Are you keeping up with the Jones' debt load?

Last week I logged onto the website of my local credit union to check and see if my rent check had cleared yet. Upon arriving at their website I was greeted by a picture of a large TV with a football player jumping out of it to catch a football and text proclaiming “Buying a HDTV? Finance it with a low-rate [Credit Union] loan.” Now of course as a graduate student I’m probably not in the best position to be criticizing other people’s financial decisions. I’ve taken out student loans that paid for all sorts of stupid things (though mostly those things were food, rent, and car insurance). And I regularly end up carrying credit card debt for moderate periods of time (i.e. less than a year but more than a month). Again this is mostly for semi-necessary bills (arguably my cell phone isn’t necessary nor is a large chunk of my food expenditure) but there are certainly splurges that appear there. Nonetheless, despite not exactly being little Ms. Frugal myself, I am utterly and completely horrified by the mere idea of taking out a loan to buy a TV.

In the interest of full disclosure I should probably mention that I find this particularly horrific precisely because I don’t watch TV, and thus don’t understand the concept of high definition TV. But really, even if I loved TV, I think I’d be hard pressed to understand the concept of taking out a loan to buy one. Granted, loans in general are not my default mindset. I grew up in an essentially debt-free home. My parents rent and as far as I know they always paid for cars outright. My mother is a big believer in paying off credit cards every month. Given that, the fact that I have any debt at all is stressful for me (even though my student loan debt is minimal compared to how long I’ve been in school). But I understand the concept of debt. Mortgages seem an inevitable part of middle-class life. And I can see myself someday giving in to the idea of a car payment (if I’m really lucky my current car–which was bought new as a gift from a relative when I started graduate school–will last me long enough that I don’t have to contemplate the idea of student loan debt and car payments at the same time). But what mindset ends you up taking out a loan for a TV?

I’ve seen lots of figures (which I am currently too lazy to dig up) about Americans and their debt load. I think I’ve always sort of naively assumed that this was primarily credit card debt that built up over time and series of small purchases. Of course that sort of debt isn’t better in any sense and is almost certainly worse in the sense that it probably entails much higher interest rates. But, to me at least, it’s more understandable than debt incurred in one fell swoop for purely luxury items. I can understand how small purchases that “I’ll pay off next month, really” could aggregate and spiral into massive credit card debt. I can understand how living on credit cards for a couple of months while unemployed could have the same effect. The thought process that leads to “I need an HDTV and I think I’ll take out a line of credit from the credit union for it” is a bit beyond me. Presumably it’s somehow SuperBowl related. But that makes it even further beyond me (during my first year of college I fell in with a group of sports-lovers; they forbade me from joining them to watch the SuperBowl since I made it clear that really I only wanted to come watch the commercials).

I suppose what really perplexed me was the fact that this was on my credit union’s website. I tend to think of credit unions as more focused on their customer base and less on profit than a bank. Probably because I grew up in a small town with a very friendly, very grass roots feeling credit union where the tellers would actually recognize my mother and I when we would come in. So the thought of a credit union advertising loans for TVs just feels disappointing to me. It feels very much like “haha we’re going to make a profit off your idiocy” rather than “we are looking out for you and your money.” One could argue of course that this is looking out for people’s money if you assume that they’re going to buy the HDTV no matter what and their choice set is a) buy on store credit b) buy on credit card c) steal money to buy it or d) buy with credit union loan. Clearly if that is the situation, then the credit union is doing people a service by leading them to choice d. However, if the choice process is a) don’t by an expensive TV because I can’t afford it or b) go into debt for a TV then I think the credit union is doing their members a disservice in leading them toward b.

Meanwhile I wish I owned a home so that I could cash in the equity to pay for an extravagant vacation or a boat or something. At this point the Jones are going to get to their bankruptcy hearing way before I do.


Children in public places (and as public goods)

So there’s been some discussion in various places of an article in the NY Times about a coffee shop in Chicago that put up a sign saying “children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven.” This dovetails with something else that I’ve been thinking about lately.

Not long ago I was flipping through Bitch Ph.D.‘s better rants and came across this post about children. Dr. B makes the argument that children are members of society, not public goods. I have to admit that I’m guilty of the “children are public goods” argument. Actually it’s my default argument when it comes to discussing public policy and children, particulary when my audience happens to be of the child-free crowd or libertarians arguing for the total privatization of education. This is not to say that I think children are only public goods. As Dr. B makes pretty clear, that would be distinctly anti-social of me. But people who hate children, or hate providing support for other people’s children, aren’t likely to be swayed by moral societal arguments. (Note, by the way, that I don’t mean to imply that all of the child-free folks hate children, but people who hate children are an important subset to whom policy arguments need to be addressed). I firmly believe that even if you hate children and think they are little embodiments of satan who have no place in society, that you are still obligated to provide support to them and their parents in the form of family-friendly public policy. Why? Sure, I suppose one could argue that there’s the moral obligation to deal with fellow humans in ethical ways. But more importantly, though utterly cliched, children are the future. Today’s children are tomorrow’s workforce and tomorrow’s criminals. There are lots of really good reasons to invest in children. And most of those reasons can be cast in terms of public goods, even if perhaps they shouldn’t be.

That aside, though, back to the question of children in public spaces. As someone who doesn’t have children, and who, at the present time, has no intention of having children, I find myself sometimes having a hard time figuring out what the appropriate societal and policy lines between children’s rights and adults’ rights are. Public space is a particularly vexing issue for me. I know that I should be supportive of children in public spaces. Socialization is good for children and, by my own public goods arguments, things that are good for children are ultimately good for society and me. And of course, besides that, children are people and should be treated as such.

This means that, for instance, I should be perfectly fine with well-behaved children in restaurants. Nonetheless, last spring I found myself at a table in a restaurant next to a table with two relatively well-behaved boys who were about eight to ten years old. They weren’t particularly loud, but they were loud enough for their conversation to easily carry to our table and somehow their voices were just grating enough that I wasn’t really able to cope and I ended up making a very snarky comment about their presence to my dinner companion. I said it in what was meant to be a whisper but was apparently loud enough for him to think the parents could have potentially heard. In my defense I was tired, overwhelmed, and dealing with a death in the family. Still, I was mortified by my hostility, and even more disturbed to find myself rather hostile to children present in other public spaces. I have become one of those adults who winces when I walk to my gate at the airport and note the presence of members of the pre-school set.

The truth is that though I recognize the right of children to be present in society, all too often I wish they weren’t. I have great respect for parents who have well-behaved children. I also have a great deal of sympathy for parents who want to spend time out in the world and can’t afford babysitters. But I also really like the idea of being able to go out for dinner without having to worry about whether there’ll be a temper tantrum two tables over (not that temper tantrums are absent among adults, but they’re less common).

In general I’m very supportive of policies that make life better for parents and children. I’m all for family leave. I’m all for employer (or public) subsidized child care. And I’m theoretically all for the right of children to participate in public places. But I do think that parents have a responsibility to make sure that their children behave in ways that are acceptable to the spaces their children are in. If we’re going to argue that children have a right to be in public space because they are people and we have to deal with people in public spaces then shouldn’t we also be willing to accept arguments that children should have to abide by similar rules to those followed by other people in the space? There’s the example of children running and throwing themselves at the display cases in the coffee shop. Wouldn’t an adult doing similar be asked to leave? What about the kid lying in the way of the coffee line? Wouldn’t we be perfectly justified in asking an adult blocking a line to at least move over? I honestly think we do a disservice to children by assuming that they are incapable of behaving in reasonable ways. Sure, everyone has bad days, kids included. But part of growing up is learning how to behave in ways that are consistent with the norms of the setting. Is someone really going to argue that that’s a bad thing?

I’m not sure what the balance is, really. On the one hand as an adult without children I think that I really ought to be able to go places and spend my money on food and coffee without having to deal with screaming. Let’s note that I’d be just as irate if the screaming came from adults (there is, after all, a reason I avoid sports bars). I like quiet. But I also firmly believe that we as a society need to integrate children better and be more supportive to parents. I suppose it makes me a hypocrite to wish that we could integrate children better somewhere else, doesn’t it?

Revolutionary Petunias

The title of this is taken from an Alice Walker poem that always makes me think of changing the world by changing the landscape, revolution with a spade and garden gloves instead of rifles (ignoring for a moment the fact that the content of the poem itself is rather violent).

My brain these days is circling around the word revolution, around phrases like social justice. I wonder what others mean by these words. I wonder what I mean. A fellow Unitarian Universalist asks of the support of white allies in anti-racist movements: “I wonder if that support is premised on our space in the sun not creating a shadow for them.” I have spent a lot of time pondering this question and pondering whether my answer is consistent with my faith/philosophy or whether it is a hypocritical mark of racist self-interest. Because ultimately my answer is “yes.” Yes, my support for anti-racist movements is contingent upon those movements not merely shifting upon whom the shadows fall. But I would expand my answer beyond that. It is not just along the lines of color where I think my discomfort with this formulation lies. Fundamentally I am not interested in reinforcing hierarchies. I am not in favor of replacing old hierarchies with new hierarchies that simply favor the formerly disempowered. I do not seek to replace white supremacy with non-white supremacy, patriarchy with matriarchy, or rule by the rich with rule by the workers. I haven’t read Rawles in any detail, but I understand him to basically argue that justice requires the feeling that a system is just even if you don’t know where you’re going to end up in it. The way I think of this is that I should be imagining a utopia where I am not penalized for characteristics of my birth. The assumptions of those fighting for their own empowerment, however, often seem to rest on the notion of a zero-sum game, the idea that one cannot come into power without wresting power from another. And that’s a reasonable assumption, certainly. It’s the next step in the logic that puzzles me. Why does a redistribution of power necessitate recreation of hierarchy? Revenge? Where’s the logic there? Why is it any more fair that I should pay the price for my position in a system created by my ancestors than it is that you should pay a price for your position in a system created by my ancestors?

Truly I’m not much of a revolutionary, the way revolution seems to be typically defined. My disdain for violence seems to get in the way. I understand that to say that I am a pacifist is a reflection of my privilege. I understand that when the war lands on your doorstep the words “but I’m a pacifist” will not stop the bullets. On the other hand, I have seen no convincing evidence to suggest that any problem has ever been solved through violent action. I am convinced, having seen it historically and in the personal lives of people surrounding me, that violence begets violence. Of course violent revolution can be successful, but it requires an astounding amount of blood. It requires not merely overthrowing those in power and putting yourself in their place, but killing every last one of those in power or those related to those in power, or those sympathetic to those in power. Essentially it involves killing anyone and everyone who might eventually want revenge. I have to admit that I am at a loss to think of any cause I support strongly enough to endure that kind of bloodshed.

But I realized last night that I have other problems with leftists and revolutionaries, and radicals in general. Tunnel vision, a devotion to one’s own cause that leaves even well-meaning fighters of oppression perpetuating oppressions of their own even as they pat themselves on the back for their progressiveness. I realized in the midst of another conversation that part of my retreat from economic radicalism has nothing to do with my pacifism and everything to do with my feminism. I offer here two historical examples. The first is the United States in the 1960s. Sara Evans offers a nice narrative of the relationship between civil rights activism and the formation of the women’s movement (second wave feminism). Of course, if you want to look back further, you could also make similar arguments about abolitionism and the suffrage movement (first wave feminism). But flash forward a couple of decades and shift your focus a few thousand miles south of the civil rights work done in Alabama and Mississippi. Anna Fernandez Poncela and Jennifer Bickham Mendez both offer descriptions of women’s organizing in Nicaragua during the Sandinista Revolution that is depressingly familiar. Maxine Molyneux describes the history of women’s organizing in Cuba in ways that again sound all too familiar. And yes, my skepticism is driven largely by self-interest but I have a hard time getting behind the word revolution when it seems clear to me that I risk being put against the wall for the color of my skin (or the privilege of having pursued intellectual pursuits, never mind the ill-logic of punishing people for where they ended up rather than where they started) without even having any hope of overthrowing the particular hierarchal structure that holds me down. And as a feminist I can’t much fantasize about violent revolution if I want humankind to survive. And even if it weren’t for the issue of reproduction, nothing changes the fact that some of the people I love most are people empowered by patriarchy, men.

There is more I could say of course. But really what it comes down to is a conviction that no one should be living in shadows. And a deep underlying suspicion of anyone who would ask me to fight for their right to stand in the sun but be unwilling to fight for my right to the same.