Skip to content
Breaking News Alert Trump Names J.D. Vance As His 2024 Running Mate

Don’t Complain About Debt Culture If You’re Perpetuating It


They say that alcohol sales rise during hard times. Perhaps that’s why Washington DC is an alcohol consumption capital. It’s certainly the nation’s debt consumption capital, as we continually see our representatives increasing debt and spending, with Congress’s latest “budget” deal only reinforcing that habit. In that spirit (heh), I offer the following thought experiment.

A millennial, an LGBT advocate (but I repeat myself), and Joel Osteen walk into a bar. They all agree: If you want something, don’t let reality stand in your way. Just go get it. This mental disease of refusing to submit to reality is precisely what fosters, not just transgender and transabled and God exists to make me happy fantasies, but also our personal and our national debt crises. It’s all related, folks. And it reminds me of this commercial:

I hear a lot of complaining from fellow conservatives about the log in everyone else’s eye, and for some reason the most complaining comes from people in the generations most at fault: Baby Boomers and millennials. We want to crab about that damned Congress while happily accepting nice fat, unfunded public pensions and Medicare. We want to spurn Osteen-style religion while glomming onto the tuition forgiveness and repayment programs President Obama just expanded (courtesy of future taxpayers).

Before continuing, let’s just get this out of the way immediately: I don’t think debt is necessarily immoral. Some people have insisted to me that contracting any debt under any circumstances is wrong, and I just don’t buy it. Assuming debt is a prudential decision. It becomes moral or immoral based upon your ability to pay back your lender, your execution of the same, and the burden loans will place on your family and other obligations.

Just Say No—To Yourself

For instance—and this is a real-life example of some acquaintances—is it right for two young people graduating from four-year college with a combined $54,000 in loans to march right into a graduate program they know will add about another $30,000 in debt, while choosing to have children soon after their marriage so that the wife bearing those children cannot work (or her working would involve sending the children to childcare, which is both personally and financially expensive)?

It’s not necessary to get a great job and buy a house pre-baby like everyone assumes nowadays.

I don’t think doing that would send them to hell, but it is quite likely to send them into financial and thus marriage hell. The payments on debt of that size over the typical 10-year student loan length are nearly $1,000 per month. On the typical salary for a graduate of the husband’s program—a pastor—little remains for things like food, pediatrician visits, and gas.

So I strongly advised them against that step, and suggested the two work and postpone a baby while they paid off undergraduate loans, and even save up for graduate school instead of charging it (what a concept!). It’s not necessary to get a great job and buy a house pre-baby like everyone assumes nowadays, but paying off college debt is a smart pre-child calculation, since doing that is much easier and much more freeing. A baby need not be postponed extremely long—one salary can pay the couple’s expenses while the other can pay loans, and baby can arrive just about two years after college. Worked for my husband and me, anyway, with entry-level salaries and in a very high-expense locale (Washington DC).

Money Is Just an Illusion

We live in a seminary town, so this discussion resurfaces regularly. That plus some conversations and behavior from my college friends post-graduation has revealed an interesting attitude about debt that seems tied, believe it or not, to our culture’s approval of same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and other reality-impaired ideas.

It’s the same stuff Joel Osteen and other prosperity gospel preachers peddle: Reality is not something objective and outside yourself.

The idea I hear sounds something like this: “Money isn’t important. It’s about what you do with money. Money is just a tool for achieving what you want.” I technically agree with this, and it sounds non-materialistic, but it also lines up with the general idea, very strong in our culture, that pretends the practical boundaries of life don’t matter.

Born with a penis? Get a doctor to cut it off. Want sex with your own sex? Go for it, even if the body parts between you and a same-sex counterpart can’t actually perform real sex. Don’t have much money, but you want to live like you do? Charge that $5 latte, or that trip to visit family over Memorial Day weekend. What’s DNA, anyway? What’s sex sameness between two people who love each other? What’s ultimately paying $10 for that $5 latte because of interest, or distressing your wife and child, or requiring taxpayers to pick up your medical tab because you didn’t have the prudence to save for basic doctor bills? Mere figments of reality. Ignore those boundaries. Money’s just a tool, after all. It doesn’t mean anything.

People who live like this embody the Eastern mysticism of “The Matrix”: “There is no spoon.” It’s the same stuff Joel Osteen and other prosperity gospel preachers peddle: Reality is not something objective and outside yourself. Reality is what you make it out to be. Or, like we tell young people considering a future career, if you can believe it, you can achieve it.

Snap Back to Reality, Oh There Goes Gravity

A National Affairs article earlier this year pinned this approach to life to a centuries-old philosophy called Gnosticism. The author, George Weigel, says it’s pervasive today. He’s right. I see it most strongly in myself each time I get a positive pregnancy test. I pretend that baby doesn’t exist for just as long as I possibly can. This attitude, Weigel says, links our imprudent sexual behavior to our imprudent financial behavior, both individually and as a society.

If people are prepared to believe (or, even worse, if people are prepared to insist as a matter of fundamental civil rights) the unreal claim that marriage can encompass two men or two women, why should those same people not believe that America can continue to run trillion-dollar deficits with impunity? Or that the centralization and vast regulatory apparatus to be created by Obamacare will not inevitably lead to the rationing of end-of-life care? Or that the federal budget deficit has primarily to do with the wealthy not paying ‘their fair share’?

Those conservatives who imagine that there is no linkage between the unreality embodied in the sexual revolution and the ideology of gender and the unreality embodied in the fiscal, health-care, social-welfare, and foreign policies they oppose might well think again. A culture convinced that everything is malleable and that there are no givens in personal or public life is not a culture likely to sustain serious debates about serious public-policy options.

That’s precisely the culture we have. If you want to encounter it more explicitly than in the kind of incomprehensible decisions your friends make every day and have help analyzing this phenomenon, spin through the recently released “State of the American Mind,” edited by Mark Bauerlein and Adam Bellow. It’s a compendium of essays on discrete aspects of the American mind, but I can summarize it thusly: We’re losing our minds.

I Believe I Can Fly

“The phrase ‘believe in yourself’ appeared six times more often in American books in the 2000s than it did in the 1960s. ‘You are special’ appeared more than thirty times more often,” notes essayist Jean Twenge, a well-published professor of psychology at San Diego State University. She provides data showing narcissism disorders are on the rise, and that “[t]he lifetime prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is three times higher (!) among those in their twenties than those in their sixties.” Millennials are less charitable, less civically engaged, more focused on money and status instead of transcendent or other-directed goals, and more likely to put themselves first. Further, “Although GenMe is more likely than boomers to value money and status in a job, they are less willing to put in the work necessary to earn it.”

We are unwilling to subjugate individual desire for a greater good.

Tell us how you really see Millennials, Dr. Twenge. Actually, she goes on to say that Millennials aren’t inherently terrible; they only believe the messages society has been Tweeting at them. And the other essayists provide plenty of evidence that the rest of America is equally incoherent. Millennials’ problems, like our nation’s fiscal chaos (thanks, Boomers and the Greatest Generation! It’s not right to leave you out of this) and sexual destitution are only one symptom of a deeper disease that runs through every American’s heart: An unwillingness to subjugate individual desire for a greater good.

Case in point, as Mike Warren detailed in a Wall Street Journal review of “The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (And How Republicans Can Keep Up),” by Kristen Soltis Anderson:

Millennials don’t expect Social Security benefits to be around for them, Ms. Anderson argues, so Republicans should emphasize that they are the party trying to modernize the system in ways ‘that give individuals more power over when and how they retire.’

If that sounds familiar, it’s because Republican Paul Ryan made that same argument about entitlement reform for years leading up to his selection in 2012 as the vice-presidential nominee. Millennials didn’t seem convinced by that line of thinking. In fact, according to the author, any reforms that put the benefits of older generations at risk are a nonstarter with millennials.

Warren argues Republicans should quit pandering and start leading. He’s right, and not only in a political sense. Conservatives need to start embodying our ideals, a core one of which has always been that we champion the external, knowable truths that have claims on our behavior. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” remember? This implies there are external realities that should rightly govern our behavior.

So while it’s right to point out that our society has problems, we need to realize that we are part of society. Call it the political Butterfly Effect. Telling or implying to our kids that a brand-name college or job is more important than family or fiscal prudence hurts more than the kids. Likewise taking them to churches that preach sexual indulgence or that people earn their blessings, or failing to provide for our own retirements and routine health expenses. If we want society to get its house in order, we should start with ours.