The Arithmetic of Fear

April 28, 2010

Culture, Politics

by Carlene Byron 

Do you have a copy of the US National Debt Clock ticking away on your computer’s desktop? Last time I looked online, a couple days ago, we were at $12.87 trillion, a pretty staggering number. 

I wish there were an equivalent US Personal Debt Clock available. Because that number is also staggering. 

The Federal Reserve keeps track of what we as a nation owe on our credit cards, our student loans, our cars, our boats, our vacations, our homes, and our home equity lines of credit. Do you know what the US Personal Debt Clock would read, if anyone actually published it? 

US Personal Debt: $13.53 trillion. 

It should be enough to scare an entire country into Dave Ramsey financial bootcamps. As individuals, we owe some $66 billion more than our national government does. 

We’ve seen Tea Partiers across the country express their concern over national spending, which has reached such a level that our debt is equal to a quarter of everything we as a nation produced last year. That is to say, if we as a nation were an individual, we would need to take out a mortgage to pay for the services we are buying today.

This might be of less concern had so many individuals not already put themselves in the same position. Because their aggregate debt is also equal to a quarter of everything we as a nation produced last year. If they continue making minimum payments, they literally took out a 30-year mortgage on yesterday’s cheeseburger. And so between their own obligations and government commitments, they’re not sure they can pay the bills.

We’re finally starting to stare into the face of a Biblical truth we really hate: 

“The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.” (Proverbs 22:7)

Suddenly, we’re discovering that we’ve become enslaved by banks that gave us a mortgage worth four times our annual income and then convinced us it was smart to borrow even more against the house to put in a Tuscan kitchen and a media room “because home values can only appreciate.”

We’re finding ourselves enslaved to credit card companies that are popping up interest rates to 27, 28, 29 percent in anticipation of financial controls from the current administration. I keep waiting for to hear about broken knees – I mean, are these bank interest rates or interest rates from some mob loan shark?

But this is America. And in America, we haven’t made a habit of calling banks and businesses and the people who lead them to account. No, we all feel our own guilty, secret complicity in this one. We knew that you spend 30 percent more if you use credit instead of cash … but we were getting rewards miles. We knew that the mortgage would be a stretch … but the smiling realtor reminded us how important the right school district was and the smiling banker reminded us how important good neighbors were and once we had moved we couldn’t have the neighbors over unless we furnished the house. And we couldn’t afford to do that without your promotion, and sure, you didn’t really think those were the best financial products to sell to those people, but you made a lot of commissions that we needed to pay for the furniture in the house in the neighborhood …

No, even as we feel guilty for getting ourselves into this sinkhole of personal debt, and fearful whether we can ever get out of it, and stupid that we didn’t see through the marketing tactics we faced (and guilty that we might have been marketers ourselves) – we can’t blame ourselves. That would require repentance from greed, accepting God’s forgiveness, and trying to make a new way of life.

Nor can we blame the corporate entities and their leaders who, by harnessing the power of the sin of greed in themselves and others, did so much to make this crisis. Blaming business is something they do in Europe. It’s red, left, commie, pinko. In the US of A, a business is a person for the sake of influencing elections, but when it comes to responsibility before God and fellow man, a business has no humanity at all.

But, in the US we have a long tradition of blaming government. When some of us got out of joint with the colonial government, we went to war. When some of us got out of joint with the national government, we went to civil war.

And now, we have large groups of disgruntled citizens invoking the Boston Tea Party; once more offering to raise a militia, and suggesting that the time has come to rise up against unjust rulers.

But which rulers’ injustice is really causing so much fear? And in all the expressed concern about debt that will be passed on to children and grandchildren … could any part be about that U.S. Personal Debt of $13.53 trillion?

“The borrower is the servant of the lender.” Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock.

Carlene Byron, her husband, James, and their cats live in one of the few “moderate-income” homes in Cary, North Carolina, the quintessential suburb. They both work for religious organizations in the Wesleyan tradition.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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