LONDON, ONTARIO – Perhaps providentially, my propensity for racking up unmanageable debt emerged early in life, via the Capitol Record Club which I rashly joined at the age of 14, suckered in by a magazine ad featuring a photo of a winking Frank Sinatra inviting me to help myself to 12 free LPs and then, in considerably smaller print, mentioning that I’d have to buy 12 more LPs over the following year at seriously inflated prices, plus an exorbitant shipping fee. Beneath Frank’s devilishly smiling visage were pseudo-postage stamp reproductions of album jackets by one and two-hit wonders like Freddie and The Dreamers, The Outsiders and Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs. You carefully tore out pictures of the albums you wanted along perforated lines, licked the backs and stuck them on the membership application.
Somewhere on that form in even smaller print was a proviso that you must be of legal age (then 21) to join but I just ignored that. I mean, who were they kidding? There was no way that juvenile dreck like Wooly Bully would have any appeal to anyone over the age of 15. A fetching snap of ol’ blue eyes notwithstanding, they were marketing this stuff to kids.
Once my stack of rancid free platters arrived and I’d read through the membership booklet and come to realize just what a wallet-Hoovering dilemma I’d gotten myself into, I reacted like the proverbial bunny in the headlights and did nothing at all in the unrealistic hope that this awful predicament would just magically go away. Not very mature, I know. (Did I mention I was 14?) This inaction on my part only made things worse as the Club construed my silence as consent to receive their featured selection of the month and these came wafting my way every four weeks until I had a sizable stack of even lousier platters by some of Frank’s crooner buddies like Vic Damone and Al Martino and a spoken-word-backed-by-choral-warbling opus by Rod McKuen and the Anita Kerr Singers. Such despicable discs were fit only for softening in front of a space heater and fashioning into the world’s most expensive Frisbees.
Eventually my account got handed over to a collection agency and when my parents saw the agency’s return address on an ‘Urgent Notice’ sent to me, they ripped open the envelope and quickly surmised the gruesome pickle I’d gotten myself into. To their immense credit (I think this today; I wasn’t so sure at the time), my folks did not bail me out or even offer to pay the thing off in one go and have me repay them. Seeing an opportunity here to really drive home a lesson, they called the collection agency and arranged for me to march downtown once a week for I don’t remember how many months, where I slid my allowance money and miscellaneous earnings across the counter to a tsk-tsking clerk in a second storey office on Dundas Street.
During those weekly walks of shame, I had a lot of time to meditate on the happiness-sapping dynamics of debt and its uncanny knack for dampening ambition at a time when it would seem more incumbent than ever to get off one’s butt and put your fiscal house in order. I’ve had a couple of serious lapses since then when the waters of debt have risen to uncomfortable levels (and as ever, it’s always music or books that are my gateways to insolvency) but eleven years after the humiliation recalled, I wisely married a far more astute manager of such matters whose good opinion I cherish and over our 40 years of connubial bliss I do believe we’ve done a pretty decent job of finding ways to live within our means.
But perhaps my impression of our own household’s economic equilibrium is heightened somewhat in contrast to the apparent collapse of any such sense in the larger society in which we live. One could cite all sorts of worrisome developments over the past fifty years which encourage all of us to have less regard for the arts of fiscal continence: the establishment of government-sanctioned lotteries and gambling casinos; once respectable banks that encourage borrowing; the issuing of credit cards to teenaged students; the reckless push for a $500 million bus rapid transit system by local politicos in spite of the fact that most Londoners don’t want it or believe that we need it; the lack of recognition that just because you tap into provincial or federal funding for your project, that doesn’t mean that money is ‘free’; and just this week Ontario’s downgrading by Moody’s Investor Services from “stable” status to “negative” thanks to the Liberal government’s intention to run six consecutive multibillion-dollar deficits, which Moody’s also warns will likely lead to a faster increase in interest expenses.
The melancholy memory of my relationship with the Capitol Record Club came roaring back to me a few days ago when I got off the phone after a surprisingly civil conversation with a Scottish-accented canvasser for Andrea Horwath’s NDP in this June’s provincial election. Asked what my primary concern was at this time, I said, “out of control government spending,” and this gentleman urged me to take a look at the NDP’s “fully costed” economic plan which I could find on the interwebs. So I did. Herewith, some of the highlights:
Okay, those are just some of the pledges. (I’ve spared you the details about the beautifully named, “Ontario Dementia Strategy.”) Now where would the money for all of this come from? Well, I saw two items that seemed they might fall under the category of “costing”.
The first read, “Protect middle class families by having the wealthiest people and most profitable corporations pay their fair share.” And then there was this bit, which, I must admit, I’m even more dubious about in the wake of the Moody’s downgrade: “Economic growth is projected to increase provincial revenues by over $17 billion over the next four years.” Uh huh. Now there’s a figure you can count on.
During one of those dismal trudges to the collection agency office, I invented the idea of an International Debt Forgiveness Day. So far as I could see, every adult, every business, every nation, seemed to owe money to somebody else. Wouldn’t it be a wonderfully liberating thing if we could, by mutual consent, wipe everybody’s slate clean at one go and resolve thereforward to cease all lending and borrowing? Decades later I read of Pope John Paul II’s initiatives to try to get the developed nations of the world to forgive the debts they were owed by much poorer countries and remembered my 14-year old musings. ‘Good idea, your Holiness,’ I thought. ‘You just need to take it a little bit further and let everybody off the hook at the same time and then get everybody to take the pledge.’
In the year 1300 Pope Boniface VIII convoked a Holy Year, hearkening back to the idea of a Jubilee as outlined in Mosaic law; specifically in the Books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The Christian conception of a Jubilee is that it’s a year that is set aside for making pilgrimages to Rome and other sacred sites to seek pardon and the remission of sins. The Jewish idea of Jubilee – to be held once every 50 years - had some rather more earthly and practical applications such as the freeing of slaves and the remission of mortgages and debts. That’s the tradition I’d love to see us revive.
Of course I know it’s not realistic. Of course I know it’s not the way things are done. But looking around the globe today when even the greatest national economies are sputtering and misfiring (is even Switzerland solvent?) and future generations are being saddled with crippling debts that they will have had no part in racking up, it’s hard to believe that the system as it now stands deserves to be honoured in the customary way. Unless some radical realignment is effected, it’ll be like having my grandchildren or my great grandchildren trudging downtown to fork over their allowances to pay for my crummy records. If it wasn’t right for my parents to bail me out, then it seems to me that it’s quadrupally wrong to stick our descendants with the bill for our insane extravagances.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
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