Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural speech sounded the call, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It wasn’t the first time we have heard this. Thoreau said it some 80 years earlier. “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.” Americans know the meaning of this axiom because we live it every day in homes across the land. Fear sells; fear dictates the quality of our lives; fear keeps people in power; fear more than any other single emotion keeps Americans in chains.
Beginning almost at birth we are taught to fear God whose wrath will come down upon us on some sort of Day of Judgment. We are taught by parents to obey them or face dire consequences. We are driven to get better grades or else. We are taught to fear the motives, patriotism and character of those with whom we disagree. We learn through the media to fear this party or that interest group, nation or religion. We buy guns out of ginned-up fear. We denigrate other people with different value systems and sexual orientations because we fear that their ethos may one day engulf our own. And, of course, we are conditioned to fear the unknown.
We can run away from most of those fears if we choose. With a few notable exceptions, we can avoid guns by being careful and by scurrying to safety at the first sign of gunfire. We can turn off the talking heads in the broadcast media and we can simply ignore any rhetoric that makes us afraid. But after more than three decades of working with families of every imaginable income, ethnicity and political leanings and looking at their financial situations in some depth I can say with unshakable confidence that there is one factor above all that makes us afraid and from which there is rarely any escape. That primary source of fear in today’s America is personal debt. It controls our lives and it detracts from our sense of freedom in every possible way. The “captains of industry” and the managers of our financial and banking systems know this all too well. It is the linchpin of their very being. That self-induced slavery to debt begins very early these days often triggered the nanosecond a student says “yes” to a college acceptance offer.
There are those among us who fear some sort of military-led takeover by our government or a foreign power poised to move in and impose some new, alien system upon us. While we are losing sleep and creating possibly irreparable divisions in our society as we argue these points, we fail to note that the real threat to our freedoms comes not in a uniform but in a suit or on a web site or commercial representing an agent of easy credit or creating a demand for a product or service we don’t need. The message is always the same. For a few up-front dollars, the purveyor can provide an extended “easy” payment plan that usually contains some deadly, anti-consumer conditions in the small print which no one reads or understands. As we over-buy, we enslave ourselves. The government had no hand in forging those chains. It was all done by experts in creating false demand amid an enriched, free-enterprise environment that says “more is better”. Once you are sucked in like a proverbial small mouth bass that has chomped down on a barbed hook attached to an enticing nutrient-free plastic lure from which there is no escape, you are no longer in full command of your destiny. [It is interesting to note in passing that most fishing lures and credit cards (also a lure) are made of the same substance.]
Look at your own life. How many of you would like to leave your job but are afraid because of debt that you couldn’t pay if you were unemployed? How many of you bite your tongue when you know your boss is wrong-headed about something but you fear the possibility of being fired or demoted if you express your concerns? How many of you don’t dare to rock the employment boat because of the fear of losing health care benefits or becoming in default of your old student loans? How many of you chose careers or colleges that would minimize future debt so that the cost of higher education wouldn’t ruin your economic life forever? How many of you fear the sound of a phone ringing or a knock at the door from an aggressive creditor? How many of you fear coming home and seeing that note attached to your front door or the shame of having a neighbor tell you that they read your name buried in a public notice about a foreclosure trustee sale in the local paper or waking up one morning to an empty car port that once sheltered your automobile before it was repossessed under cover of darkness? It is hard to jump on board “the-greatest-country-in-the-world” bandwagon when one’s life is so filled with fear and uncertainty and when the nation in times of financial stress bails out banks and financial institutions, the real source of that fear, but not its own citizens.
The truth is that the minute each of us signs the first IOU, our lives begin to change for the worse. You can never run from debt. You can’t sleep it away; you can’t drink it away; it is inescapable and that is why it controls your life as a 24/7 fear. It is that fear that drives much of our personal negativism and skepticism toward many things including government. If you have never had to confront the effects of personal debt in uncertain economic times, you will have no idea of what this piece is all about.
According to Economy Watch, the total amount of consumer debt in the nation is $2.4 trillion or about $7,800 per person. Thirty-three percent of that total is from revolving credit (credit cards) and the rest is from longer-term obligations like car loans, mortgages and student loans. Over $81 billion worth of fast food purchases is charged annually to credit cards which helped to raise the average credit card debt per card holder to over $6,500. More than 2 million households carry more than $20,000 in personal credit card debt. That’s a lot of sleepless nights. That’s a lot of fear.
Government is not the problem although an argument can be made that it has a hand in facilitating the acquisition and accumulation of personal debt. But in the end government does not torment us even when we owe money to it. Provided you show some signs of communicating with the government if there is an unpaid debt or past taxes, it doesn’t call us at our homes during dinner; it doesn’t put liens on our houses, businesses and bank accounts; it doesn’t make debt worse by adding arbitrary charges like late fees, phone calls and usurious interest penalties. It doesn’t make clandestine contacts with credit bureaus that make our future lives even worse by damaging our credit thus making future purchases more expensive. That is a practice which at best violates the whole notion of taking away property without due process since no one knows how credit scores are really calculated. Those “honors” and more are reserved for the private sector. Ironically, it is because our government doesn’t do those things that we direct our frustrations about debt at the government. It is an easier, less risky target. It is also misguided angst.
It isn’t the national debt that threatens each of us because collectively we can easily reduce it if we choose to do so. But dealing with personal debt is a lonely, frightening and profoundly enslaving undertaking. Today’s debt-ridden America is looking and acting like the world of the old, all-powerful company store this time with many and varied outlets but just as controlling. For so many Americans across the economic spectrum, personal debt is like hosting an inoperable benign tumor that one simply gets accustomed to even with the knowledge that it can turn malignant at any moment consuming first the quality of life and ultimately life itself. Personal debt like that unpredictable tumor is a renewable, never-ending source of fear, anxiety and hopelessness.
The degree to which each of us is able to rein in those IOUs will forever effect the quality of our lives. By controlling debt-spawned fear, one can reclaim clarity of thought and the mental space to focus on the things that make us want to participate in our world…our family, friends, careers, quiet moments of personal reflection and the ability to truly enjoy a glass of a great wine or the simple pleasure of feeling the warm sun on our face. Thoreau and FDR were right. Freedom from fear is at the core of what determines the quality of our lives and it is personal debt perhaps more than any other single factor that determines the intensity and duration of fear itself.