And so folks hunker down, keep driving to a minimum and use transit instead, spend less, pay off a credit card or two, and wait to see what happens next in the unfolding horror story of global economic implosion. Right? Maybe yes, maybe no. It has taken us centuries to perfect a comprehensive cultural habit of avarice. As an old Spanish proverb teaches, “Habits are at first cobwebs, then cables.”
Not that any of us should be very surprised at what we see and hear taking place around us these days. We have, after all, spent a good deal of time doing everything we could to make this happen. Our habit of debt has given us the even bigger house, the SUV, the other SUV, the second home at the lake, the jet ski, the master suite, the granite countertops and stainless steel dishwashers, the BIG TV, hyperactive cell phones, and every manner of electronic doodads.
Forbes made a survey a while back that examined how Americans spent their money. This was well before the current unpleasantness, back in the good old days of 2006. Their data show that the average American household had an annual income of $54,453 (before taxes, which should run in the range of 18% to 20%, or about $9,800, leaving a net of $44,653), and annual expenditures of $43,395. A little math yields a simple conclusion: the average American household is spending 97% of its annual after-tax income. Which of course is impossible. Solution? Debt, and lots of it.
And our regions and cities are now finding themselves in similar trouble. The municipal bond market has been teetering for some time, and now all of the recent bad debt will drain tax revenues away from cities and states across the country. This comes at the worst possible moment for the present city, and the next city. At a time when we must reinvent and reimagine our urban communities, and how we inhabit them, the necessary resources are vanishing.
One simple example. Transit use is surging in cities across the nation. Here in Washington, the Metro system has been running beyond capacity for some years, and now is bursting at the seams. Any good solutions – streetcars, buses or otherwise – must rely on a now nearly extinct stream of revenue. Better polish off the bikes.
As Houston environmental attorney Jim Blackburn said in a speech there recently, it is time for “enough.” We need to find, and then accept, a different way of living in our cities, and in this world. The way we think about our priorities, what we need, what we want, how we live, must now reckon with our great grand children. We must be chastised – an American experiment founded on the boundless more, must, at last, focus on the finite less. Imagine less.