|So, personal debt seems to be a big issue at the moment. Media in the UK, where I live, is filled with reports about soaring levels of debt (trademark all national dailies) Ė both mortgages and personal unsecured loans Ė with particular concern about growing personal bankruptcies and the use of IVAs. Speaking to friends and family in Australia (where Iím from), I sense that there is growing concern about it there also, and looking around US news on the internet there seems to be at least a recognition of it as an issue, though it would be helpful to have some perspectives from there to help round out the picture. |
Lately, Iíve been thinking a lot about my attitude to debt and people in debt, and I find that I have some deeply conflicting ideas and opinions that Iím struggling to resolve. At the risk of making a fool of myself, I think Iíd like to explore philosophies of debt Ė if that makes sense.
The me bit: Iím not in debt, Iíve never been in any serious debt (I have on occasion had to pay off a credit card bill over a number of months at ridiculous rates of interest, but thatís about it) and I would go so far as to say the idea of being in debt makes me very uneasy. If I canít afford it, I donít have it and never have. Throughout my childhood, my family was not well off Ė not poor, but constantly in quite threatening levels of debt. At one point, my father was bankrupted, we lost the family home, my family were split apart (albeit only temporarily) as my father moved to a new part of the state to start again and a period of great difficulty for my mother and younger brother ensued. This happened to be just when I was starting University which meant that on the one hand, I was spared some of the uglier family side of things, but on the other I faced a very difficult time having to support myself at Uni from the outset. For slightly complicated reasons, I did not qualify for any state support, so worked three jobs, almost around the clock for four days a week to support myself. Iíll be honest, I didnít mind and didnít at that time feel it a particular hardship but it was very hard work. I did, however, see the huge distress that being in debt caused my mother Ė I think she genuinely felt in a state of constant fear and possibly shame. It was debilitating for her.
Iíve been travelling and living abroad for ten years now and I have never been without a Ďsafety netí amount of money Ė a mythical figure which in my head equates to being able to change everything if I need to. Usually about £1,000. At times, this has meant living poorly, but this seems a reasonable trade-off to me.
I recognise that I am very fortunate in having a good degree which makes me reasonably employable. I have never been without a job and always feel confident that if I want to leave a job, Iíll get another. I earn reasonably well, but then I donít buy a lot of things (except books, with which I have almost no willpower at all) and my biggest extravagance is travel. I think Iím quite a low level consumer.
Sorry that the above is so long, but I think itís got a lot to do with my attitude to debt. Which is where the conflict comes in. I despise the current capitalist system, which I believe is a deeply inequitable one, yet I find myself increasingly unsympathetic to many of the people who find themselves facing unsustainable debt levels. And I wonder what the consequences of a society increasingly built on debt-financed consumption will be. This is really difficult for me to admit, but I think there are some people who over-consume and that they have unreasonable (?) expectations of what the material trappings of life should be.
Problem 1: I am clearly putting people into two categories of debt Ė worthy and unworthy. That is, I really feel for people who struggle to make ends meet, to pay rent/mortgage, put food on the table, clothe themselves and their families, etc. I do not feel this sympathy for people that I have decided are in debt for unworthy reasons. Group two includes friends and family members (I have a 30 year old younger brother who earns well and is in shocking debt because of his lifestyle choices Ė he wonít even buy second hand furniture for his rented house, but took out a loan to buy furniture!) so this is not some kind of middle class, them bashing exercise. The value judgement I am making here makes me deeply uneasy yet I would be lying to say itís not how I feel. I seem to think that I can determine what is essential debt (those without choice) and non-essential debt (those who choose). At heart, I think the latter are being hurt by their own greed. But who the fuck am I to decide what people have a right to expect to be able to consume or to criticise others for aspiring to a lifestyle which I think is excessive.
Problem 2 Ė as an anti-capitalist, why the fuck should I care if people get into debt, even if they canít repay it? One of my best friends is an expert in avoiding re-paying debt. Iíve been at him for ages to write a book about it. He knows who to borrow from, how to borrow it, who you can not pay, how to avoid paying. On the one hand, I think this rocks and I cannot think of a single ethical objection to it. Sticking it to the banks, those fuckers, etc. But I know I wouldnít do it. And I donít find myself cheering when I read press reports about someone who racks up huge debt levels on holidays, cars, clothes, etc, declares themselves bankrupt and effectively walks away paying only a fraction of their debt through an IVA. Surely this is hypocrisy on my part?
Problem 3 Ė so who does pay for this? By which, let me be perfectly clear, I donít mean me. But despite massive personal debt levels and growing insolvencies, bank profits continue to soar. So who is paying for this? Itís clearly not the wealthy, because theyíre getting wealthier. I suspect that itís trickling down to those already least well off in the form of higher bank charges, interest rates, possible prices in some areas, but I donít really know. What I really fear is that we are pushing toward some kind of debt tipping point, where all those in both groups (my worthy/unworthy dichotomy) find themselves in serious, life threatening poverty and despite my seemingly judgemental attitude, I really really donít want this to happen to anyone.
Problem final Ė isnít widespread use of debt both facilitating and encouraging levels of consumption that are unsustainable for environmental reasons? Should we all buy everything we want all the time and is it making us happy? Are we asking ourselves, less often, whether we need things, as opposed to just want them, and is that a bad thing (itís pretty obvious from the way Iíve framed the question that I think so, but again, who the fuck am I to make this judgement)?
Iím sorry that this has been such a long post, but I wanted to set out a broad picture of what Iím trying to grapple with. I probably sound like some kind of evil, judgemental puritan, which Iím not (honest). I hope I donít sound like an utter bastard. Aaaargh Ė help me, people.
What are other peopleís experiences of debt? What are other peopleís attitudes to debt? Does it matter? Where does it end? How does it tie in to attitudes and activities in society? Is it actually just a great equaliser giving those with less greater access to what only those with more would once have had? Iíd really appreciate help exploring this issue and reading other peopleís philosophies.
*Disclaimer Ė in the light of recent policy discussion about the Head Shop I am trying to be brave and putting this in here in the hope that it is appropriate. If people feel that it is too anecdotal and that it would be more suited to the Conversation I am absolutely happy for it to be moved.
Also, while reading around on the subject, I found this thread on capitalism, and there are some posts on this page which have some interesting things to say about debt which might be helpful.