If you “own” a home (I use the term “own” loosely, since most of us, in fact, don’t own our homes – the mortgage company does) the mortgage company will inevitably try to sell you on more debt. Take out a home equity loan (which actually means, “buy” some more stuff and roll the cost of that stuff into your mortgage). Throughout such a process, there are never any “red lights” – never any effort on the part of the lender to say, as an example, “Do you really need that $30,000 pool in your back yard? Maybe you should save up that $30,000 and pay for it cash!”

As a result of this view of debt, I could, this afternoon, take my credit cards and find something to buy worth $75,000 and spread the debt across several cards, without any cash down. No one, none of the credit card companies, would ask me how such a dramatic increase in my debt would affect my life, whether I can really pay such a debt off, or any other questions that might cause me to pause before spending a tidy sum like that.

In order to grasp the magnitude of the change in attitudes toward debt, reflect back, if you’re old enough, to a time when credit cards were a rarity. If you’re too young to remember this, ask anyone who can remember the early 1960’s. I’ve asked this simple question of dozens of people: “How many credit cards did your parents have?” The answer is usually quick and unequivocal: “None.” Or maybe one – a gas card, or perhaps a department store card. Most often the answer is that our parents had no credit cards. Not a one.

In the early 60’s the public attitudes toward debt were vastly different. Debt was considered negative, something to be avoided. Going into debt brought a certain shame with it. In part, this attitude toward debt reflects longstanding moral restraints on excessive interest charges. The term usury implies charging excessive interest. Usury laws date back thousands of years, with prohibitions on excessive interest charges found in both the Old and New Testaments and the Koran. In particular comes this warning from the Old Testament:

The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. – Proverbs 22:7

There are two key elements to these ancient words. The first phrase states what I consider a primary goal of rich people: rulership. While not universal, many rich people believe that their wealth gives them rulership rights. The second phrase then spells out their tool to accomplish their rulership permanently: debt.

I find it almost humorous to ask people who grew up in the 60’s whether their parents had credit cards. It’s almost like a light comes on when they think about this for the first time, which many people do because debt is almost an unconscious matter in our culture. In contrast, it is almost normal now for younger people to live in total dependence to debt, thinking that any and all debt is acceptable.

Crucial to this entire effort is this:

Take a moment to reflect on the reality this commercial attempts to conjure up. Going into debt keeps the wheels of progress moving ahead. Paying with cash stops the wheels of progress. Corporations, and the wealthy people they serve, want to convince us all the debt is freedom – like the credit card commercial set to the Rolling Stones’ lyrics, “I’m free to do what I want, any old time.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. This should be obvious once we stop to think about it. There can be no freedom in debt. Who of us feels free when we get our credit card bills? What factors keep us from rising up when we see injustice? Isn’t our indebtedness – our things, multiple cars, a myriad of electronic playtoys, two or more houses, you name it – the force that prevents us from saying what we really believe in that meeting at work?

Even now, despite the fact that the U.S. economy, which appears to be leading the rest of the world toward some economic hellhole, Americans seem so….quiet. We hear reports of older folks going to the homes of AIG executives demanding accountability. Realizing they have few remaining years left and little to lose now that their “guaranteed” 401K’s have evaporated, faced with the prospect of being a greeter at Walmart, what exactly do they have to lose? The rest of us yell… the TV.

I contend this is all purposeful. Corporations, serving the desires of a relative few on this planet, have created a clever web. I will detail that web in my next article.

1 comment:

  1. After 9-11, George Bush II encouraged Americans to buy more stuff in order to make the country strong! Idiot. We are a consumer society and our economy is largely based on consumption of goods. But to look at it as a conspiracy of power is a bit strange. We all have cooperated, to some degree in this credit driven consumerish state of mind. And it has a long history!

    It was in the 1920s, directly after WWI that consumer products, purchased on credit, became a reality. Radios, refrigerators, automobiles, washing machines (no dryers yet). But one thing that everyone, from the industrialist to the shoeshine boy, purchased on credit was stock. Yes, many people gambled on the stock market and ultimately lost in 1929. The problem: they bought stock on "margin" 10 cents to the dollar. Also, as purchasing power increased due to credit, the advertising industry was born. All this led to overproduction and collapse. First of the stock market in 1929 and then the domino effect of banking, commerce, and industry. (back then at least some of the rich had the courtesy to jump out of windows to their deaths--no "golden parachutes!")

    Along came Franklin Roosevelt and no the New Deal did not end the Great Depression (WWII did), but it ameliorated many of its effects and gave people reason to hope. He saved capitalism, plain and simple. But the Roosevelt administration also created regulations to help prevent a future collapse.

    The plain truth is that capitalism is cyclical with a rise and crash about every ten years since 1776, check it out yourself. What has changed is that the regulations that helped prevent major crashes such as the one we're in now were systematically gutted, especially by Republican administrations since 1981 and Ronald Reagan. Obviously this is a complex issue that can't be explained away by simple conspiracy theories.

    The fact remains that whenever the country finds itself in economic straits the answer is always consumption. So in the 1950's we had the "You Auto Buy Now" advertising campain and a bad recession in 1958. The Vietnam War brought a consumer boom and bust as war spending created inflation and then a terrible recession combined with the Oil Embargo in 1973. The solution in 1974: Whip Inflation Now (WIN) Buy a car (BAC). Similar events in the 1980s with Reagan removing solar panels from the White House roof and encouraging people to consume. But his administration also put the country in 280 billion dollars of debt in military spending. Simple lesson: you can't have guns and butter. You can't spend money on wars and the military without paying for it through taxes and borrowing.

    So we find ourselves in our current crisis: Sound familiar? Too much credit, too much consumption, too much production (but not here--we're sending our money overseas). Corruption, consumption, collapse. Conspiracy? No. Stupidity and greed? Yes.