Fascinating and somewhat long article from New York Times economics reporter Edmund L. Andrews about how he and his wife managed to run up tons of mortgage and credit card debt.
While one has to applaud Andrews’ courage in writing the article, certain bits have an almost surreal quality.
Between humongous loan balances and high rates, we had hung ourselves with the rope they gave us. In the previous December alone, we charged $2,845 on the Chase card for Christmas gifts, food, gasoline, clothing and other expenses. The charges included almost $350 for groceries, $700 in clothes from J. Crew, $179 at GapKids and $700 for airplane tickets for two of Patty’s children to visit their father in Los Angeles. Our balance climbed from $14,118 to $17,135, and in January 2006 we maxed out at our $19,000 credit limit. And there were other expenses on other cards: $1,200 in dental work for Patty’s son Ben; $1,600 to rent a beach house the previous year for us and all the children. Granted, the beach house was an embarrassing mistake. But given that Patty had landed a solid job, it seemed like an indulgence we could work off later.
Obviously this man has been coming to terms with stuff, so good for him.
Everyone knows stuff costs money, and lots of circumstances can cause difficulties. Andrews was divorced and paying alimony and child support, but people have difficulties due to illness and all sorts of other life events as well.
But good lord, if you spent $700 at J. Crew while drowning in debt, you had a problem. My kin ate squirrels, catfish and possum during the Great Depression, and while I’ve managed to avoid that particular experience, the wisdom my ancestors passed on about not wasting things and living within one’s means does come to mind. Somehow my kids have been clothed just fine at Fred Meyer and Target.
The key point to take away from the article is that the banksters became societal faith healers, temporarily solving problems with suspect mortgages and HELOCS. Whether it was lust for a woman or lust for material goods, the banksters could rub that out for you.
Tons of people needed to make their self-worth about material things that they couldn’t afford. It’s sad, but it’s true.
Don’t get me wrong, our family has stuff, we like our stuff, and many times I try to impress upon our kids how lucky we are to have stuff. But in the end it’s just stuff. Well, it’s stuff we paid for either with cash or with a credit card that is paid off monthly, excluding the mortgage and one car loan at a time.
If you’re buying tens of thousands of dollars of other stuff on credit, you have a problem. And the banksters will gladly give you a lap dance in hopes of making you feel better about yourself.
The speculative orgy wasn’t, in the end, about capitalism, economics or any other “rational” endeavor, it was about selling the supposed good life to anyone who would fall for it. Never mind that the granite counter tops are too expensive, or that the BMW adds too much to the monthly budget. The banksters were gyrating, the music was loud and tomorrow was for the suckers who play by the rules.
For some reason, many otherwise rational people needed to scratch an itch, and the time period coincided with the reign of George W. Bush. The excessive materialism and condescension towards us were part of the same social malignancy that yielded the invasion of Iraq, the Schiavo madness and the indifference to massive suffering after Hurricane Katrina.
A society doesn’t go mad in one little corner, it goes mad everywhere. The mindset that excuses torture can easily excuse a few little financial excesses, can’t it?
Interestingly, those who were conservative in their personal lives and finances probably didn’t get hit so bad. Funny how that works out.
(Props to Atrios for noticing the article.)