A recent USA Today poll shows that more Americans blame the federal government than “Wall Street” for their financial plight, if only marginally more. In fact, while 78% seem willing to ascribe a great deal of the blame to Wall Street, only slightly more, at 87%, believe the government also shoulders much of the blame. While the article focuses on the fact that more than twice as many Americans answered that they blame the federal government more for the bad economy, the more important feature of the polls seems to be that the overwhelming majority of Americans seem to have the good sense to blame both. After all, if there is anything that can match the federal government avarice and malicious self-interest, it is Wall Street. The two are locked in an eternal cosmic game of one-upmanship when it comes to playing free and loose with other people’s money.
What the article seems to be missing, however, is a statistic for the number of people who think that they themselves are to blame for the financial crisis. In fairness, neither the government nor Wall Street are actually sentient, independent entities. They are both collectives of people who do what their constituencies want, be that the voting public or consumers and shareholders. More importantly still, people seem to be ignoring the fact that the American government and American financial institutions learned fiscal responsibility at the feet of the masters, the American public. We’re all quick to point out how unconscionable it is for the government to borrow forty cents of every dollar it spends, but we don’t seem at all concerned with the countless millions of dollars which the American public has amassed in credit card debt, car loans, mortgages, and students loans. The whole twenty-first century financial paradigm is structured around the maxim that you can get it today and pay for it later. I recently read an article in a waiting room magazine about how revolutionary the introduction of GMAC was because it freed people of the burden of saving up to buy cars and allowed them to purchase on credit. The idea was distasteful to Ford and his antiquated fiscal sensibilities. Now, it is the idea of paying for a car, or much of anything, upfront which is anomalous.
It is perhaps time for Americans to realize that there is plenty of blame to go around, to accept the brazen hypocrisy of those of us with student loans or credit cards or mortgages attempting to lecture the government or Wall Street about the reckless abandon with which they spend other people’s money. It is especially time for Americans to stop wondering about whether or not the financial system is “personally fair to them” and begin to ask whether or not they, the public, are not equally to blame for a government, a financial sector, an entire culture that thrives on fiscal irresponsibility