People cling to delusions because life can be extremely complicated and delusions can be a source of comfort. Since Empire of Debt came out, I’ve done a lot more thinking about why people do what they do. People prefer delusions because the truth itself is just too complicated. That’s true when you’re talking about economic truth; for example, if you ask why the price of gold is going up or down, the answer is inﬁnitely complicated.
You can’t reduce it to a formula or a simple logical expression. All of life is that way. When you have a political campaign, for example, the most complex issues get reduced to a single phrase, like “Protect freedom.” People need those kinds of things in order to be able to operate. Otherwise, it’s just much, much too complicated to try to figure out how things actually work. And so they end up believing what they want to believe, but what they believe is so far removed from the facts that it’s a delusion.
People always want to believe that their houses are always going up in price. They want to believe that they’re going to earn more money next year. They want to believe that their investments will go up. And they want to believe that they can get away with spending more money than they actually earn, and they do that in America now because credit is readily available.
These delusions don’t all happen in the same way. They’re episodic and cyclical. In one generation, over a period of time, a delusion builds up; it builds up like debt, in fact, until it’s crushed by events. The way our parents and grandparents looked at things is very different from the way we look at them. They had delusions of their own, of course, but their delusions were very, very different.
Our parents did not think that they could live on credit and borrow their way to prosperity; they believed that if they borrowed some money, they’d have to pay it back. I remember how happy my own parents were when they paid off the mortgage. The mortgage they had taken out on our house in the late ’50s was something like $5,000, with a 5% interest rate. And when they paid that mortgage off, they were delighted. But today, people would be delighted to have that mortgage.
My parents were children of the Great Depression and didn’t have the delusion that you can get away with spending more money than you earn. They thought that not spending too much was the way to go, and they thought that savings were important. The delusion of debt had been crushed out of people in the United States in the Great Depression, but gradually it took hold again. And we who grew up after the ’50s and ’60s never had that experience.
So here we are in the 21st century. We’ve never suffered from a real debt deﬂation and we don’t know what it’s like. I think we’re going to find out, but it’s not going to be pretty.
We had an expression in Empire of Debt that basically said that there are not many people who can afford to live like Americans today, and too bad Americans can’t either. The fact is that Americans live beyond their means. This is a very, very old concept, but today people don’t even think about it because they don’t know what their means are.
You know, when you start down this path where you’re introducing so much credit and monetary inﬂation, which just means that there are more and more dollars floating around, then people don’t know what a dollar is worth. For example, when you get a credit card in the mail with a credit line of $2,500, does that mean that you can spend $2,500? As Warren Buffett has explained many times, you can’t live beyond your means forever; eventually, it catches up with you.
What’s happening in America today is that people are taking their credit cards, spending money they don’t have and believing that they’ll never have to pay that money. But they will, somehow, sooner or later. That mathematics has to catch up to them, and they’ll have to spend less money, because they’re right now spending more than they can afford.
Our whole society is in a trap where it is spending more than it can afford and is transferring its assets. Foreigners end up with our money, and they use the money to buy U.S. assets, so Americans become less and less likely to own their own property. And we’ve seen this, of course, in a very fundamental and simple way in the housing market.
People used to own 70% of their homes: 30% was mortgage, 70% was owner equity. And now that figure is down to 52%, meaning that the average American owns barely half of his house. Who owns the other half? Is it the neighborhood bank? No. The neighborhood bank has sold the mortgage to a financial company, which probably sold it to a hedge fund. Now it’s floating somewhere in the great wide world. It may be in the hands of the Chinese financiers or London speculators. Who knows? But it’s just not the world that it once was, and it doesn’t seem fair to me that these poor children coming into the world should come in with so much debt on their shoulders.
Bill Bonnerfor The Daily Reckoning
Ed. Note: Spending more than you take in cannot last indefinitely. And when it ends it is almost never pleasant. Bill Bonner has been discussing this topic for years in the Daily Reckoning. And early subscribers to the DR have been rewarded handsomely. If you’re not already getting the Daily Reckoning email edition, you’re only getting half the story. Signing up is absolutely free, and it only takes a few seconds. Click here now to sign up for free.
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Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America's most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind The Daily Reckoning. Dice Have No Memory: Big Bets & Bad Economics from Paris to the Pampas, the newest book from Bill Bonner, is the definitive compendium of Bill's daily reckonings from more than a decade: 1999-2010.
When common sense sounds radical, you know we’re living in a messed-up place.
I think it is good that the article takes everyone back to the times that were. I think a lot of the problems have been caused by an education system that has become too fancy and complex: mind polluting.
The former generations seemed to have simple basic concepts which they applied practically.
Good on your for bringing the attention of those living today to what happened in the past: history repeats itself!
I thought you were going to talk about the delusion that the world has borrowed from future generations. Which it has not. And which the world as a whole could not possible do. The World and even America has INVESTED in a vast installed infrastructure that the future genration will inherit (along with a bit of debt to foriegners)
Imagine a simple macroeconomic equation : asset valuation = or proportional to the total money plus total debt plus leveraged obligation (debt) derivatives… after all of those things on the left of the equal sign support the thing on the right.
Now imagine a nonlinear debt default and cascading leveraged obligation default.
Asset valuations thereafter are denominated in a much smaller denominator… they, like yellow metal today, plummet in valuation …
The US dollar, ‘pure and indestructible’(compared to the rest) with redundancy of 1′s and 0′s in multiple reflective supercomputers and fiber optic systems … and denominated in US labor and US Nuclear weapons .. does what … ?
The math of the macroeconomic system is not hard and is not complex….
I have a request, Bill. The Bible and the Code of Hammurabi talk about permitting debtors to sell their wives/children into temporary slavery. Perhaps you could write an article comparing and contrasting to today?
Also, I do find it sad that the next generation is going to be poor and loaded up with our gluttonous debts, but face it – the human race has been growing and living above the planet’s means for a long time already, and the sooner we wise up to our self-inflicted poverty and start thinking about population limits, the better. It’s getting harder and much more expensive to buy real, unadulterated food anymore. Where does that show up in the CPI?
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