Archive for Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Pursuit of stuff’ plagues US

February 27, 2008


If you believe big media, the economy is in trouble. If you worry about job layoffs and your inability to pay bills, you may be thinking about voting for Democrats this fall, which is the point of the negative media coverage. Every four years when a Republican is president, big media carry stories about economic gloom and doom. But is it true? It depends on the standard you use.

Last week, The Washington Post carried a story that is a metaphor for what ails us. It was about a Maryland couple whose mortgage lender took back what remained of a $95,000 home equity line of credit. The lender explained that the couple's home had fallen in value and it did not want to shoulder the risk that they might owe more than the house was worth. The couple was using the equity line to pay preschool tuition for their twins.

A good financial adviser might have helped them avoid this predicament, but we are immediately led to the supposedly bottomless well of the federal government. Politicians, especially Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, pledge to shoulder the responsibility of making sure that people whose mortgages are higher than they can reasonably afford and whose debts are larger than they should be get bailed out by the rest of us who made right financial decisions and practice living within our means. I know, this sounds cold, but only to those who live this way.

Lenders across the country are pulling the plug on equity lines and tightening credit after a lending spree to people for whom the housing market was their pot of gold.

Much of this economic "pain" is self-inflicted. Rather than purchasing homes they could not afford - or putting too much down, making them cash poor - they might have invested their equity in balanced mutual funds (the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 11.59 percent over a 10-year period). Such a path could have avoided the tight spot in which many now find themselves.

Some of the lust for bigger and better is human nature, but a lot is the result of consumerism. The Timex watch is no longer enough. We now must have a Rolex, though both accurately tell time. The adequate low-end automobile is insufficient. We must trade up to a luxury car with numbers and letters on the rear that mean nothing, but convey "status." And the house we are living in, which would have been more than adequate for our parents and certainly our grandparents, must be upgraded to larger digs in order to impress, if not growing families, then enlarged egos.

When none of this brings the promised happiness and fulfillment, we turn to drink, or pills, or counselors, or divorce court and seek significance in new things and relationships on what quickly becomes a personal boulevard of broken dreams.

We can't say we haven't been warned about this endless pursuit of stuff. The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, "Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. : As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them?" (Ecclesiastes 5:10-11)

When wants and needs are confused, desires become entitlements and politicians are afraid to tell people what they need to hear. Instead they tell them what they want to hear. Anger and envy result, as well as frustration with a political system that was not designed to indulge its citizens in their lusts or subsidize their greed.

Who will tell us that unending and expanding prosperity with home values constantly rising and a citizenry always able to afford them is a fantasy that is bound to end in heartache for those who buy into it?

The economy isn't bad. We are bad for believing that more is better and the most is best. We have an abundance of things, but a deficit of character. The economy is a false god, a golden calf. When this false god doesn't deliver, we complain to politicians who are happy to accept our faith in them to give us what we want - if we will only pledge to them our allegiance at election time.

- Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.


waltzing_matilda 10 years, 4 months ago

Why is it that whenever someone advocates responsibility in personal choices they get labeled as a bible thumping GWB supporter? I believe in personal financial responsibility and I believe that everyone who is capable should pull their share of the load. "We the People" are all in this together. Let's stop pointing fingers, calling names, taking party stances and get on track for getting our political leaders (regardless of their party affiliation) to start representing us. Let's insist on getting solutions to energy problems; global warming; huge, wasteful ecological footprints; and the like. Seems like the only way the get some of this accomplished is to educate Americans on the long-term harm of over-consumerism...not just financially, as Cal has mentioned, but also ecologically.

saraheckman 10 years, 3 months ago

I do not normally agree with what Cal Thomas writes, however this article is an accurate synopsis of the American mentality and very well written.

denak 10 years, 3 months ago

Just for the record, I don't think Barak Obama is a Muslim, and even if he were, I wouldn't care and I don't think the ACLU is bad.

However, I do think Cal is right on this. There is a "bigger is better" mentality in this country. I'm not saying that there aren't problems with the economy but people do spend way over their budget. Look at the average amount of credit card debt. Look at the mortgage crisis. Some of that was caused by "predatory" lenders but most of that was caused by "predatory" borrowers. People who wanted a bigger house just because it is a status symbol. Did you really need to buy the house with the stainless steel appliances. Did you really need to buy the house with the granite countertops? Did you really need to buy the house with the vaulted ceilings? No, but people do not because it is something they need but becuase they have bought into the advertising that, in order to have a good house, you have to have those things.

So, in that regard, Cal Thomas, is actually correct.


Tom McCune 10 years, 3 months ago

Cal's columns are often incoherent blather, but this one was right on the money.

notajayhawk 10 years, 3 months ago

beobachter (Anonymous) says:

"if cal wrote it, it's pure right wing BS. truth is not something he can write. must follow GOP line."

A beautiful illustration of what's wrong with so many people who post here. It's not what's said, but who said it, that decides whether something is right or wrong.

"Truth" has no party line - it is or it isn't. And the article is dead on true. Actually it's even worse than what he says. It isn't just a matter of people wanting more or bigger or better. It's that they think just because they pay more, then what they get must be more or bigger or better.

The value of the things we buy has nothing whatsoever to do with what it costs to produce or how well it serves its purpose. Nowhere is this more obvious than the salaries we see paid out to our sports heroes, contracts which say they have to be the highest paid first baseman or whatever. Not payment based on how many hits or RBIs or how few errors one makes, but a salary that must increase for no other reason than someone coming along that makes more. And we buy into it, literally - has the enjoyment of going to a ball game really improved so much since the sixties when the average ticket cost $2.25?

Even in more common place expenditures - remember when the new version of the Volkswagen Beetle came along, and people were on long waiting lists to pay well over the sticker price? Yes, I realize that's the way our free market, supply-and-demand system works. But people give no consideration at all to whether what they overpay today can be recouped down the line. Just because they were stupid enough to pay a huge premium over the appraised value because they absolutely had to have that perfect house doesn't mean they'll find someone else equally as stupid to take it off their hands. Nor is the bank under any obligation to extend them credit secured by a piece of property that's simply not worth what they paid.

It's like a game of musical chairs, everyone going faster and faster, and some of them are going to be left standing. This is not a new problem nor is it one you can blame on the current administration. I had friends on the East Coast over 20 years ago who bought houses and condos in a booming market and just a few years later couldn't sell them for half what they paid. Consumers need to think about what they're doing, they need to be conscious not only of what they can realistically afford to spend, but also what they can afford to lose.

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