One City

It is no secret that millions of Americans experience massive amounts of credit card debt , especially college students. I remember in the mid 90’s, my college allowed (invited?) credit card companies to set up shop and sign students up for cards inside the cafeteria, offering free giveaways of utterly useless stuff on our way in to lunch. (It is amazing that there are even varying degrees of uselessness, but in modern consumer culture there’s useless, deeply useless, and then there’s utterly useless). I always found it interesting how much protection the University offered students from physical danger (any time there was a crime anywhere near campus everyone was on high alert), yet the University willingly (and profitably) put ALL its students in much more long term danger – the danger of youthful stupidity converted into the tar pit of long-term debt. We could all use some protection, in the form of credit card legislation.

Seriously, if Mara (the Buddhist mythological figure who anthropomorphizes destructive addictions)  has corporeal form in 21st Century life, this is what he/she looks like, without a doubt:


I am quite happy with President Obama’s stance on credit, as outlined in his New York Times magazine interview a few weeks ago, as well as this clip below. Credit card legislation is a good thing, and the Senate should follow the House’s lead and pass a bill. What would Jesus do, Senators? He would go nuts on those money lenders.

But what about personal mindfulness? Usery and shameful fine print traps aside, can we really blame someone else for spending money on things we don’t need with money we don’t have? I hope we learn a lesson from this chapter in history. Putting something on your credit card impulsively is a mindless act. Amindless act cannot create real wealth. Mindlessness can only createthe illusion of wealth, until the bubbles–both personal and societal–go pop! Mindlessness is convenient instant gratification, a retreat into habitual grasping, and does not produce anything of benefit.

 I cut up my credit card three weeks ago. I still have a balance I’m paying off (relatively small compared to the estimated $8000 credit card debt per indebted household), which will be gone by next month. I still have the account, which I will keep, but the card is now in dozens of fragments, hopefully getting reincarnated as some more enlightened form of wealth, or else as a tupperware container. And should I run out of money, I’m going to follow the advice of comedian Louis CK. I just won’t “do more stuff” until I get some money.

At a Buddhist teaching last month, one of my teachers, Acharya Eric Spiegel of the Shambhala  tradition took the idea of false wealth and false generosity further. Provocatively, he said (paraphrasing) that an act of generosity performed on a debt-riddled credit card (like a donation to NPR or taking a friend out to dinner) is not true generosity, because the money isn’t yours to begin with. You feel good about the act for a moment, and bad about it later on.

Of course, unemployment or underemployment brings a whole new dimension to this ballgame. And then there’s taking out loans for long term projects – home, business, and education. These can’t be seen as instances of mindless credit, because they are true investments, just like mindfulness practice is a long-term investment.

 If the money isn’t in the bank, what this economic crisis has taught me is to put the useless junk down. And whatever money is in the bank, I want to use to promote things I consider useful and sustainable. That means less bars and more books. Less plastic crap from China and more nonprofit donations. Enough is enough.

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