Blaming our nation's financial crisis on Wall Street is easy to do. And perhaps partly necessary. But it is incomplete. Not that any politician would do so in an election year, but some blame also needs to laid upon the American people. Yeah, that's right. Joe Six Pack. Hockey Moms. The folks who live on Main Street and who shop at Home Depot. You betcha.
You see, we Americans like to spend money. We don't like to cut back. The word sacrifice is something we want our war hero politicians to have, but nothing that we want to touch ourselves with a ten foot pole.
George Will touched on this a few days ago:
We are waist deep in evasions because one cannot talk sense about the
cultural roots of the financial crisis without transgressing this
cardinal principle of politics: Never shall be heard a discouraging
word about the public.
Concerning which, a timeless political trope is: Government should
budget the way households supposedly do, conforming outlays to income.
But the crisis came partly because so many households decided that it
would be jolly fun to budget the way government does, hitching outlays
Bethany McLean also did so, on the pages of The New York Times:
I’ll say this upfront: I hope the titans of finance who expect us
little people to save them are ashamed of themselves. But at the same
time, in painting Main Street solely as a victim of a rapacious Wall
Street, we are being hypocritical.
We are all to blame.
. . . .
But who made the decision to
take on that mortgage she couldn’t really afford? Who lied about her
income or assets in order to qualify for a mortgage? Who used the
proceeds of a home equity line to pay for an elaborate vacation? Who
used credit cards to live a lifestyle that was well beyond her means?
Well, you and I did. (Or at least, our neighbors did.)
In response to a post by John Petty (whose blog Progressive Involvement is worth reading) – in which he (wrongly, in my opinion) assails any attempt to blame borrowers for our current crisis – I made the following comment:
From the top down (or the
bottom up?) we are not a country that knows much about sacrifice these
days. From our "need" to have cable or satellite television (at $100 a
month) to the first major war in our history accompanied by major tax
CUTS, we are a nation that resists making sacrifices. Many of my
friends and neighbors – and me, too – buy and consume things we don't
need and which we can't always afford.
I carry credit card debt – some of it is simple life needs, such as
baby formula and diapers. But some of it is fast food and books I won't
finish reading. And I can surely save money by making better decisions
on my groceries – clipping coupons, switching stores, eating less
expensive foods. But I don't do all I could. And I'm just like many
Americans who are living anywhere from slightly to dramatically beyond
our means . . .
The problem is not just on Wall Street. It's on Main Street, too.
And all this boils down to a moral crisis. We scream at our elected officials to cut our taxes, but then we get angry when bridges collapse. We buy bigger cars and huger houses, even though we can hardly afford them. We must buy brand labels, satellite television (with the MLB or NFL packages), multiple cars, the latest and greatest cell phone/MP3 player/swiss army knife gadget. We can't be bothered with the inconvenience of public transit – which we wouldn't support with our tax dollars, anyway.
Yes, this is a moral crisis. We have come to expect alot for a little, and now we're going to pay for it. As our country goes into debt, from whom does our government borrow money to patch up potholes? China. What happens when they turn off the credit spigot? And on a household level . . . what happens when we can't get that eighth credit card, or that car loan for a used car, or that education loan? What then? Will we then and only then consider buying generic, taking public transit, or advocating for increased federal support for education? Isn't that a little late?
We need to start now. Now with any bailout bill for Wall Street or Main Street, but by cutting down on our own credit card bills. Eat out less. Don't buy that extra bag of chips at the grocery store. Walk more. Drive less. Cancel cable television and listen to the radio. Get more life out of those old pair of shoes. Buy a $20 Timex rather than a $1000 Omega. You get the idea.
Change doesn't begin in the White House. It begins at home. Let's change our ways at home, first. Perhaps if the people lead, the leaders will follow . . .