In Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love in the cradle of American Liberty, Pope Francis addressed our obsession with consumerism. 70% of our economy is driven by consumer purchases. Most of those purchases require the consumer to acquire more debt. I don’t think there is any other way to interpret that except to say that the consumer cannot afford those purchases. Most of the consumers consist of workers whose wages have been stagnant and whose expenses continue to rise.
By replacing wages with offers of money that are irreconcilably tied to the acquisition of debt by the consumer, we have transformed our society from a nation of savers to a nation of borrowers. The servicing of that debt by the consumer is a hidden expense that reduces the actual wages of the worker. Looking at all of the additional expenses that people are now required to pay for cell phones, Internet service and debt service, it is not difficult to perceive the increasing demand for more debt.
In plain language we have replaced wages with debt. And that places the wage earner between a rock and hard place. It is virtually impossible for the average wage earner to scale down when he or she cannot pay for their household expenses without acquiring more debt. Consumers have been fooled into purchasing items that appear to be discounted in order to fuel another impulse purchase. When debt service is factored into the purchase, the item immediately loses its discount, and instead, the item comes with a hidden surcharge.
But I think that Pope Francis was raising a more basic issue. Anyone who has seen the video from Black Friday or any of the other days in which in the illusion of discounts draws thousands of people to stores, must come to the same conclusion as the one drawn by Pope Francis. We are part of the civilization that is obsessed with purchasing things, whether we need them or not. Not only are we looking away from a life with meaning, but we are doing so while we are digging our own graves.
It is a popular notion to blame consumers for getting in over their head. That means that they cannot service the debt load of their household. And there can be no doubt that consumers have become obsessed with the acquisition of things while utilizing the various debt products that have come to litter our marketplace. The Pope addressed the issue of those who are the purveyors of debt and who see the general population as a nonhuman mass of resources whose existence is only justified by the ability to transfer what little they have to the Titans of industry and finance.
The imbalance between those who have too little to survive and those who have too much is often justified by the Darwinian concept of the the survival of the fittest. It is interesting to note that many of the people who promote this concept argue vociferously that Darwin was wrong and that evolution is a failed theory. I suppose that is just one of many instances that demonstrate the paradox of being human.
40 years ago, when we started pulling the plug on public education and students failed to learn history, much less the lessons of history, we set the stage for our present condition. Pope Francis obviously has been a very good student of history. He gave good spiritual reasons and some good worldly reasons to turn away from our worship of money and the acquisition of things. But he obviously was not in a position to suggest the outcome of allowing our present condition to determine our future.
What he did not say, and I don’t fault him for this, is that if we continue to permit the present imbalance of wealth and income to exist and even allow the inequality to grow, there is not one instance in all of human history where that pattern has not resulted in massive changes to government and society, frequently accompanied by unimaginable violence. But to paraphrase Pope Francis, we are on a very long and heavy train traveling above the speed where the train can be controlled; and so Pope Francis is right that without all of us getting involved in this process, the brakes won’t work, and we will be watching the train wreck on a television we should not have purchased in the first place.
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