System vs. personal responsibility – it’s not an either or. In the same issue of the Monitor is a fascinating article on Americans’ financial troubles. We are just not saving enough money, which doesn’t seem to be news, but what appears to be new is that psychologists are showing an interest in helping people shed their false beliefs about money to help them overcome their money voes, something that Joe Dominguez has been advocating since the 1970s. Then David Korten points out in The Great Turning that our money troubles stem from increasing costs of living. It’s more expensive to rent or to buy a house, our share of health care costs keep going up, eating healthy is pricey etc. Again, there is a system pegged against personal responsibility.
Personal finance is a good example to show the interplay of the two. Yes, a lot of us have strange views about money: Money can buy love and happiness. (Of course nobody would admit to believing this but if we look more honestly at our spending behavior, that belief is there, somewhere). We are overspending because we want the biggest house possible, i.e., we believe to be successful means to have lots of money (an outgrowth of Calvinism, at least as interpreted by Max Weber. For more on this, please check this out). On the other hand, though, we are embedded in a society that refuses to share the burden for health care by offering universal coverage. As Michael Moore has shown that refusal actually makes health care more expensive. And a look at the housing market in the Bay area shows that the biggest house is incredibly expensive. Actually even renting a decent place, which often is the most economic choice if houses sell for $1 million and more, requires expenses of more than a fair share of monthly income. No wonder we can’t make ends meet. Do we really need 3-bedroom flats to be happy? No, of course not. So, we could reduce our money troubles somewhat by scaling down. Yet even then, housing costs are high. It is an interplay. It is neither just a system or just personal responsibility. If we stop blaming one or the other and start looking at the interplay of the two, we can make real progress.