Monday, February 25, 2008

The Culture of Debt: An Essay on the Perverse Society

Friends, this essay is a long time in coming and I apologize for the delay.

As I have previously stated, we are all slaves. We are slaves to the corporations for whom we work, in order to buy the products and services that those same corporations provide.

But everyone born into bondage is bound to their masters, somehow. From ancient times, slaves were branded on the skin, tied up with rope, chains, leashed…slaves would be beaten or whipped…there are even provisions in the Torah, the Bible and the Quran on how to treat slaves.

Today’s slavery holds us in line with invisible chains, and our punishment for disobeying our masters may not carry with it direct physical injury, but it injures us, nonetheless, emotionally, socially and economically.

Today, we are enslaved by mass consumerism and its most insidious tool of branding and bonding: debt.

It wasn’t that long ago that borrowing money for anything other than the purchase of a house or to start a business was seen as shameful. But now, it’s so easy to borrow money: banks, retailers, pharmacies, airlines, even grocery stores offer credit cards, now. Even if you don’t qualify for a loan or a mortgage, there are companies out there willing to give you a gold-level or even a platinum card, and all you have to do is pay their annual fees and interest rates.

We are encouraged to go into debt by the consumerist nature of our society. Television, radio, newspapers and even the Internet are all used to do one thing: provide a delivery system for you to be exposed to advertisements. Advertisements promote products and services, and if the studies are to be believed, they work.

Take for example newspapers: Between 30 and 50% of all the print will be advertising.

You can figure it out for yourself: Count the number of columns on a page, from right to left. Usually, its between four and six columns across. Find a page in the paper where the column goes to the bottom of the page and measure it. Multiply the column height in inches or centimetres by the number of columns to get the space per page

Now, measure the advertisements on those pages: number of columns wide by how long they are in inches or centimetres. Then compare the text-to-ad ratio. The news you get in the paper is filler, built around the spaces the ads take up in the paper. The number of pages in a newspaper is a function of the amount of ad space sold for that particular edition.

Same thing with broadcast television: every seven to ten minutes you will get a commercial break. The average length of a television episode is 22 minutes of broadcast per half hour. That’s 16 minutes of time devoted strictly for commercials. In some cases, the ratio 20 minutes of commercial time per hour, to 40 minutes of programming. Generally, television commercials are between ten and twenty seconds in length. That means that in an hour of programming, you will be exposed to between 64 and 120 different advertisements during one hour of television viewing.

If you read magazines, check out the number of ads versus the number of articles. Certain genre of magazines have very high ad ratios: fashion magazines, for example, have far more advertising than a news magazine, therefore far more pages. Yet, the both cost about the same.

Your mail box is crammed with junk mail on a weekly basis: delivery menus, sale fliers, miniature store catalogues…every media outlet is designed to expose you to advertising, and every piece of advertising is designed to entice you to buy product.

Obviously, the advertising is working: On average, consumers have between $14 500 and $25 000 of personal debt.

As I said earlier, it is very easy to go into debt: Most stores will give you a personal credit card, the banks will give you credit cards…and the interest they charge runs between 18 and 20% per month. And do we ever use them!

Roughly 25 % of all our transactions are done by credit card, $1000 of credit card debt will take most people approximately 22 years to pay off in full, assuming they only meet the minimum monthly payments.

A lot of economists and credit card users will tell you to simply use your cards responsibly, buy something on credit and pay it off as quickly as possible, et cetera. But the truth is, between the cardholder annual fees, the interest payments and the ease with which cardholders use the damn things because they either believe they really need something or just really want something and can’t wait until they have the money to buy it, it’s no wonder that the credit card companies are making billions in profit every year.

While the “Just say no” policy has proven useless for sex and drugs, it remains the only sane policy when it comes to incurring credit card debt: the best way to avoid credit card debt is to not get a fucking credit card to begin with!

We go into debt because we are conditioned to buy, buy, buy! We are so conditioned because most of us fear being in debt, and fear the consequences of being in debt, namely the destruction of our credit rating—and our future ability to acquire credit.

As to mortgages and automobile loans, personal loans, business startup loans, these are, in some cases, necessary expenditures. It is inevitable that many people will need at least one car.

But is it necessary to buy the most expensive car? The flashiest looking car? If all you need is something safe and relatively fuel efficient to get you from A to B, then that’s all you should be looking to buy. Yet SUV sales, luxury car sales, sports car sales are all quite significant.

Likewise, people who buy small cars, efficient cars, etc. are often looked down upon and mocked, from their peers to pop culture. Why? Because once again the goal of consumerism is to get you to spend as much money as possible. If enough pressure can convince you to go deeper into debt to buy a bigger car, then you can be sure that that pressure will be applied to you, at all levels of society.

Mortgages can take between five and twenty-five years to pay off. In many cases, by the time you pay off the mortgage, you need to take out another to conduct necessary repairs to the house. Or, you’re so old that you can no longer afford to live there, so you must sell the house. When you consider also property taxes, maintenance costs and utilities, it can work out to be less expensive in many cases just to rent instead of buying. But again the stigma is there, take for example the old adage “A man isn’t a man if he doesn’t own the land beneath his feet.”

Taking out a loan to go into business for one’s self is perhaps the only time it makes even some small amount of sense to go into debt, although one must be wary, indeed, because you can still end up spending all your time working for someone else’s profit.

Debt culture is insidious. We are all slaves to consumerism, and debt is the chains and the brands that bind us. Anyone with access to any of the countless pieces of information that we surrender willingly throughout the day can look up and see who has branded us, who owns a little piece of us: Visa, Mastercard, the local Ford dealer, the Phone Company, Sears…how many creditors have their hooks in your skin?

Do the math, with your next paycheque: Look at how much you earn after deductions and taxes, then subtract whatever bills you have to pay. Whatever is left over is what belongs to you.

Now ask yourself this: What good is earning 45 000 a year, if you're left with less than 10 000 a year to your name?

That’s how you’re kept enslaved: you can never get your head above water, because either the interest rates are too high, or there’s One More Thing you have to buy, you want to buy or you are buying.

We have all been sold into bondage. And the people who sold us are ourselves.