Choice and Consumerism

For some reason, I’ve been stumbling across reading that keeps pointing to the obvious. Our modern Western society seems fixated with finding reasons to blame others for our own inability to say no to bad behaviour. A recent post on Psychology Today’s blog rants about the recent spate of murder-suicide as an example of this behaviour. The murderer is “forced” to take the life of a loved one as well as their own. A recent US jury awards a chain smoker’s widow $8 million.  Never mind that we’ve know since the early 1960s that smoking will kill you. We’re all fat and getting fatter because fast food companies intentionally make foods that are “addictive”, so we can’t help ourselves, it’s all the food companies fault. And of course, over the past six months, all we hear about is the greedy Wall Street/Bay Street bankers and fat cats who led us down the garden path to financial ruin.

I’m not suggesting that organizations, companies and people in those organizations and companies do not bear some responsibility for these misfortunes. Often individual and corporate self interest are inconsistent with the interests of the customer or of the general public. Companies and organizations do owe their stakeholders transparency about the risks and rewards of their product.

However, with the big US mortgage meltdown, I’m not sure that the mortgage issuers are entirely at fault. Just because a mortgage company offers you an obscene amount of money, doesn’t mean that you have to take it all, especially if you know that you can’t comfortably afford to manage the debt. In the late 90s I bought my first condo in Toronto. The bank offered me about $100,000 MORE than I actually ended up taking in a mortgage. Could I afford a larger mortgage at the time? Probably. If everything went according to plan. That is, if interest rates didn’t go too high, if I kept my job, if I didn’t have any massive unexpected expenses. If. So, I took less of a mortgage, bought a smaller condo, and had way less to worry about in my life, and a lot more disposable income to enjoy the single life in downtown Toronto. Do I feel sorry for people who took out huge mortgages and then refinanced every few years to spend more money? Not really. I do feel sorry for those responsible few who did not leverage themselves to the hilt and then lost their jobs as a result of the reckless behaviour of others, and now face disaster.

The banks did not force people to buy more house than they needed, nor did they force them to run up their credit card bills. And the “addiction” argument, well, that’s just an excuse. Lets face it, we are becoming a society of “addicts”, shopping addicts, gambling addicts, food addicts. Somehow, we believe that we have no accountability for this behaviour, we just can’t help ourselves. Right.

Just because a product is offered, doesn’t mean you have to buy it. You don’t have to go to MacDonalds, or buy potato chips, use credit for everything or smoke. You do have a choice. And you are accountable for your own behaviour. If we want to have choice in our society, then we have to manage it responsibly, like adults. If we start to blame others for our choices, we will find out that we have fewer choices.


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