The US debt debate reveals a nation living beyond its means.
ONE word is missing in the American debate over the debt crisis: austerity. It's a revealing absence. In spite of the vast deficit, and despite the US being the home of individualism, no way is being offered for individuals to make a difference by changing their lifestyles.
People in Britain have become familiar with talk of the ''new age of austerity''. Politicians of both left and right use the expression to frame the narrative about the cuts Britain is now facing. While both sides ''warn'' about this coming era, austerity is not negative in the British psyche. Associations with wartime Britain soften it. Austerity is associated with personal changes that benefited society and made sense to people who learned to tackle wastefulness, to ''make do and mend''.
Long before the current cuts, austerity was making a comeback in Britain, associated with the environmental issues of recycling, cutting consumption and reducing our carbon footprint. Indeed, the New Economics Foundation recently launched the New Home Front, arguing that wartime lifestyles are positive models for reducing environmental impact.
Not so in the US. In the five months I spent there earlier this year, I never heard the word austerity in political discussion. There was nothing about individuals living beyond their means. Yet the US deficit is founded on overconsumption, made possible by too much consumer credit and, less well recognised, too much environmental credit.
In the current war of words in Congress, there is no reference to the immoral lending that encouraged people who could not afford it to invest in the American dream. Yet that is what led to the property crash and the financial crisis. From individuals I heard nothing about the need for prosperous people to change their ways. There are, of course, many worthy ''green shoots'', such as the ''locavore'' movement or the ''greening the campus'' initiative at the university I was visiting, where a newly appointed sustainability officer tries to cut energy use. But people like him have their work cut out.
The whole of the east coast and the rust belt are vast, shocking landscapes to which many Americans seem oblivious. This is a society that has lived not just beyond its economic means but beyond its environmental ones, too, as the hundreds of miles of abandoned buildings, abandoned cars, and endless highways bear witness to.
Yet the American dream survives. You're either in it, or out of it. Being out means destitution. In Britain I know many people who reject consumerism, getting involved in poorly paid environmental or political work. We regard them as rather honourable. In the US, if you don't have money you don't count.
None of this is supposed to indicate Britain has got it right. Far from it. The relaxation of planning controls with the potential to trash the environment is a case in point. But at least words such as thrift and sustainability don't carry such negative connotations. They suggest a place to work from. In the US, the ideological mindset makes these negative terms, which in turn makes the future there look bleak. Their problem isn't just fixing government spending, but ultimately counting the real costs of the American way of life.
Here's my response:
Austerity is not an American virtue. Making a profit and consuming are. "The concept that making money (employment) and spending money (consumerism) is the primary goal of individuals within a market economy, and the assumption that individuals must work for an employer to "make a living" and that such activity is the most meaningful and desirable of human activities." wikipedia
So we have tended to equate consumption with success and happiness and being good Americans. We define ourselves in terms of our quarterly earnings reports and our "stuff." Buying and selling on credit just allows us to have more stuff, feel better about ourselves, and keep the economy rolling. Austerity is taken to be un-American, because it is a refusal to participate in this economic and social engine.
The housing crisis stands as a challenge to all this, because it means the conveyer belt has stopped. See this. Austerity is being imposed upon us, whether we want it or not. The question is, in the process, will we come to realize that the culture of capitalism is a false kingdom? If sin is missing the mark, then the gyrations between the extremes of consumerism and austerity are evidence that we are not where Christ intends us to be.