Diverse Crowd of Debtor-Americans eyes skyward
Real Americans are debtors

It hit me 20 years ago: personal debt was becoming the real “bling.” And the question was, how much debt can a person carry without breaking a sweat?

It was a notion that pertained to those of us down here on the ground, of course, not to the swells in private jets. The wealthy had a whole different set of horribly mutating pressures, which have only worsened. This was more of a proletarian thing, based on principles left to dogs that are forced to fight over scraps and dead things. Forget the season tickets, the gold, and the Benz. Flaunting how you’d scored access to a back door in order to procure them was what was important.

Parading around in rich people’s material accessories and mocking “what rich people do” is time-honored comedy. What suggested something different was that Mercedes itself started diluting its brand, offering more models at lower prices and cranking out upgrades and redesigns so frequently that their acquisition required fewer and fewer of the principles behind delayed gratification. We were being met halfway.

Man crying behind the wheel
Mercedes Benz: over-engineered and sprinkled with rhinestones

Shortly after the twin towers fell, I sensed an increased flippancy and cynicism being expressed in regular folks’ spending. Since average people don’t have a lot of disposable income, blurring the line between disposable and borrowed was already pretty common. But when that peculiarity grew so prevalent so quickly, I wondered if building a personal fashion runway on which to strut ––on credit–– had actually surpassed the glint of jewelry or the glamour of that luxury car.

International symbol representing carelessness
Where’s your credit score now Flanders?

We watched as increasing numbers of our fellows lived stupidly beyond their means, but we shrugged and tried to keep up. Such was today’s epidemic of narcissism and entitlement while it was still using training wheels. I filed it all under: “Wealth is quiet. Rich is loud. Fake is flashy.”

The kicker was an ability to show emotional resilience and a light heart in the face of crushing personal debt. It was the United States of Credit Scores, the run up to the 2008 financial collapse that was promulgated by contempt-filled men set on selling a million homes to those who couldn’t afford them.

And then came the New Normal…

he Scary Eyes of Elizabeth Holmes
Elizabeth Holmes wants you to donate your soul for science.

The update to debt-as-bling is far uglier, and now it’s also impossible to ignore. Just look to Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, or the FBI’s inquiry into Jussie Smollet’s dropped criminal charges. The government calling the college admissions scandal a “criminal conspiracy” means little when conventional wisdom routinely waters cheating down to “hacks” and “tricks.” Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli may have refused to plead guilty like the others because maybe it’s not really cheating after all.

All around us, there’s a growing sense that if you’re not “connected,” if you don’t know the secret handshake or the hack (a.k.a. how to cheat), you matter less. Because in 2019, if you’re not engaged in an eye bleeding panic to position your assets, your money, and your bling so they can substitute for merit, well…you’re almost not even American.

Transparency international graphic
Government corruption hates your vote.

I used to think I could survive just about anything. Now I wonder how to keep a healthy outlook when the values and principles I was taught as a child ––which were heavily reinforced when I was a parolee–– are being rejected every time the news catches my attention. As someone who served prison time, I fought like hell to re-embrace the norms, laws, regulations, taboos, and customs that used to be important in civic expectation, not to mention everyday humanities. So now what?

Ace of Spades Hidden in Sleeve
I Pledge Allegiance to Aces up My Sleeve

The criminal record is mine forever, as is the knowledge that I have no one to blame but myself. I’ve made peace with and built on that. But for someone whose actions made detention and stigma a necessary part of a difficult learning curve, it’s absolutely heartbreaking ––and frankly confusing–– to see those lessons, values, and principles being blown off from the top down. What’s worse is the feeling we’re being told these ARE the new upright values and principles.

Is America’s moral courage in a fight for its life?

Dan Tague folded money artwork
Artist Dan Tague’s Easter Eggs are in the folds

So the question is, what do those of us feeling this dread (we 74% of Americans who believe ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption) do about it? How do we go forth believing the values we were raised to protect are still worth protecting ––or even adhering to? If we’re outnumbered and surrounded by those who demonstrate emotional resilience and a light heart in the face of actual criminal activity, what’s the point? What’s “Post-Truth America,” and how in the world would I answer these questions if a 14-year-old were asking them?

These days, it feels more like we live in the United States of Until You Get Caught. Take, exploit, exclude, and profit as much as possible, without concern for what could happen when the whole house of cards collapses. By burying our heads in the sand once again, we do nothing but make excuses for the fact that this is all really fucking happening.


If you’d like to stay on top of where this is going, check out the newly launched Mother Jones Corruption Project.



Control Issues My Ass

HELPFUL PARKING INSTRUCTIONS_Where Excuses Go to DieYours, mine, or theirs: citing “control issues” to justify bad behavior is just another excuse. It’s nonsense, too, because we don’t have control issues; we have irritation reflexes, entitlements, and a need for instant gratification. These form a perfect storm in our compulsion to influence the world around us – an Achilles’ heel like no other. And where do go with it?
Behind the wheel. 

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