Saturday, March 7, 2009

"The Problem Is Us"

Here's a moment to remember - utter depravity clearly reflected in This American Life. The time-stamp is around 38:00 if you go to listen, and I highly recommend that you do.

I don't understand the current banking crisis, but I am listening to an episode of This American Life aimed at explaining the crisis in simple terms, and I just heard something that seemed profoundly true to me - "The problem is us."

We currently owe, as a society, 13 Trillion dollars. The GDP for the entire US economy is 13 Trillion dollars. To be clear, that means that we collectively owe as much as the entire US economy combined. The only other time in recent history that this was the case was in 1929, just shy of the economic collapse and the Great Depression.

The problem is us. We owe too much. I myself owe more than Pam and I make combined in a year, almost all of which is educational debt. This is even after spending three painful years getting out from under commercial debts we couldn't handle. I'm part of the problem - in fact, mathematically I'm contributing more than my 'share', it looks like. So the problem is also me.

Yes, we have a bunch of millionaire and billionaire bankers who are hysterically greedy and desperately trying to avoid suffering any kind of consequences for stupid decisions they made while grasping insatiably for profit. They made bad decisions and we are going to bail them out, apparently, dollar for dollar. But they are not the whole of the problem. The problem is us.

This is a problem in all of our hearts - something that, frankly, religion is specifically and superbly equipped to identify and begin to address. It is an insurmountable battle, but the lines, for once in our lives, will be clearly drawn as banks fail and bailouts balloon into the trillions of tax dollars and jobs disappear.

The line is this. We throw our lives away in the pursuit of things which do not, will never, satisfy. And the time always comes when we pay for it. We pay for our trust in eternal growth without consequences. We pay for idolatry.

I'm afraid of what's coming for us, but I can't pretend that it is undeserved, that it is solely the purview of fat, chuckling villains smoking cigars made of $100 bills and taking private jet trips to visit child prostitutes in Thailand. Those villains are still there, but I can't pretend I'm not a villain too. A villain of a lesser sort, but less villainous? Ultimately, perhaps not. Perhaps the difference is only in means.

The problem is us. The problem is me.

Sin is fractal - the edge of every shore is the same no matter how high up or low down you are.


Aric Clark said...

Great post, Doug. I'll have to listen to that episode of "This American Life".

Especially an interesting comment right after that Daily Show video I put up where he is clearly blaming corrupt CEO's and investors and the media sycophants who have played along.

So how do we repent of debt? Pay it back? What does that mean for those (like you and me) who have too much to pay back - except over a really long period of time? Is repentance in this case going to mean different things for people of different means?

Doug Hagler said...

I think that differences in degree are really important, but shouldn't overshadow the similarity in orientation, for lack of a better word. So, my student loans or car loan aren't of an equal degree as, say, a Billion-dollar fraud - its just that the fraud and the loans come from the same predicament.

I think that ethics is the discipline of looking at what is meaningful about the differences in degree - it is possible to succumb more or less, it just isn't possible not to succumb at all.

Stacia said...

So I'm wondering, to feel ethical about our actions, should we stop doing things that put us in long-term debt? Do we start living with our parents again until we save up for a house? Do we refuse to attend any school that we can't pay monthly? Are these the kind of things you think would be the ethical manner of acting? And if so, do you think the market/society would adjust if enough people decided upon that particular course?

Doug Hagler said...

Good questions. I think the market will always adapt to what the majority of people do and want. Now, this is always deeply influenced by the billions of dollars going into psychological research and advertising - our minds are always being colonized and manipulated.

I do think that our economy absolutely must change - either it will change because we choose to change collectively, or it will change because it will collapse, since it is unsustainable. Either way it'll be painful.

I think, as one example, that assuming that everyone waits until they have a house just won't work. Each family having their own house is a myth that isn't accurate and isn't possible, and assuming we all *need* houses is maybe part of what leads to a sub-prime mortgage crisis. It inflates the prices of houses when everyone tries to buy one because most people can't really afford one on what they earn - house prices skyrocketed in the past 20 or so years, while pay only went up for the ultra-rich.

But anyway, I'm rambling. To feel ethical about our actions, I think we should think about what we actually need, and what we have to do to afford that - and I'm in the same boat with everyone else, seemingly, with thinking/feeling I "need" a great deal. My expectations are corrupted, so to speak, and trying to fulfill them just plugs me into a system that does not have my best interests at heart.

Paul Wise said...

Wait, does this mean I have to put down my torch and pitchfork, or do we still get to tar and feather Wall Street?

... Maybe just a little tar and a couple of feathers?

Steve Schuler said...

Nice article, Doug. I have only today become aware of your collaborative effort here at "Two Friars and a Fool". A wiser man than myself has said, "Almost everyone wants to change the world, but very few are willing to change themselves." While I, too, often share a common disdain for the "others" who have wrought havoc through their greed and self serving manipulations, I can not lose sight of the fact that it is only my own life that I have any real control over and responsibility for. I have never been in a position that would allow me the power and influence that the folks who garner the headlines have. Does that in any way make me "better" than them? I might like to think so, but it probably does not.