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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Back in My Day

John Robson gets ornery:

Our ancestors had candles and homemade clothes and somehow found satisfaction in life. Fifty years ago they had one car running on low-test gas and a black and white TV and when they were bored they read a book. Today we have two incomes, special low-calorie energy drinks and Facebook and Google Buzz and Twitter and MySpace and YouTube and more than 100,000 iPhone apps and we're desperately convinced the next one will transform us into genuinely radiant beings.

A recent MSNBC story asked if we were getting gadget fatigue. I hope so. If the parade of dazzling breakthroughs we've endured in the last 60 years hasn't given us things worth having, it never will. And if not gadget fatigue, how about debt fatigue? Just how atrocious does your balance sheet have to look before you don't need energy drinks because you're completely jittery from swallowing all that red ink?

Plus ca change. Back in the Roaring Twenties the great bugbear of conservatives were instalment plans. They were even blamed for helping to cause the Great Depression - but then again what hasn't been attributed as a cause of the Great Depression? Profligacy has been inveighed against since The Bible. Remember pawn shops? You probably don't, except as tropes in old movies and books. It was what desperate people used, about two generations back, as a form of revolving credit. These too were denounced by conservatives. The refrain is pretty much the same. O tempora o mores! The former changes, the latter stays the same to a surprising extent. I love dooming and glooming as much as the next guy, unless that next guy is this guy, and the meme about decline and fall is a perennial with me. Still people being in hoc up to the neck is nothing new, it's that more people can do it. Easy credit has allowed whole classes to dig themselves, and their heirs, into a financial hole as never before. 

Yes, impulse control isn't really taught anymore - it inhibits self expression or something. Yes, they do give credit cards to anyone with a pulse. But the existence of pawn shops, which date back to the classical era, and instalment plans suggests something more than the times are at play. If you give some people enough rope, they will hang themselves. Others will start a rope distribution company. Credit is an enormously powerful tool. It allows people to buy homes, start businesses and tide them over financial crises. The broke aren't always the foolish, sometimes just the unfortunate. Imagine a young couple with children, who have just bought a home. Both lose their jobs. To pay for groceries they borrow until they can get back on their feet. Economists have observed for years that people try to smooth out their living standards over their lifetime. Borrowing heavily in their twenties for education and starting a family, and then paying it back in their thirties and forties. This isn't profligacy as much as farsightedness. Assuming you'll be alive and working in twenty years, you plan for today and tomorrow. Material possessions will never bring happiness to those haven't earned it. Lack of them, however, will not return virtue to the land.

Posted by Richard Anderson on February 25, 2010 | Permalink


As long as people think that external things can bring them happiness and contentment this is to be expected. It becomes a type of addiction in that they invariably need a bigger and stronger fix.

I think it is probably worse to-day due to the moral vacuum in which we live. Values such as self-control, self-discipline and self-sacrifice have been replaced with so called rights, actually entitlements, to everything and anything with the focus on "me" and "mine".

Posted by: Alain | 2010-02-25 11:45:27 AM

My wife and I have friends who have "everything". Other than for show and tell, they seem to appreciate nothing. They are also not happy people.
The big lesson we are reminded of every time we get together is that when you can have anything...you appreciate nothing.
The wife and I will never have everything we want. We like it that way.

Posted by: peterj | 2010-02-25 9:12:35 PM

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