It was during the holidays, and two of my sons, a nephew and I were tangling on the question of whether the government ought to impose some really tough limits on credit-card interest, and I was arguing no, and they were saying yes, and then my older sister spoke up in her usual quiet, thoughtful voice.
My sister, you ought to know, is a Democrat and on most issues a liberal, and I figured she would weigh in on behalf of safeguarding people from their own excesses even if, in my view, that meant a risky free-market intervention that could put others at a disadvantage. But if she didn't explicitly take my side, she came close, and she did it by way of reflection on our parents and how they managed their financial affairs.
We never had much money, she recalled. In terms of how most people live today, you could almost say we were poor, at least when she and I were little. And yet we never lacked anything important. She and I generally felt we had as much as other children and never found cause to whine. How did this happen?
It had to do with the values our parents grew up with and with the Depression they experienced in their young adulthood, my sister believes. What came out of that, she said, was exceedingly careful money management. If something wasn't needed or was beyond our means, it wasn't bought. If it happened to be needed and was beyond our immediate means, our parents would save their money until they had enough to purchase it. They did not worry about credit-card interest because they did not have credit cards, or at any rate, not in those early years. About the only debt they faced were home mortgages.
While my sister did not say much more than that, the implication was obvious that so many of the financial problems we Americans deal with today are at least in part of our own making. We scramble to buy up as much stuff as we can, as if we couldn't possibly live without it. If our paychecks don't equal our materialistic ambitions, the fact stops us hardly a second we just hand over the plastic, or maybe get an adjustable rate mortgage without thinking what will happen in a couple of years. If things get out of hand, we find someone to blame and expect the government to step in and save us.
Congress is, in fact, looking at legislation to keep credit-card rates down, but more important at the moment are the interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve, which is seeking to spur consumer spending as a means of fighting off a possible recession. The cuts may be a good idea, but there's irony here: A result will be to make it easier to accumulate debt while providing less return on certificates of deposit and still other means of saving.
Credit-card interest rates will decline slightly even though delinquency and default rates have been going up. The message to baby-boom borrowers is keep at it, splurge despite the threats to your future and a news account that outstanding consumer debt comes to $2.5 trillion, not counting those adjustable-rate mortgages.
I am all for economic growth and the better health, education and other genuine blessings it provides to so many, but I also think we would be better off if we weren't constantly giving in to those encouraging our spendthrift habits, to omnipresent advertising that tells us our lives will be only marginally memorable if we don't possess more and to a culture preaching we are entitled to lots of stuff purely by virtue of our existence.Let's grant that life is more complicated now than when my parents were raising their children and that government assistance can be needed for the least fortunate among us. But let's grant, too, that an answer to much that ails us is self-reliance and self-discipline.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at [email protected].