Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.
One of our mantras around here is, “Don’t spend what you don’t have.” Or something along those lines. We are very strict in this regard, though it doesn’t feel like strictness to me anymore. It feels like common sense. It is thoroughly sensible not to spend money we don’t have. After all, debt cannot truly be equated with ownership, and I think this is where we get into trouble.
Let’s take the example of a house, which is the one area where we owe money. The house we live in is ours.
And yet it isn’t.
I look at it as renting from the bank. We do not own this house. If we can no longer pay for it, we won’t be able to live here. Though the arrangement with the bank gives us a lot more freedom than a traditional rental agreement where we couldn’t even paint a wall inside if we wanted to, the fact is that we do not own our home.
We lease it in hopes that, over the long term, it will belong to us.
In this sense, we are slaves. However, before we lived here we were renting in the traditional sense. The monthly rent was more than our current mortgage, and our budget was stretched so tightly (with the rent being the largest and most inflexible monthly bill), that moving, even though it meant borrowing, was still the best use of our money. After all, our monthly rent had made it practically impossible for us to save up for a house. But living in this house costs us less every month, allows us to be paying off something instead of wasting money on rent, and also makes doing something crazy like saving some of our money look feasible.
But I don’t pretend to own this house, though I assure myself that we should eventually own it.
However, all of this isn’t really my point. My point is that one of the reasons why we find ourselves with a populace that is more concerned with being saved by the government than it is electing a president who will fulfill his vow of protecting their freedom is because they are mired in debt. I don’t want to overly simplify things (since the breakdown of the family is another huge issue here), and yet I think I have a valid point here.
The inability of our wallet to cover the most basic expenses has been allowed to defeat the American spirit of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency.
Debt, my friends, is a big way that this happens. And I don’t just mean debt of the poor. I also mean debt of the rich. When the rich (or even just the not destitute) are not living well below their means, how are they able to be generous? When there is nothing left, there is nothing left to give.
Part of what has changed in our culture, starting with the Baby Boomers, was this expectation of affluence. There was a sense of entitlement, that all of us should get everything we want. We are not to be comfortable with a modest life.
It used to be different, and that is where Wendell Berry comes in. He gives us a glimpse into the past and contrasts it with the present:
So Margaret married Marcus. They rented an apartment in Louisville, and Margaret got a job teaching the fifth grade. They would be one couple with two jobs, two incomes, and, if I’m not mistaken, two bank accounts. Margaret’s school was a long way from Marcus’s and in the opposite direction from their apartment. Because of that, she had to buy a car of her own right away. She borrowed the money to buy the car from the Independent Farmers Bank in Port William. The interest on the loan raised the cost of the car a lot higher than the sales price, and by the time she paid off the loan the worth of the car would be a lot less than she paid for it. In the meantime, they would have to pay for everything else they needed. I hadn’t thought before of the fix they would be getting themselves into, but now that I did I was afraid for them. They were hardly going to be able to breathe without paying somebody for the privilege.
I said to Nathan, “They’re starting out behind.”
He didn’t say anything. He just shook his head.
When we got married he had an old pickup truck that he had paid for with cash. It was a rattletrap, but we drove it until the children got so big we couldn’t all sit in it. We had a debt on the farm, of course, for what seemed to us a lot of money in those days, but we went straight to work to make it worth more than Nathan had paid for it. We paid off that debt in nine years, and from then on, as Nathan liked to say, we never owed a nickel to anybody. We were paid up, living on our own land that was paid for, and so our work kept us.
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