If you believe big media, the economy is in trouble. If you worry about job layoffs and your inability to pay bills, you may be thinking about voting for Democrats this fall, which is the point of the negative media coverage. Every four years when a Republican is president, big media carry stories about economic gloom and doom. But is it true? It depends on the standard you use.
Last week, The Washington Post carried a story that is a metaphor for what ails us. It was about a Maryland couple whose mortgage lender took back what remained of a $95,000 home equity line of credit. The lender explained that the couple's home had fallen in value and it did not want to shoulder the risk that they might owe more than the house was worth. The couple was using the equity line to pay preschool tuition for their twins.
A good financial adviser might have helped them avoid this predicament, but we are immediately led to the supposedly bottomless well of the federal government. Politicians, especially Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, pledge to shoulder the responsibility of making sure that people whose mortgages are higher than they can reasonably afford and whose debts are larger than they should be get bailed out by the rest of us who made right financial decisions and practice living within our means. I know, this sounds cold, but only to those who live this way.
Lenders across the country are pulling the plug on equity lines and tightening credit after a lending spree to people for whom the housing market was their pot of gold.
Much of this economic "pain" is self-inflicted. Rather than purchasing homes they could not afford - or putting too much down, making them cash poor - they might have invested their equity in balanced mutual funds (the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 11.59 percent over a 10-year period). Such a path could have avoided the tight spot in which many now find themselves.
Some of the lust for bigger and better is human nature, but a lot is the result of consumerism. The Timex watch is no longer enough. We now must have a Rolex, though both accurately tell time. The adequate low-end automobile is insufficient. We must trade up to a luxury car with numbers and letters on the rear that mean nothing, but convey "status." And the house we are living in, which would have been more than adequate for our parents and certainly our grandparents, must be upgraded to larger digs in order to impress, if not growing families, than enlarged egos.
When none of this brings the promised happiness and fulfillment, we turn to drink, or pills, or counselors, or divorce court and seek significance in new things and relationships on what quickly becomes a personal boulevard of broken dreams.
We can't say we haven't been warned about this endless pursuit of stuff. The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, "Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. ŠAs goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them?" (Ecclesiastes 5:10-11)
When wants and needs are confused, desires become entitlements and politicians are afraid to tell people what they need to hear. Instead they tell them what they want to hear. Anger and envy result, as well as frustration with a political system that was not designed to indulge its citizens in their lusts or subsidize their greed.
Who will tell us that unending and expanding prosperity with home values constantly rising and a citizenry always able to afford them is a fantasy that is bound to end in heartache for those who buy into it?
The economy isn't bad. We are bad for believing that more is better and the most is best. We have an abundance of things, but a deficit of character. The economy is a false god, a golden calf. When this false god doesn't deliver, we complain to politicians who are happy to accept our faith in them to give us what we want - if we will only pledge to them our allegiance at election time.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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