When Adorable Child was in elementary school, I volunteered to teach a Junior Achievement module. The subject was “Want vs Need”, and my targets were squirmy little six-year-olds in first grade.
Since I had an entire six weeks with which to work, I decided to build a frame first… and so we started with shoes — my shoes.
I love to go barefoot. There’s just nothing quite like the tickle of the grass around my ankles, or the strange sliminess of mud squishing up between my toes.
[giggles and ewwwwws]
And I can get out the door much faster if I don’t have to stop and put shoes on first — very helpful when I’m in a hurry to tickle AC.
[more giggles, with some nudging of AC]
But in the summer in Texas, the sidewalk burns my feet! I can’t stand there for more than a few seconds before it feels like they’re frying and I start hopping around like a grasshopper. And I look really silly, mincing across a patch of gravel, afraid to put my feet down on those sharp rock edges.
[nods and interruptions as everybody tells a gravel story]
And sometimes, there are really dangerous things waiting to bite at my toes, or take a big chunk out of the bottom of my foot. Like nails. Or glass.
They got it. We need shoes. Our feet are sensitive, and also vulnerable.
Over the next week or two, we talked a lot about physical needs. Food. Shelter. Clothing. And then we came back around to shoes.
Now, Polimom loves the color red. Bright red — like the sun just before it sets. And one day at the mall, I saw a pair of really beautiful, shiny, high-heeled boots in a store window. They were glorious! And exactly my color! The more I looked at them, the more I knew I had to have them. Had to! I loved those shiny red boots!
[out and out laughter, with some background discussion on favorite colors]
I needed those boots!
They weren’t sure about this.
There were some tentative nods, since boots are, technically, shoes, but there were also some head-shakes and “No’s”.
But we all agreed that we need shoes, didn’t we? And these gorgeous shiny red boots are perfect for me, and they’ll match my red dress and earrings! I won’t be happy if I can’t have them! I need them!
[Kids] No…. You don’t need them, Mrs. Polimom — you want them.
Of course they were right. I didn’t need them, anymore than I need chocolate for sustenance, or a BMW for transportation — and we talked about all of that, too. A want, no matter how badly desired, does not equate to a need.
Recently, in light of the credit crisis, I’ve been thinking a lot about chocolate and BMWs and fancy shoes. If first-graders could understand this most basic of lessons, how is it that we now have a culture that needs shiny red boots?
David Brooks writes that we’ve become a “Culture of Debt” — that “norms changed and people began making jokes to make illicit things seem normal”.
Instead of condemning hyper-consumerism, they made quips about “retail therapy,” or repeated the line that Morgenson noted in her article: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.
I agree with him. Our society is being eaten alive by consumerism. But Brooks is only acknowledging part of the credit crisis equation — because while it’s absolutely true that many people have been conflating want with need, a want sometimes is a need.
[T]heir homes were now showing those signs of neglect. They needed a roof, they needed their porches repaired and their money was all tied up in the equity of their home. And that’s what they needed to tap into in order to make any repairs.
There are an awful lot of “needs” packed into that paragraph, but it really doesn’t sound like a shiny red boot story to me. The real problem is in the last sentence.
Was an equity tap really the only option? And who sought out whom, in the lending equation? Because predatory lending isn’t a figment of the liberal imagination; the responsibility for the mortgage market meltdown can’t be laid fully at the feet of the borrowers. It was a known, looming problem years ago.
The credit crisis isn’t just the result of a changed society. Yes, I do think that norms have changed. As a parent, I push back against the onslaught every day. And yes, I agree — there are lots of people walking around in shiny red boots they couldn’t afford.
But there are also people who borrowed money to patch the holes in the soles of their very basic — and totally necessary — footwear.
One can fairly debate whether society should be funding those patches, but it’s hard to deny the need.
Even a first grader can understand the difference.