Beyond Our Means, Beneath Our Dreams

by Arnold De Villa
August 1, 2011
The U.S. National debt is spearheading towards the north of $14.5 Trillion. That leaves every taxpayer a burden of around $130,000. Considering that there are more than 45 million people receiving food stamps and 14 million people unemployed, it is quite understandable why the budget debacle in Washington is in a stalemate. Raise taxes, cut costs, increase the credit limit: they just do not know whether these issues should be connected with an “and” or an “or”. Americans are waiting. The world is watching. And the politicians are playing a game of chicken; bluffing, scaring, and threatening each other. The world’s largest economy is floating in dire uncertainty.

When I was a kid, my siblings and I used to scamper for change, either by doing some small errands for a really small fee or through the generosity of our elderly family members. We had to feed our “piggy bank”. We did so because we were either saving for a new bike, a new toy, or anything that we would like to work on. I was a freshman in High School when I first bought a small transistor radio through a long and disciplined accumulation of ten centavos, packed in a can. Once a week, every week, I used to take out all the coins and counted how much more I needed before I could to all the music I wanted to. It was exciting.

Upon arriving in the United States, we were informed that for us to qualify for a mortgage, we needed to have a credit history. We learned that store discounts were given to those who have plastic in their wallet. And we were quite embarrassed to find out that we cannot rent a car without a credit card. It was as if the first lesson in American living was to have a credit card. And so we did. One came, and another one arrived, each with its own sweet promises, benefits and perks. Using them was the easiest thing to do. Soon, just like a typical newbie, we were shopping to save. Discounts and rebates through credit, items we enjoyed before we earned. The rest was a microcosmic story with chapters of tragedy. It is the same story unraveling in Washington, perhaps even worse.

America is a victim to its own abundance. In as much as poverty is evil, so is excess. The frugal generation for which penny stores were established are now approaching their 90’s, citizens who went through the “Great Depression”, Americans and Immigrants who did not have access to easy credit and only spent what they earned.

Is consumption through credit wrong? It doesn’t seem to be. After all, it is an unspoken tradition of contemporary American culture. This country is mired in $2.4 trillion dollars of consumer debt. While the average debt for every individual is more than $50,000.00, there are more than 1.5 million people who declared bankruptcy. I wonder how many of those are our own hard-working Filipinos. I know how that was. We passed through it and learned our lesson the hard way.

Pleasure is an underlying factor beneath the American Dream. A choice between the ability to defer and the apparent urgency of the now and then would probably dictate the outcome between deficit and surplus, debts and savings. When we plan to spend more than our ability to earn, or when we consume more than what we receive, we establish a lopsided equation lurking in the shadows of fatal uncertainty. Any slight injury or economic hiccup could turn into a snowball, until we come back to the same question of whether we enjoy the pleasure now or defer some of it later.

There is nothing wrong in being frugal. The American Dream is not limited to the brand new home loaded with signature vehicles and a pure bred dog. And if the government is behaving that way, the citizens could lead the path and live the other way, the right way, that is, recalling back the old values of living within one’s means, yet enjoying all the pleasure that comes with we have and not the false expectations for that which we do not yet own.

The ability to wait is a virtue that pays off. We know that the best oftentimes comes at the very end. Deferring pleasure is not a painful endeavor. Saving before spending is more real than shopping for a bargain to save. However, for those in Washington, waiting does not apply. They need to act now, not necessarily to raise the debt ceiling, but probably more so to put a noose on it. They need to find ways on how to entice the wealthy to share their resources through the government as taxes. They need to find ways on how to discern the needy from the abusers.

The notion of prosperity a material reality is quite inaccurate. Prosperity is when we make the most out of the least. When we enjoy the same fun with one as that with two or three, when we can work for tomorrow’s rewards instead of claiming today’s bounties, then maybe we would not even need credit. When a nation can decrease the numbers of citizens suffering from poverty, help those who truly deserve help, penalize the abusers, and at the same time that new millionaires are created, then excess could meet half way with scarcity, and the junction will be a smiling prosperity.

Beyond our means and beneath our dreams are possibilities that could wait or whither. When the natural process of time is relegated to the false sense of urgency, tomorrow will spell doom. Likewise, when real urgency is not confronted and is deferred as a petty threat, the aftermath could also be doom.

America is still the world’s largest economy. I am not sure if American also has the largest debt and the largest budget deficit. Despite all these, America also has the largest core of philanthropists and international volunteers who willingly share their surplus to those who are in need. Unfortunately, there are also the “title holders”, convinced that they are entitled to everything that they long for.

I still have a “piggy bank”. Someday, when the economy gets better, my “piggy bank” will grow enough to buy a new car in cash.

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