Meyer & Shana: Blaming vs Growing Up

I label Dick Meyer as an “omni-spective.” He is an educated, urbane “DC-NY-corridor” secularist who defies the stereotype of snobbish insularity. He is introspective and also outwardly mega-observant; he doesn’t just peer at a surface, but looks into and around everything – hence my label.

Meyer recently left CBS News and headed to NPR and he has taken his Against the Grain column with him. Today’s piece is a good ‘un you will want to read. I have a few small quibbles with it – as usual – mostly because there is some debate as to whether we are actually in recession, (and that debate seems to fall along the usual lines, so maybe it is pointless to belabor) but the piece is not about recession; it’s about Americans blaming others for their difficulties, rather than simply hauling up their slacks and getting on with things:

The first cousin of blamesmanship is the syndrome that turns grown-ups into victims, the social demand that for every bad thing there must be a victim and a villain. The American litigation system is our great monument to these most unattractive ethical postures. Lost money in the market? Sue. Suffered an untimely death in the family? Sue. Couldn’t afford your credit card payments? Blame easy credit, declare bankruptcy and let someone else sue you.
[...]
Government ought to protect the little guy. Business ought not to prey on consumers. Well, yes, sure. But that, again, is only half the story.

Consumers ought not to carry debt they cannot afford. Borrowers are not exempt from being prudent or well-informed simply because loans are available. But such declarations are now considered illiberal, moralistic and unsophisticated. That means we are likely doomed to repeat our mistakes.

By a happy synchronicity, my friend Shana, a “fly-over country” home-schooling mother of 9, who doubtless would horrify Barack Obama with her provincialism, shared with me a letter-full-of-advice she’s written to a nephew who is leaving home to become an apprentice electrician. The whole letter is a gem – we should all have received a copy when we were 18 – and her common sense is worth 1000 social studies – but here are some excerpts:

Glad to hear you went South with Mick! I wish you every good while you’re there. I can’t be ‘your mom’ but I can give you the advice that a mom ought to give a son going out on his own for the first time.

Work hard & learn something, keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears open, and think before you speak. The real measure of a man is not in how much he makes or what he has in terms of possessions or even in his so-called wit, but in controlling himself. Takes a long time and its harder work than you think, but it worth the effort to do it. Then you will be able to control the one thing most people fail miserably to control – your own self. Conquer yourself – your will, your ambitions, your mouth and your emotions and you can and will conquer anything and be a very respected and admired man. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to admire in a bigmouth.

ALWAYS show up for work on time, and if you cannot because of error, illness or accident, make sure you call and explain. NEVER lie to the man who pays you or woman who loves you, and NEVER say you’ll do something and fail to live up to your word….

Pay your bills on time. Don’t spend more than you make. If you can’t meet a bill’s deadline, call & make arrangements with your debtors. Anything can be worked out with anyone if you go about it the right way…

Don’t get a credit card unless you are absolutely committed and self-disciplined enough to pay it off every month. Pay cash for as much as possible. If you don’t have the cash and it isn’t an emergency – don’t buy it. See the part about self-control.

Learn to separate needs from wants. You need darn few things in life as badly as you want them.

Open a savings when you open a checking account and pay you first, even a little, so you can begin saving for your own house and, yes retirement, and also so you always have emergency funds. Nothing better in the world than owning your own, without having huge bills around your neck.

Find some way to better yourself frequently. [Read] books, go to museums and study something new, keep your mind alive and active and busy. Ask questions of people who know more than you do and listen to the answers. Take a CPR, Heimlich and first aid course so you know what to do in an emergency. Play frequently, but make sure you play nicely. Don’t make me come down there.

Before you just accept what someone tells you as fact, even me – ask yourself – “What do I get out of it if I listen, but more importantly, what do they get out of ME if I listen to them?” If you think they benefit more than you do, consider the alternatives. Think things over carefully and learn NOT to make a fast decision/agreement unless someone’s life is in danger. Thinking is free, but some snap decisions can be very very expensive.

Shana’s note is a little guidebook to growing up. And – proving perhaps that we Americans can find common ground about more than we realize – Meyer is saying the same thing:

It would be natural to wonder why so many consumers took out loans on grossly inflated assets at interest rates that, while initially low, could increase wildly in the future. It would be natural to wonder why so many people bought things they plainly could not afford with credit cards. It would be natural to wonder why the pleasure of buying and having stuff so often outweighs the pain of economic risk and uncertainty.

Answering such questions leads to self-knowledge and changes in behavior. It is educative. Economic education, mixed with a smidge of fire and brimstone, is no longer a part of our schools’ curriculum. That’s a bad call.

Our focus, however, is now on apportioning blame between the financial foxes on Wall Street and the negligent regulators in Washington. And we should be doing just that — just not to the exclusion of looking in the mirror. And growing up.

I have the coolest friends!

By the way, if you like Meyer’s columns,
(and we’ve certainly read enough of them on this blog) you may want to check out his upcoming book, Why We Hate Us; American Discontent in the New Millenium.

It is not a rehash of his columns, but an original and thoughtful look at the overmarketed, overconsumed, over-transient America bereft of the old connections (community, family, church) that kept us grounded and somewhat sane and sensible. I think Why We Hate Us will have a broad appeal to both secular and religious people who are grappling with that nameless, nagging sense that things are ‘way off kilter, here. It comes out August 5.

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