Earlier this week I went to the credit union and paid the remaining $4.02 on my 2006 Honda Civic. The teller who helped me was very kind. She also let me know I was prequalified for a new auto loan. I said I was content with the car I own and grateful to have no more debt.
I bought my used Honda a few years back after the 1990s Mazda 929 finally became too unreliable. At the time, I did not have enough cash to buy the Honda outright and so got a small loan. I still can recall how the person who helped me was surprised at how little I wanted to borrow. She told me I qualified for a lot more and could get a nicer car. I said I was content with the used Honda and preferred to keep my debt as low as possible.
Our economy does not treat everyone equally. There are people who cannot walk into a credit union and get an auto loan. But for those of us who can, the economy encourages us the same way. It encourages us to extend ourselves as much as possible. Borrow as much as a creditor will offer. Buy as much as the debt will purchase.
For many of us, the financial limits we live within are the ones we self-impose.
Sometimes I teach modern world civilizations at the university where I work. About the time we get to the turn of the 19th century and begin discussing the angst of the 1900s, I tell my students how the economic lives of people have evolved across millennia. Here is how I put it.
From the very beginning until about roughly the 18th century, people were producers of things they consumed
From about roughly the 18th century to about roughly the 20th century, people were producers of things other people consumed
From about roughly the 20th century to about now, people have been consumers of things other people produced
Of course, this progression of our economic lives really only applies to people in developed countries. Surely most people in the world today exist economically in one of the first two scenarios.
Sometimes the angst of modern times is blamed on the influence of people like the master’s of suspicion; Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. That view has merit. But I wonder if more cognitive and social dissonance resulted from the lightning fast shift in economic purpose. Humans in developed economies went from thousands and thousands of years of making food that sustained life and crafting pyramids or cathedrals that sustained meaning, to a few dozen years of making PowerPoint decks that cannot sustain 18-minute attention spans.
Perhaps the most innovative economic idea of our times would be this. Do work that creates something for ourselves and our communities to sustain our lives and our purpose.
Were we to grow less distracted by our consumerism and consumption, and to spend more time with friends and family, or work with people we want to help, or learn something we have always wanted to be able to do, wouldn’t that make up for missing yet another sale at the mall? The pursuit of national wealth through trade of increasingly useless things has for a few decades kept us in more clothes than we need, but has nothing to do with the pursuit of happiness. And it simply no longer works.
Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley, The Responsible Company