Preoccupied with debt
Michael K. Shaub, November 4th, 2011
A former student recently asked me to write about the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Today’s paper reported our own OWS march in College Station though, admittedly, it consisted of only about 60 people. I read an interesting article the other day in The Wall Street Journal that focused on the legitimacy of concerns that college is overpriced, one of the causes of debt that has led OWS supporters to argue that the American system is unjust. The link between quality and price in American universities is worth a column, but I will save that for another day.
What I would like to focus on instead is a common thread in many problems today—our addiction to debt. There is a proverb that says, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.” In my view, this has always been true. I find it humorous that people protest “greedy bankers.” It is like protesting hot summers in Texas. Bankers are greedy because they make money off their money. Ethics and banking are the lubricants of the capital markets, as we teach in Mays Business School. Only one is free and the other is a $500 oil change. Bankers do not produce anything; they enable others to produce things. And their goal is to make as much money off their money as possible.
All the big banks recently decided to raise debit card fees. Since it included bailed out banks, many people objected strenuously. The main problem I had with the policy change is that banks have spent the past ten years offering incentives to addict people to their debit cards, and then they turned around and charged for the behavior they incentivized. But how is that different from almost all marketing ploys, like satellite TV services offering me a twelve-month entry price and then continually increasing my bill once I am addicted to ESPN? Airlines have used checked bag fees to become profitable. But the master of this technique is the federal government. Just read your cell phone bill for all the fees they have dreamed up to charge you.
We still have control of the situation. Debit cards are broadly available from other financial institutions, and for most people a credit union will do everything a bank can do. And my biggest problem with Occupy Wall Street is that it implies that we have no choice in matters that lead to bankers being the master and borrowers being mistreated. Most debt is volitional, whether we admit it or not. Even where it is necessary, the amount of debt is volitional. If you speculatively borrow to buy a bigger house than you can afford because you think its value will increase, or because you want to live a certain way, you expose yourself to risk. I know, because I once bought a house that I could not afford. When I finally sold it, I walked away with $400 of my equity and the charred smell of the flame that almost consumed me financially. But it was my choice to do it.
In contrast, my son, who has had a good job for five years and is wealthier than I am, lives in a 500-square-foot apartment. And that is a step up. He used to live in somebody’s basement. If you use your student loan to fund a Starbucks lifestyle or an apartment in one of the high end complexes with all the amenities, you are presuming your ability to repay. And you have put yourself in a position that you may seriously regret one day.
There was a time when people saved to go to college. People argue all the time that the cost of college has escalated so fast that there is no way for most people to do that anymore. I empathize, as my fourth child is in college, and my fifth is a year and a half away. But my father fought a world war, and worked, and saved, and scraped to get his bachelor’s degree at age 31. He did not feel he had the inherent right at age 22 to become the research physicist he eventually became. He was convinced he had other duties, and he fulfilled them. He was a mechanic, and a bus driver, and a Marine before he was a white-collar worker. And while he was in college, he lived with my Mom and my brother in a small trailer that they pulled behind the car.
The debt that homeowners and college students burden themselves with is no different than Greece borrowing itself into oblivion to finance a welfare state. People riot rather than give up their benefits and say that their treatment is unjust. But Greece is a slave to their lenders, whether they are French, German, British, or American. And if they will not adjust their behavior, their economy will collapse completely. Even now, consideration is being given to their ejection from the European Union.
We are well on our way in the U.S. to doing the same thing. We are continuing to run obscene deficits that are unnecessary because we are addicted to our lifestyle. Serious discussions of how to cut are dismissed, and state-level cuts are objected to as cruel and unjust. We can yell all we want, but this will not go on forever. There is a day when you have to pay. And our “bankers” are not letting us borrow with our best interests in mind. They are doing it to make a buck. And when they can’t, they will call that loan.
So occupy Wall Street if you must, but you can’t change the proverb. The borrower is slave to the lender. What I plan to do is figure out how to eliminate my remaining debt and determine how much extra work my kids and I need to do to pay for their college.
And when it’s all paid off, I’ll get my lawn chair and come out to watch the protests.