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Affluenza's Symptoms: Bankruptcies Burgeon With The Daunting Debt of Everyday Americans and Enron

A couple of months ago I attended a lecture and discussion at the University of South Carolina's School of Environment led by John de Graaf, who has produced more than a dozen televison documentaries that have been broadcast nationally in prime time on PBS. De Graaf was discussing his 1997 PBS documentary, Affluenza, the essence of which was integrated into a 2001 book of the same name about America's cultural "disease" of epidemic proportions with more depth, more examples, more symptoms and more evidence. David Wann and Thomas H. Naylor, along with Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Davis Horsey, collaborated with de Graaf in this brilliant examination of our all-pervasive social disease.

With overwhelming statistical evidence and interesting and witty examples, Affluenza explains our conditioning by the advertising industry and corporate America to want more and more material possessions that we do not need and will not make us happy. I had spoken recently at a couple of Unitarian-Universalist Churches in South Carolina about "The United States' Civic Religion of Mammon Worship" and concluded that our unrestrained acquisitiveness was ecologically and spiritually unsustainable. So De Graaf's message resonated with me when he defined "affluenza" as "n. a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more." Affluenza takes a clinical approach to our all-consuming social disease and is cleverly divided into three parts-Symptoms, Causes and Treatment.

Chapter 2, under Symptoms, is "A Rash Of Bankruptcies" which is headed with an alternative Christmas carol sung to the tune of "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer"with lyrics of ... "Uh oh, we're in the red dear, On our credit card it shows, Christmas is almost over, But the debit line still grows." The increase in stress and depression at Christmas are affluenza symptoms so I felt it appropriate to give five copies of Affluenza as Christmas gifts to family and friends to help them out of denial and into recovery. Affluenza explains how credit card companies push instant gratification and encourage customers to carry as much debt as possible. By offering such incentives as frequent flyer miles, introductory low interest rates and lower minimum payments, the average American household was hyped into carrying $7,564 in credit card debt in the year 2000. American credit card indebtedness tripled in the 1990s. As a result of such corporate-induced-profligacy, current bankruptcy rates exceed those experienced during the Great Depression with more than a million people filing personal bankruptcies each year in the United States...more than graduate from college each year. In 1980, U.S. household debt was 65% of disposable income but today the two figures are virtually equal, which best explains the increasing debt crisis of everyday Americans faced with layoffs in this recession.


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On January 2, 2002, the Wall Street Journal's front page lead story is head-lined, "Precarious Balances," "Despite the Recession, Americans Continue to be Avid Borrowers," "Their Spending Helps Temper The Downturn, but Debts Could Hinder a Recovery," and "I Want to Enjoy Everything." The Journal tells how lenders reduced the flow of credit during past recessions but have "left the tap wide open" during this one, even though consumer-credit defaults and payment delinquencies are as high as they have been since the last recession. This allows Americans to continue to borrow "to pay for homes, cars and other big ticket items, bolstering the weakened economy." Growth in consumer credit reached a record $7.5 trillion at the end of the third quarter of 2001. This "has exposed a potential new economic fault line" because while it might temporarily stimulate the economy it will cause the debtors to slow spending on goods and services by having to pay their debts and slow the chances of recovery. If the debtors go bankrupt, creditors face financial distress. The Journal reported, "either way, many economists agree, the current amount of consumer debt is likely to mean trouble." The corporate/political propaganda of they-hate-us-because-God-Blessed-America-to-have-more-than-them and the hype for consumers to defeat the terrorists by spending our way out of the recession could become an illusion buried under a mountain of debt and economic collapse.

On January 3, 2002, the Wall Street Journal reported on Congressional investigations into Enron, the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history. The Texas-based energy giant's market value has plunged to $500 million from $77 billion last year leaving its workforce unemployed, with wiped-out pension funds and its shareholders fleeced. Enron chairman, Kenneth Lay's questionable side deals were a cause of the collapse. The billionaire and his company have been George W. Bush's biggest campaign contributors throughout Bush's political career. Although Lay met secretly at the White House to help draft Bush's energy plan and Enron gave 3/4s of their contributions to Republicans since 1990, Enron has also given big bucks to Democrats.

Will the Democrats, who struggle with the Republicans like pigs to get to the big money troughs, muster the political courage to take on such big money cheaters? Big money and porcine politicians are making our democracy very sick. One of the political prescriptions for Affluenza, found in chapter 28, is meaningful campaign finance reform.

Tom Turnipseed

Tom Turnipseed

Tom Turnipseed is an attorney, writer and peace activist in Columbia, SC. His blog is

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