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(HOST) Congressional discussions have led commentator Allen Gilbert to think about the way we have become a debt-ridden society.

(GILBERT) Recent debates in Congress over budget cuts cast a spotlight on the way that our country is hooked on debt.

Republicans in the House wanted to trim $50 billion from human services programs. Some of the cuts would come from aid to college students. If the cuts were made, the cost of student loans would go up.

That’s worrisome for the students and parents who take out loans to pay for college or graduate school — and the vast majority of families do borrow, and borrow a lot. College Board figures released this fall show that the average college student graduates with about $20,000 in loans to repay. Vermont students borrow more, nearly $30,000.

Borrowing for college also seems to encourage borrowing for other things. Students’ average credit card debt is $2,169. And post-
grads — people 25 to 34 — carry twice as much credit card debt.

If you were born after 1970, you belong, quite simply, to a generation in hock. Debt has been decoupled from income, according to Robert Manning, author of “Credit Card Nation.”

Where does the attitude come from that says it’s OK to spend money you don’t have? We don’t need to look very far for an answer: We need only to look around at each other.

We are a “nation awash in debt,” as an Associated Press story said in August. Each of us owes $145,000 to cover the long-term promises that we’ve made as a country to creditors, retirees, veterans, and the poor. That doesn’t count our personal debts — mortgages, credit cards, and, yes, student loans.

Seventy percent of Americans are worried about the burgeoning federal deficit. But only a third of us would agree to cut spending to reduce the deficit. Even fewer of us would raise taxes to reduce the deficit.

We’re in high gear on a road that some economists warn could lead to higher interest rates, plummeting house values, lost jobs, and reduced government services.

Vast industries and institutions make money off debt. The student loan industry, for example, profits from student debt. Colleges and universities grow and expand, charging higher and higher tuition, partly because students have access to more and more cash through loans. Entire companies shift their pension liabilities — a major source of debt — to the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. That shell game is keeping companies like United Airlines in business. China and other foreign countries buy more and more of our government’s securities. They pay with the profits that they earn from making the foreign goods that we buy in Wal-Mart and other department stores.

Some say that the rise in obesity in our country is symptomatic of our desire to “have it now,” with little thought of the future. I’m not sure that I’d go that far. But it’s clear that we’re on a road with a lot of bumps. And the pavement could soon end.

We’re just entering the holiday buying season, when many people will spend well beyond their means. Maybe the best gift we could give this year is to spend less — and reduce our debts.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher, and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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