‘You’re the Problem With America, Basically’

My friend Greg has no credit card debt. I have some (okay, a lot of) credit card debt. We have different ideas about debt and credit cards, and one night we talked it out. Discussed: Marxism, the universe, blading.

Logan: You’re my friend, and I feel like I need to tell you something.

Greg: Okay.

L: I have $20,000 in credit card debt.

G: So you’re the “Problem With America,” basically.

L: Basically, yes. But does that surprise you?

G: No, it doesn’t, but it saddens me. Credit cards are terrible.

L: Well, they can be, yes.

G: No, they are.

L: Tell me why you hate credit cards. Because I think that obviously I messed up, but I don’t think they are totally terrible. Like, they allowed me to do things I couldn’t have done.

G: They allowed you to live your life a certain way that you wanted to live, to afford that life. But that’s the “Problem With America,” right? Living beyond your means? And you’re seemingly the poster child for the “Problem With America,” or one of them, one of many. The problem is that you’re carving out a piece of your life and giving it to people who have done nothing for it. You’ve lived your life a certain way, and now you have to pay that back for the rest of your life.

L: Not the rest of my life.

G: Fine, you’re how old now?

L: 27.

G: Fine, the rest of your youth. The rest of your youth is going to be dedicated to paying back these people. You’re giving them a part of your life. You work for money, that’s the whole thing. I don’t want to get too Marxist here, but when you work for a wage, you literally… I’m really just describing basic, dime-store, bargain-basement Marxist thought here kinda, but I’m just going to go with it. Some people have capital. You don’t. I don’t either. So what we need to do to have capital to buy things that we need — like bread or cheese or cheesy poofs or vodka with pickle juices — we need capital, we need little bits of money.

And so since we don’t have any of our own and weren’t born into any significant sums of any substantive value, the only we have of any value is our time. Literally. The time that we spend on this earth is the only thing we have of value. And so we barter that to the highest bidder. So we can sell the skills we’ve invested in, or in some people’s cases, their actual physical being, like pushing a button, or turning a thing in a machine or whatever. It’s the only way to get money to get things they want or need.

So if you think about money like that, every dollar, every cent, is a second, is a minute, is a month of your life. $20,000 is six months of your life. Right now, at the rate at which you’re bartering your life.

L: It’s actually way more than six months, at the rate I’m going.

G: I was being generous. But you see my point. So now on top of that, on top of the $20,000 that you racked up, now you’re paying interest on your life — you’re paying interest on the fact that you lived, and that’s crazy. You’ve already spent that money and those minutes and those seconds which each of those bits of capital and currency amount to, now these people who have done nothing except have money, they’ve contributed nothing to society or you — they own you. Or at least, they own that period of your life that you’re now paying interest on.

You’ve been in debt how many times now, three times? If you had just not gone into debt the first two times, you would have been able to pay for whatever you just spent this last round on anyway. You would have been able to pay for this most recent trip to Europe. You’re literally taking off chunks of flesh and throwing it at them. You’re buying into this system, and it’s crazy.

L: I’m not buying into it.

G: You have credit cards that you only just gave away, and you have $20,000 in debt. You’ve bought into it. You’ve bought into it more than anyone I know.

L: I think it’s because there is something wrong with me.

G: No, I don’t think so. Again, you’re the “Problem With America,” dude. There are plenty of other Americans with the same problem. You’re not unique here. Seemingly, the majority of people in America have bought into the idea that it’s fine to be in a little bit of debt for an amount of time.

L: You never had a credit card?

G: Okay obviously some of this is due to the fact that I’m privileged. Both of my parents are public school teachers, it’s not that they’re super wealthy, but they could pay for stuff. But at the same time, I’ve been working, in one way or another, since I was 13. Also, I admit that I’m stupid and don’t understand how money works.

L: Um, you just explained to me how money works.

G: What I just went through (which I do believe, genuinely) is a biased view of how the system works. So yes, I understand, let’s not give away what you’ve dedicated pieces of your life to. That’s the only limited resource that you have any control over.

L: Can I explain why I don’t feel that way?

G: I mean, you can try.

L: For me, the credit cards allowed me to do things that I couldn’t have done in a time I couldn’t have done them.

G: I’ve heard of one worthwhile thing. This trip to Europe.

L: Well yes. But the rest of it was also important, it was —

G: Going to bars.

L: Amazing times!

G: Dude, I’m not not-a-drinker. I’m buying your drinks right now. I LOVE going to bars. But the fact of the matter is, sometimes you just can’t do it. I had this Lithuanian ex-girlfriend who said to me, “Americans are the only people that expect happiness.” And it’s true. Sometimes you have to be fucking miserable.

L: But I’m kind of always miserable? And I think that ties into it. But also, the universe, man. I want you to look up at those stars for a minute, and then tell me that my credit card debt matters at all.

G: Of course not. You could go over there and murder every person in this bar and that wouldn’t matter either, by that fucking rationale. That’s fine, if that’s the way you’re going for it, then fine.

L: I’m just saying.

G: You’re just saying stupid things.

L: That was not stupid! If I died right now, in a way that I could have some moments to think about things before I died, I would not think, “I wish I hadn’t spent that money that wasn’t mine.”

G: I totally understand and agree with you, that’s obviously a thing people say. You could die tomorrow, you’re here for the ride, right.

L: And that’s not why I racked up the debt. I always fully intended to pay it back, and I still do fully intend to pay it back. I didn’t rack up the debt hoping to die.

G: You know you don’t have to pay your relatives debts off. They try to make you, but you don’t. So yeah, that would be awesome for you, to die now, I guess.

L: So on a scale from one to stupid, what do you think I am?

G: In general, one. I don’t think you’re very stupid at all. I mean, not stupid in like, you don’t know where to put a stamp on an envelope or like, stupid in such a way in that it hinders you in the line at the supermarket. But yeah. You’re pretty stupid with credit cards.

L: That may be, but I still have a good credit score. I mean, I am not totally irresponsible. Do you have a good credit score?

GB: Yeah it’s a good score. My parents opened a card for me, and I never used it. I was terrified of it. When I went to uni we had a joint Bank of America account, and I used the debit card and got overdraft charges all the time. I’m bad with money. I’m terrified of it. And I think this is a useful fear. If you view every cent that you have a second of your life, you’re much less likely to go around willy-nilly and just spend it.

I’ve done cool things, I’ve done plenty of cool stuff. I’ve been to Europe a shit-ton more times than you have, but I don’t have any debt. And yes, my parents helped me, they paid for a lot of my university and helped me out a bunch of times otherwise. I’m not saying it’s all me, it definitely wasn’t, and again, I am not trying to discount the privilege thing. BUT, I still paid for a lot of stuff myself and worked a lot.

S: Did you take out loans for school?

G: No. But my parents didn’t ever let me have my paychecks when I was younger. They would pay for whatever I wanted or needed, and they would take my paychecks and invest them, or save them, or whatever.

L: What kind of jobs?

G: I was a forester when I was 13.

L: You were a 13-year-old forester?

G: Yeah my friend’s father owned a forestry company. So my parents would take that and save it, or invest it or whatever, for me. And they pushed me really hard to apply to every scholarship, and I got a fair number of scholarships, and my parents had put stuff away from me. And yeah, I had a bar mitzvah.

L: Bar mitzvahs were so great. G-d bless the Jews.

G: My social life has never been better than when I was 13 years old. Every weekend, dressed to the nines, going out, dancing, a girl on my arm taller than me, you know, because girls are taller in middle school and all the dudes are still short. So a tall babe on my arm, great. Honestly, it’s a shame, I wish everyone was having bar mitzvahs now.

L: Epic parties paid for by their parents, yes. And everyone brings you money. Were you allowed to touch it?

G: Mostly, no. My parents saved and invested most of it, and that’s how I eventually paid for a lot of my school and my travelling. Plus, I worked. I did buy a pair of rollerblades, though. I bought a SICK pair of rollerblades.

L: I miss rollerblading.

G: Blading, dawg. Super cool.

L: I saw this couple holding hands on Sixth Ave the other day, and he was on rollerblades, and she wasn’t. And I was trying to figure out the reason why.

G: No reason dude. She left hers at home.

L: I was thinking more he had some disability that somehow required he be on rollerblades.

G: He had to blade, all day long? I don’t think that disability exists. If you can’t do anything in shoes, you certainly can’t do anything in rollerblades.

L: Maybe if I’d had a bar mitzvah I would have avoided the trappings of credit cards.

G: Didn’t you tell me that your parents paid for your school? And like, a lot of your life after?

L: Well, yes.

G: And you still messed up.

L: Well, yes.

G: So I think you could have been given any amount of money and would have spent it all and then some. Stop messing up.

L: I’m trying.

G: Try harder. If I figured this stuff out, you can, too.

L: Thanks for that. I feel like I should buy you a drink now.

G: You and I both know there is nothing in that wallet of yours.

L: That’s true.

G: You can buy me a drink when you don’t owe multiple people multiple thousands of dollars.

L: Deal.

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