I just got back to Buenos Aires from 5 weeks in the USA. It was one of the strangest times for me to visit, as the pre-election fervor was reaching a peak. I kept thinking to myself, “why are people acting so crazy?”
And the same themes that we always talk about on BA Cast came up again and again, in my face: Americans are in a hurry, time is money, they can’t sit and relax… it’s almost as if they can’t relax period. People worry in the USA like no other place I have ever been. This behavior, besides the obvious things like unemployment, making money, where your kids go to school, how big your house is, and any other way that Keeping Up With The Jones’s manifests itself, is even evident in tiny things like how upset people get when the milk jugs run out at Starbucks, when someone sweats on a machine at the gym, or when any outcome remotely falls short of an expectation.
But until I sat down with several different friends of mine, on this particular trip, it had never been as evident to me the role of debt in this impatient, ever forward behavior. Many of my friends mentioned to be how either they, their spouses or both had large amounts (over u$s 100,000) to pay of in either the form of student loans or a mortgage or both. They would all yell about the same stuff. The rising cost of food, clothing, housing, how much their education cost and how “shitty” the job market is in the USA.
I kept trying to remind them that they still live in the richest country that the world has ever known, and that their lives are all, on any type of scale you want to create, in material terms, fantastic. They all have multiple bedroom homes, with several TVs (always a good measure of wealth, no?), two cars, a large green yard and most have their kids in private school.
Yet they are all angry about the fact that they are in debt, and that things are not easier. Every month, they have thousands of dollars that they have to pay back to the banks to maintain this lifestyle. So this got me thinking: who is better off? Argentines, who normally have nearly zero debt, or Americans, who live with much more access to material wealth, but only because they go into debt to get it.
Debt is such a strong motivating factor that it forces people who would otherwise pursue less profitable ventures like starting their own business, teaching, coaching or art into jobs that they are less than happy with. This we can call living in fear. The fear is that all the matieral things that they will have, that this lifestyle that they have become so accustombed to, will be taken away.
Fear is the greatest motivating human emotion of all. More than jealously, anger or love, fear generates very real hormonal responses in all of us, that drive us to perform. We have all heard of the fight or flight response to danger, when the body releases a hormone called norepinepherine which increases heart rate, blood pressure and releases adrenaline. I am not saying that this is exactly what is going on in people in the USA, but it would make sense to me that given the extra pressure to generate income for most of the USA, that people are going to have a greater chance of making fear based decisions, especially when it comes to finances.
In Argentina, however (not that they don’t have their own forms of craziness!), people live essentially debt free. Why? Well there are all sorts of equally insane reasons for this, like the huge amount of tax that businesses have to pay for employees, which causes businesses to pay employees “en negro” (under the table), which causes them to do almost all business in cash. Combine this with the fact that Argentines inherently distrust banks, and therefore prefer to keep their money in cash, and not use credit cards… or not even have credit cards as is the majority case, and you have a society that lives off of the cash they actually have in their wallets.
So which society is more healthy? More free? Which society has more control over its time? I think the first two questions are very difficult to answer, but I think the 3rd is actually pretty clear. Argentines have more control over their time. We all know they work less, and spend more time with their families and friends. It has long been considered a measure of wealth to have control over your time. Time is ultimately what we trade for every other good or service that we obtain. We give our time to an employer for money, that money, which we traded our time for, gets us food, shelter, water, clothing, etc. Americans, therefore, have already traded a huge amount of their time in the future in exchange for goods and services now. Many don’t realize they have made this sacrifice, though, until they have lived that life for a while. The one where several 15, 20 or 30 year loans are being paid off little by little. They realize that they have lost control of their time and become angry about it. It is fully understandable.
I can only hope that more Americans begin to travel so they can see that other people, who live with much much less stuff, but have control of their time, experience a different kind of control over their lives.