Friday, July 4, 2014

Chains: A Personal Perspective

Brace yourself, Gentle Reader. I'm about to slap the conventional wisdom across the face with a wet mackerel. The conventional American wisdom of the past seventy years, at least. It proceeds from my own reaction to a very recent event, one few Americans get to experience these days.

Political freedom, de jure at least, is gone from these United States. Our sociopolitical disease, which Ayn Rand captured in her observation that "We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission," has reached its terminus. What freedom remains to us is solely de facto: the ability to "get away with it" without adverse consequences. Because there are so many of us, that can embrace a pretty wide variety of undertakings, but the potential for a punitive reaction from some organ of the State will attach to all of them.

But you still want to be free, don't you? You still want that sense of being totally unencumbered, infinitely mobile in a land of unlimited opportunity, even if the opportunities themselves have begun to seem a bit drab. You want to "feel the wind in your hair." (That's probably easier for you than for me, given my tonsorially challenged status, but the image is still compelling.)

Short of advising you to buy a convertible, there isn't much I can tell you about that last. But I might be able to tell you a little something about how to feel freer than you currently do. I experienced it yesterday.

Yesterday morning, at 9:06 AM EDT, I paid off my last ongoing installment debt. It was a minor home-equity line of credit I'd used to pay for a few improvements around the house. I'd carried it for four years, and as the time passed it felt ever more like a chain around my ankle. When I forced the balance on that debt to $0.00, I swear I felt that chain shatter in my hands.

I haven't felt that free since...well, ever.

I hadn't needed to take out that line of credit. I did it on the advice of my accountant, who also happens to be my wife Beth, and who can be unnaturally persuasive. Our savings would have covered those home improvements many times over, but Beth felt the debt would serve us at tax time. So I swallowed my misgivings and opened the credit line...and regretted it ever afterward.

A debt really is a chain on you. It constrains your decision making in several ways, some of which you're unlikely to foresee. But practical considerations to the side, if you value your emotional freedom -- your sense of mobility, of unaccountability to others -- a debt is a millstone on your back. A reasonably self-aware person will always be conscious of his obligations to others, and monetary debts are the crassest of all such.

Yet have a gander at this condensation of the conventional American "life script:"

  • Do well in school.
  • Rebel with music from the entertainment corps.
  • Get shoes, clothes, and gadgets with the best corporate logos.
  • Get a university degree. (If your family isn’t rich, take student loans.)
  • Take a job at a big firm with good benefits.
  • Get a loan and buy a house.
  • Build a 401(k).
  • Believe in democracy.
  • Send your children to daycare, then school.
  • Buy brand-name goods.
  • Watch the best in entertainment.
  • Rely on Social Security and Medicare.

Six of those twelve steps involve spending money, in some cases a great deal of money you're unlikely to have on hand, so if you elect to follow the "script," you'll probably have to incur debt. Educational-loan debt, mortgage debt, chattel (i.e., car loan) debt, credit-card debt, and variations thereof. And if you're a typical American, those debts will constitute the most important constraints upon you lifelong, your personal commitments to family and loved ones excepted.

Your debts will have sharply decreased your aggregate mobility. They'll be considerations of importance every time you confront a major decision or a life-altering possibility. If you value that sense of freedom I mentioned -- which, by the way, really is preferable to "crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentations of their women," and yes, I speak from experience there, too -- they will chafe you from dawn to dusk every day of your life.

And you will have done it to yourself.

Regardless of anything anyone says, you cannot be saddled with an obligation against your will, no matter who might try to saddle (or bridle) you. Regardless of the situation or the adversary, you will always retain the ability to say No! and accept the consequences. The only thing anyone can force upon you is death, and as a lapel button I cherish says, the willingness to die enables you to do anything.

The sincere, willing acceptance of an obligation is often a sign of maturity. After all, unless you've accepted that your burdens are yours alone to carry, you're not an adult. If those burdens have zero weight, you don't possess the practical demonstration thereof. But I've become ever more firm in my conviction that there are obligations whose acceptance is more foolhardy than mature.

An obligation accepted from foresight and after planning can be defended, even if the foresight was inaccurate and the planning was flawed. At least you tried. An obligation accepted to indulge oneself in a frivolous or transient pleasure is far harder to justify a posteriori. Worst of all is an obligation accepted because of peer pressure; that's allowing others to set your priorities and make your decisions for you.

A debt is an obligation. To the extent that your true values persuade you to incur a debt, it is rationalizable even if you later come to doubt the wisdom of the decision. You acted on your best knowledge, comprehension, and judgment at the time. But how painful it is to look back at such a decision and to admit to yourself that you were being frivolously self-indulgent, or foolishly headstrong, or just doing what "everyone said" you should do!

Yes, yes, only hindsight is 20-20. But given the weight of the chain, a strong, healthful reluctance to incur debt should be your default posture...even if you're married to an accountant.

I've been more fortunate than most. I've managed to avoid incurring debts a lot of people have plunged into and later regretted. But I accepted some of the major tenets of "the script:" I took out educational loans; I bought a house with a mortgage; I bought several cars on credit. As each of those chains fell away, I felt a degree freer than before. Today, debt-free at last, I possess absolute discretionary mobility. I can walk away from anything. Nothing in my life, apart from my love for my wife, has the power to constrain me.

Even in these final years of my life, I cherish that sense of absolute personal freedom. No, it's not political freedom; I'm no better off than you in that regard. But the practical possibilities open to one absolutely unencumbered by debt are far wider than those available to one who still wears the chains.

I might never exploit any of those opportunities or possibilities. Given my age, my reclusive nature, and my preference for the quietest of satisfactions and amusements, that's more likely than not. But that sense of personal latitude, now that the last chain has fallen away, is beyond ecstasy. It beggars my powers of description.

I will never wear those chains again.


T. Paine said...

While I have a mortgage and some credit card debt, it is being whittled down rather well at this point. That said, I learned early in life that clothing or shoe labels or vacation destinations don't matter one tiny bit. Character, honor and decency have no labels but are abundantly visible to everyone we come in contact with. Everyone will remember my character and sense of honor and decency. And those qualities are exactly why I, and others like me, are loathed and feared by the leftists. We can't be bought.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more with the concept of living debt-free. I allowed myself to get into some pretty serious debt, for mostly frivolous reasons. I then assumed even more debt with a mortgage and expenses associated with home-ownership. Finally, I experienced a personal crisis in which a friend became deathly ill, and as that person's only close friend, I assumed a great deal of additional, unforeseen responsibility, along with a loss of time and an inability to work and earn efficiently. It was a devastating combination.

The only saving grace in my situation was, my frivolous purchases have all retained some degree of value. I sold off some personal property, I had numerous exceptionally successful months at work, and I came to my senses. With the large windfall in-hand, I started to knock down the debts one by one. With each payoff, I felt like I was able to breathe more freely. I no longer felt physically restrained. I no longer worried about knocks on the door, or phone calls, and I didn't lay in bed awake at night anymore, wondering how I was going to survive another week.

Debt is slavery. Avoid it at all cost. Put off financing a new car. Buy a used car, or fix your existing car. Clothes are meant for covering your body, not showing off. Use them until they no longer function as intended. Economize. Use less, and find ways to buy the things you need more cheaply. Most importantly: Love what you have. You don't need new things, you need to appreciate the things you have for what they are. They were new-to-you at one time, you were excited and happy with them. Find that again, the "second honeymoon". Some will say that life lived this way is boring. I wish them luck with their money trees. For the rest, this is the best advice you will ever get. The choice is yours.

Dystopic said...

I bought a house some years ago, before the big run up in prices that led to the collapse. It is such that despite the crash, I retain something on the order of 30% equity or so. My income has nearly doubled in the intervening years. I could sell the property and buy something far nicer.

But I don't. Instead, I take all of the extra money I am getting and using it to pay down the mortgage. In another 5 or 6 years, if this rate holds up, it will be gone. When that day comes, I know I will feel a sense of relief greater than any I've experienced thus far. I still have one car loan, but that will be done in a year. I will never buy anything else on credit again if it can possibly be helped. I would rather duct-tape a crapwagon together than have another car payment. I would rather rent a tree house or a beaten-down trailer home than have another mortgage payment.

I only wish I had the wisdom to avoid these debts years ago. The only viable excuse for debts that I can see are twofold: areas in which it is a near-guarantee to be better for you financially than not taking the debt (your example of tax purposes, for instance, or for purposes of business -- a calculated risk). The other is survival. If you cannot feed your family or provide them shelter, except to utilize the credit you can obtain, it is forgivable to take it on. It should be expunged as soon as is practical in that instance, however.

No mortgages, car loans or other optional debts should ever be entered into, under any circumstances that do not meet the two criteria above.

LindaF said...

My husband and I were trying to decide what he should do with a job offer that would take him about 2 hours away from home, for the duration of the school year (he would be staying near his work during the week).

I asked him what his most important goal for the next year was (he's long wanted to complete his Master's degree - with it, he could retire to work part-time at a university, which he's wanted to do for several years).

To my surprise, he said that he wanted to eliminate all our non-home related debt. With both of us working, and with that goal in mind, it could be done in about 1 year.

So, I may also be joining the debt-free group within a few short years (our home equity is high, and our interest is just 3.25%, so that debt may wait until we have all other things locked down).

With the retirement income we have coming in from working in school systems (3 different states), we could be completely retired, or as much as we want to be, in just about 3 years.