January 17, 2013

The American Culture of Debt. ~ John Forrest

The United States of America is a Culture of Debt.

In this materialistic society, the desire for more and more possessions, coupled with extreme inflation, has manifested as a debt-centered lifestyle.

The economy is based on the illusion of infinite growth. For capitalism to work, people have to buy things. People are encouraged to buy more and more, setting up a planned obsolescence, always selling “improved” products so people will throw away their “obsolete” products. Prices are manipulated to be just high enough to make a profit—being presented to consumers as “the new low price.” People are hoarding more and more possessions that they don’t need.

In the prosperous ’50s and ’60s, it was still possible to buy a car straight from your paycheck if you saved. Buying a car today is equivalent to buying a house. In their eagerness to possess a brand new car, Americans are encouraged to go into a debt which will take a lifetime to pay off.

Even to buy a condominium today will take a lifetime to pay off.

Many of these great debts, cars, houses, apartments, education, will probably never be paid off in entirely. As this culture of debt rolls on, no one really expects those debts to be paid off; instead, people continue to buy, creating an illusion of growth, encouraging stockbrokers to buy more stocks.

Most Americans have credit cards which they use freely for anything and everything—credit cards with virtually infinite limits. Overdrawing a credit card has little consequence as there are many more companies eager to offer you another for higher limits, “lower interest” and free for an initial period of time. Then you can go out and buy more things you don’t need.

This kind of thing is happening collectively to the government. Since the 1930s the government has been borrowing more and more from super-bankers who practically own the world. We have a national debt of trillions.

Republicans are currently demanding cuts in a range of social services—except military to protect our wealth and domination over the world.

The way this is set up, if people lose jobs and can no longer buy things to keep companies going, the economy is certain to collapse.

We’re living in bankruptcy. Debt is simply a fact of life.

This is psychosis: a complete break with reality. Pollution, environmental destruction, exploitation of third world workers, increasing wars to make money, overpopulation, cut social services—all of this is so huge corporations can make money selling useless things that no one really needs.

(Incidentally, I watched a very good documentary the other night called “Zietgiest 2” which was about this general subject. It even questioned whether we need money at all to function.)

Our ultimate debt is to Mother Nature. For all too long, we have been raping and destroying this planet, spreading our devastation like a cancer. In our obsession to acquire more and more, we are destroying the very basis of our existence: our air, water, soil, the ecosystem—we are disrupting the very climate itself.

Little do we realize that Mother Nature is far more powerful than our species. We are like smokers who deny that their habit will cause them harm in the long run. Mother Nature will strike back and she will foreclose on this entire civilization.

Let’s look at some proactive steps each of us can take:

Ask yourself: “Do I really need this?”

When an impulse to buy something you heard about or saw advertised arises, ask yourself: “Do I really need this?”

For example, if a newer version of a cell phone is released that does more than your current cell phone does—it works faster, has a more accurate GPS, a better camera, etc.—you might reconsider throwing away a perfectly well-functioning cell phone. Does the phone do everything you need it to do already?

Leave your credit card behind, pay in cash.

This is advice for real shopping addicts. Using a credit card seems to make the purchase more “painless.” Lately, we seem to use credit/debit cards for all purchases, even for something as minor as a cup of coffee. In some locations, you can’t buy gas without a card, parking fees are collected by cards, online purchases are often times only able to be completed with a card. We see an increasing number of automated check-out machines; these quickly tally up your purchases and you pay by card.

By making the process of paying more inconvenient, you will become more aware of what you are purchasing.

1. Fix it rather than replace it.

Why not fix those holes in your socks, shoes or clothes, instead of buying brand new ones? (Recently, I chose to pay a seamstress to replace a zipper in a very good winter coat rather than just buy another one.) Why do we need microwaves when we have perfectly well-functioning stoves?

Replacing gadgets for new gadgets with more features means you have to relearn how to work it (if it is computerized). With online shopping such as Amazon, it is possible to order an item, try it out and send it back if it doesn’t suit you. We make an obsessive critiques of every item we buy—and that’s exactly what the corporations want us to do.

You scrutinize over the “best” and worry about not having it.

Companies deliberately design inferior items not to last more than a year, because they already have the “new improved” version designed. Break free from the cycle and repair what you own.

2. Look for durable items to last over the years.

Once upon a time, a pair of shoes was expected to last for a lifetime. Don’t buy anything made of plastic or petroleum-based. Invest in leather. Invest in metal. Classic items with older companies tend to last longer and manufacture a standard parts for repairs.

3. There is nothing wrong with appearing to be “poor.”

We are conditioned to seek ever-increasing comfort or items to improve our self-image. We are taught that it is shameful to look “poor.” You would save money and exasperation to accept you situation as it is, rather than continually searching for something better. Living with discomfort is never as bad as you imagine it to be—you adapt.

4. Be content with what you have.

Live with the discomfort rather than attempting to “fix” it. When we try to make our lives more comfortable and convenient, original issues are replaced with more complex problems, which we continue trying to “fix.” Instead, we may benefit from learning to live with less, learning contentment. As the good Buddha once advised, it is our sense of “need” which creates all our problems.

5. Borrow or loan rather than buy something you’d use only once in a while.

There seems to be a personal drive to each have our own tools and gadgets, but if you are only using an item once in a while, why not ask a neighbor or friend to borrow the tool you need? In turn, share what you have with others. Create an exchange. A novel idea may be to have libraries of such tools to maintain and repair what we have. Along that line, why not share bigger, more prominent items? A couple of people could own a car, for instance, collectively paying for costs and maintenance and arranging to make trips on need, rather than having it in a garage.

6. Trade goods and services rather than buy or pay for services.

After all, this is what we used to do before money was invented and it was a practical method. When money becomes worthless, we could very well return to this system of barter. Even gold and silver would be deemed worthless if we were reduced to only the sheer necessities of life.

7. Take stock of the real necessities of life.

Take a close inventory of what you have and consider how important it is to you. What do we truly need as living organisms? Food, water, air, shelter, clothing and sex. As human beings, we need social contact, love, physical contact and acceptance. We need some degree of recreation and we need stimulating experiences. We need to be creative to entertain one another. We need to be inventive, always looking for the most efficient solutions. If you take inventory, you might be surprised to see you are already in possession of much (if not all) of what you need.

8. Consume as little as possible.

Don’t leave the water running. Turn off the lights. Move your thermostat down and close your curtains. Drink water. Don’t flush the toilet every time you pee. Use a wash cloth instead of a paper towel. Take a shower and change your clothes once a week. Don’t eat more than you need.

Does this sound unusually drastic? In decades to come, we may very well be in a state of emergency when food, water, gas, energy and even air must be rationed. We may as well get used to it.

9. Have one baby per couple.

Let’s face it, this is the only way we are going to reduce the problem of overpopulation; after a few generations, we can have two babies per couple. We can also share our children as was historically customary in tribes. The correlation is simple: the fewer people, the more there is to share. The fewer the people, the lesser the impact on the ecosystem.

10. Recycle.

Here’s a good “wake up” exercise: go visit a junkyard and witness the incredible volume our disposed items has grown to. See first hand the where all of those “must-haves” go after once you have thrown them out. Observe the non-biodegradable materials piling up—the plastic bags floating around in the wind, the diapers sitting unchanged for years. This wake up exercise, mirroring the Buddhist exercise during which monks visit graveyards to watch decomposing bodies, will bring the reality of our habits into sudden perspective.

Take care to break down everything you throw away into the proper can. Consider what you could take to Goodwill stores.

The suggestions here may seem quite extreme and austere. Even I would have trouble doing these things, but we need to break the addiction somewhere; it begins in small steps.

These would be good resolutions to adhere to in this year of “Hanging onto the Fiscal Cliff.” We can either fall right back to the bottom or we can make it to the peak of the mountain—to contemplate a vast beautiful view.

We must develop a conscious consideration of what we consume and how it affects the whole. We could call this “conscious shopping.” When you buy an item, consider where it came from, how it was made and where it will wind up once you are finished with its use. Consider whether there is something comparable you could make from materials you have at home. Consider whether you actually need this brand new item when the slightly older, gently worn version you already own functions just as well.

All of this is aligns with what the Greeks called the “Golden Mean” and the Chinese called the “Middle Way.” Spirituality, love and natural beauty are absolutely free. The less we consume, the more we will have. Our lives will be freed of substantial stress, and once again, we will have a beautiful planet.


John Forrest is a trickster mystic who likes to ask embarrassing questions.



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Ed: Brianna Bemel
Assist: Sara Crolick

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