Monday, February 9, 2009

In Debt We Trust

Credit! Credit relates to the word “credo,” to believe. In recent years I have many times said that a central creed of American civil religion has come to be “In debt we trust.” That is not to cast aspersions on those who borrow to go to college, to make it through a health crisis, to buy a home. But the poor suffer most in a society that relies on credit, that believes in debt. And now we know that!

The intricate web of our false god has let everyone down. The poor suffer the most, and would take the least amount of money to help. The wealthy require the most money to bale out, and suffer the least.

Increasingly over the past few years I had begun to wonder if we ought to talk about “American Corporate Religion” instead of American civil religion, for there were those whose aim it seemed was decrease government’s power and replace it with dependence on the free market. And our civil life together was tearing apart. Now, I do think capitalism can serve people well, but when it no longer serves, when it has lost moral grounding, it has tremendous power to increase the gap between rich and poor.

So in what do people believe? I think the central creeds of American civil religion are in doubt, up for grabs. What are they? What were they? What were they not? And what might they be? And what actions must we take to lead us into a new way of believing? (Sometimes faith leads to action and sometimes actions lead us to ways of believing.)

We must start with reshaping some of the systems: inclusive health care; fair, honest and trustworthy lending for home ownership; ways of living--and teaching our youth--that are not credit-card dependent. “In debt we trust” was such a central tenet of the creed of ACR that “Pay Day Loan” establishments dot the corners of neighborhoods where people marginally employed live. And many can never climb out of debt. “In debt we trust” was taught in college corridors by credit card companies taking advantage of youth just learning to manage money on their own. “In debt we trust” corrupted executives who convinced themselves that “good debt” helps people, institutions, and global corporations.

Now, borrowing and lending will not go away and are as necessary are any historic forms of currency and monetary exchange. But what do we believe? In what do we trust? How will the current realities change our creeds? How might they?

3 comments:

Rob G. said...

I don't believe things will change dramatically - at least not in the near future. Part of the human predicament, it seems to me, is the inability to learn from history - this is why it has a tendency to repeat itself. After a generation has made a mistake and then is no longer around to teach subsequent generations, those next generations become ignorant of what led to the big mistake made by that previous generation. In order for there to be significant changes in, say, credit practices in the USA, there would have to be either 1) a significant overhaul and change of the economic structure of the nation, or 2) a significant cultural change which impacts the perceived importance of ideals such as capitalism and which re-centers the national mythology of said capitalism. These things do not happen easily, nor do they happen quickly. Once the economy begins to right itself, much of this will once again get forgotten and we'll begin the process of setting ourselves up for it to happen again in about a generation or so. Not optimistic, but realistic.

Suzi O said...

One American creed I think of is actually also a slogan for a candy bar, "Hungry? Why Wait!" I think America is one of the only countries in the world that this slogan and creed would work. In many countries around the world (and parts of this country as well) people do have to wait if they are hungry. Some wait because it is part of culture to only eat at certain times but many in this world wait to eat when they are hungry simply because they have to. However, we as Americans don't really know what it means it have to wait for anything let a lone food. If we are hungry we go to the refrigerator, the cabinet, the store or the drive through and our "need" is fulfilled within seconds. I was reading a study the other day, which reveled findings in regards to a hunger study. Americans where studied to look deeper in to the causes of obesity of America. One of the findings of the study was that we have evolved to no longer feel the seance of thirst but rather we equate thirst with hunger so when our bodies are actually needing water we eat. So I say maybe this creed needs to actually be "Hungry? Drink Water"

Bre said...

Will the current realities of the financial situations in the U.S. change our American civil religion creeds?
I hope so! I think that in order for things to change, there needs to be a fundamental change in what we believe our duty is as citizens and people who live in this country.
I am not a financial expert, but it's obvious that something has gone wrong here. I am 28 and have been educated by the motto, "In debt we trust." I thought my parents were crazy for worrying so much about money and paying for cash for things like cars and home improvements. Now I don't think they are so dumb! I haven't thought twice about taking out school loans or thinking about the reality of paying them back. A big mistake on my part, and perhaps the culture in which I've grown up in.
Maybe we need some money management education in our school systems. I could have used that . . .and still could!