October 16, 2010
We Can't Solve America's Budget Problems without Changing the CultureBy Jeffrey A. Rendall
With all the talk of "Pledges" and parties, big versus limited government, and economic numbers that make many a grown man cry, it seems that the American People are ignoring one basic question: are we tough enough as a culture to do what it will take to fix our society?
There's little doubt that government played a large role in creating the financial ague in America today, though we'd be remiss to ignore the average citizen's complicity in our own demise. Many of us were caught up in home values that soared so high that we couldn't fathom that our assets weren't worth nearly as much as the banks were telling us that they were.
Throwing caution to the wind, we went out and borrowed against them, astonished at the pittance that was required to be paid back on a monthly basis, adopting the attitude of "live for the day and worry about it tomorrow."
We got hooked on credit and used it to buy all sorts of things we didn't need, such as the car we've always wanted, a boat, large high-definition TVs, new counter-tops (when the old ones functioned just fine) -- the list goes on and on and on.
Even our kids got in on the act. Just look at the gadgets that they're becoming increasingly addicted to -- cell phones, iPods, Droids, personal computers that are about the size of a wallet, and communications devices that travel anywhere and offer the opportunity to send messages instantaneously. Many a family dinner conversation has been usurped by these toys as teens and even adults text nonstop, drunk with the pleasure of being able to reach their friends and colleagues at all hours of the day.
America's problem isn't so much a fiscal crisis as it is a cultural one. History tells us that eventually the economy will turn around, hopefully under the watchful eye of our newly motivated citizenry (aka the Tea Parties) and a new type of congressional representative who's more interested in what government shouldn't do than what goodies he can secure for himself or a campaign contributor.
But who's going to fix the culture? Who's going to tell us that there's a difference between needing and wanting something?
The reality for the generations growing up right now and yet to be born is that they're going to have to work a lot harder than most of us ever did to be able to afford to buy a house, let alone a big one. They're going to have to accept entry-level positions and do it the "old-fashioned way" and learn to work at things that aren't necessarily "fun."
They're going to have to think outside the box in a world that's increasingly designed to put them in a mental one, with a government that's buried them in debt, promises of an easy retirement, free health care for life, and a regulatory system that heavily discourages innovation, investment, and creativity.
They're going to have to save money, too, and our culture doesn't teach them to do that, with its emphasis on quick adrenaline fixes, "gotta have it now" mentality, and media influences that bombard them with the yearning to find emotional satisfaction at the expense of moral practicality.
I look at a lot of today's youth, and I just don't see it in them. Forget the older generations and the discussion over Social Security and Medicare -- if you really want to see the truly entitled, look at the young folks. Try telling them that they should put away the cell phone or the Wii until their homework's done and that they should strive to do more than what their teachers ask them to do not only in their studies, but also in the community.
Every generation thinks the one coming after it doesn't have the gumption to pick up where it leaves off, but today's kids face a wealth of challenges that simply didn't exist in the "old days," and most of the obstacles are cultural.
For example, First Lady Michelle Obama has taken a lot of heat for her campaign to end childhood obesity, but anyone who's attended a holiday performance at their local grade school in recent years knows that the children are a lot heavier now than they used to be. Our "supersized" culture teaches them to overeat and provides comfort (or "reward") sweets at virtually every turn -- and scales everywhere are definitely reflecting the difference.
It's not government's place to control what anyone eats, but you can't fault Mrs. Obama for highlighting the issue.
Much has also been written on the over-sexualizing of the popular media (which is indeed a problem), but what about the very availability of media? When you can buy hand-held devices that can access TV and the internet with a mere few clicks of the button, you've got kids with the chance to find out a lot about things very quickly and with virtually no supervision.
Technology is a good thing -- but these young folks are being weaned on these conveniences, and they're becoming as standardized in our culture as television in the home or basic phone service. All of it bleeds money from already stretched personal and family budgets (another family "entitlement"), and our culture doesn't mandate that children sacrifice any of these things for the good of the family.
Even if they have to go into debt every month, I don't see anyone giving up their cell phones, satellite TV, and high-speed internet connections. Is that wrong?
Adults are every bit as bad. A big part of the reason why the housing bubble burst so dramatically is because Americans decided they needed more space and more gadgets than they truly did or could certainly afford. Cultural influences told us that a big master bedroom is preferable to a small one, and who really needs a sun room when you've already got a breakfast nook?
The point is not to say that people should not desire these "extras" in life, but with times changing as fast as they are and the American economy in as deep as it is, we're all going to have to take a good, long, hard look at what it is that we can stand to do without -- and live accordingly.
People used to live with a lot less, and they seemed to be happier. Culture evolves, but that doesn't always make it better.
As conservatives, we're demanding that government live within its means, and we're right -- but if we don't deal honestly and personally with the cultural factors that have led to our current situation, we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.
Jeffrey A. Rendall is a freelance writer living just far enough outside the Beltway for comfort in Manassas, Virginia.