In the current sorry state of the American economy, it has become fashionable to blame everyone from Wall Street traders to rich bankers to the Republican Party. All of these certainly share varying degrees of blame, but most people refuse to place any responsibility where it truly belongs: with every one of us.
A large part of what put us in the precarious economic position we are in now is the quixotic quest over the past two decades to spend more and more money. Since the late 1980s, our standard of living has risen faster than at any time in history, not because of increased productivity, but because we have, as individuals and as a nation, leveraged ourselves into crushing debt to improve our lifestyles. According to several 2006 economic surveys, we now spend 101% of what we earn, giving Americans a negative savings-rate for the first time in our history. Spending has replaced baseball as the national pastime.
In the 1970s, a family of four lived comfortably in a 1400 square-foot house. Today 3000 square feet is more the norm, and that is with smaller families. We pay more for cars than we did for those 1970s houses, and think nothing of paying 29% interest on the credit card we used to buy that 60-inch flat screen television because, of course, it’s a necessity. There was no way to sustain such behavior, and now the bill has come due: the bubble burst, Wall Street crashed, and everyone from bankers to autoworkers find themselves out of work with no prospects on the horizon.
We were told to spend after 9/11 to help the economy, and we’re looking at spending as our savior again now. The bank bailout and economic stimulus plans aim to solve our debt problems by creating the largest national debt in the history of the world. Twice in the past 8 years we have had the opportunity as a nation to actually make sacrifices, something no generation here has done since the Second World War, but sacrifice isn’t in our vocabulary.
This economic crash is essentially a hell of our own making because we have become a nation that “knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” We accept a society where a baseball player makes $100 million a year to play a game while teachers and police officers are forced to work second jobs to make ends meet. We bail out predatory lenders and pass the cost on to our children and grandchildren.
This sick inversion of priorities is one of the things that must change for us to ever reach our potential as a nation. And we should start by no longer worshiping at the altar of the dollar. Money, and the insatiable desire for it, has given us the world’s highest standard of living, but a low quality of life. We work 60-hour weeks and rarely take vacation time. Our European friends understand the need for relaxation to balance work life; we would do well to emulate them.
But the problem goes much farther than taking a little time off from our daily grind. As we move out of this crisis over the next few years, we must realign our priorities. If we don’t start giving as much respect to writers and painters and poets and teachers and all the people who help make our lives full and interesting as we do to corporate CEOs and professional athletes, all the money in the world won’t matter. And if we don’t start taking care of the increasing number of our fellow citizens left behind in poverty, we may end up someday joining them. In fact, many of us already have.