I recently had lunch with a good friend of mine who is a successful banker. He has an MBA and is working towards a doctorate, and I was enjoying soaking up his knowledge and wisdom about all things economics. In just a few short minutes I realized how much I do not know about all that kind of stuff, and how much I base my decisions about both personal and governmental finance on large generalizations I've made through the years. Needless to say it's great to have friends who are gifted and knowledgeable about things that I am not.
One thing he recommended me to do was to start reading some business magazines. He said the Economist was usually pretty trustworthy and went in depth in its articles. I decided to pick up a copy, and I've spent some time this week reading through its sections. Just last night I finished their special section on debt. Each week they tackle a specific issue or country with about 20 pages of analysis, and while it's a bit overwhelming at first, the writing style was easy to read and i found that i was beginning to understand how debt works and how it has affected our world so much in the past few years.
But I'm not interested in just the pure economics of debt. I'm interested in what it has done to us as people, as individuals within a system, living and breathing and making real-time decisions. As I was reading the article, it became clear to me that the culture of debt that we live in has seeped through to every part of our lives, and affects us in more ways than we even realize.
One of the reasons we have piled up such an enormous public and private debt as a country is because of our "buy now, find the money later" attitude. Since there are so many ways to finance something, buying a product doesn't seem like a monumental decision in the moment. We learn to buy from impulse, and the whole business world has learned to cater to this impulse nature by focusing on design and aesthetics in a product, figuring out how to make us become emotionally attached to the products they are selling. As a result, many of our purchasing decisions are made on the surface, on the fly, if you will.
Because I believe that habits in one part of life affect every part of life, I think that the "impulse buy attitude" we've cultivated in our society permeates all parts of our lives. It's clearly a part of social networking, where we learn to connect on multiple fronts with tons of people, but few of the interactions achieve a level of meaning that a personal interaction achieves. It's a part of our educational system, where learning how to skip and flit through large tomes of data by boiling them down to the "essential points" has adversely caused us to misrepresent and mischaracterize entire movements of thoughts. Our society values nimble thought, and we've learned how to achieve it.
You may not see the connection as intertwined as I see it, but I think our shopping (read: consumeristic) habits have bled into our entire lives and led us down pathways with consequences we haven't quite fully realized. We are people, in many ways, dealing with all kinds of debt. Learning how to save and be smart with resources is the same remedy that would help us with many of our other social problems as well. Learning how to value and invest in people, diving deeply into subjects of interest and becoming good at them. Overcoming these kinds of impulse habits doesn't happen overnight, and doesn't require us to chuck the baby out with the bathwater. Impulse is a positive part of our human nature, as is our ability to critically think and evaluate. But we need to learn how to effectively achieve a balance between the two.