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Idealized visions of status and personal wealth: America's soul searching

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Thursday, 15 August 2002

Downtown Manhattan's frenzied label-orientated retail extravaganza has grown tired and dull for many savvy New Yorkers. Insiders dress from discount outlets and it is regarded as bad manners to drop expensive designer name brands these days. Yet, this counteraction against mass America's fascination with fashion as a status symbol isn't just a NY-specific reaction against mainstream culture's sameness. Many US citizens are so far over their heads in consumer debt, they've been forced to readjust their lifestyles completely.

I'm catching up with one of my oldest business friends. We met 25 years ago as directors of rival galleries in Soho and enjoyed the heady days of NY's burgeoning contemporary art scene before each branching out on our own. Marcia is now a private dealer in the investment end of the art market but in spite of a recent shipment of stunning Warhol prints hanging on her walls, it's often been a struggle for her to make ends meet in Manhattan.

She says she's joined "a program" to help her face her chronic cycles of debt. Debtors Anonymous is modeled on the 12-step Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous recovery movement. Marcia proceeds to tell me how she finally learned to surrender to her higher powers about her compulsive spending disorder and to treat her spending problems as an illness, very like addiction and alcoholism.


She owes $100,000 after decades of paying full market rents for her showplace Manhattan apartment and living out the culture industry's demanding delusions of economic grandeur. Her small art business is based on her extensive connections in the international art world and turns over millions per annum, yet somehow, she's always lived way beyond her means. But isn't this the story of 21st century life?

In the last two decades, the market growth of consumer credit has effectively lent individuals money on the basis of their earnings, rather than against owned assets. In today's world, if your income is uncertain, you're free to use your credit line to tide you over. Somehow, the idea of being prohibited from spending due to slow sales or weeks of unemployment has never occurred to many consumers, hence the debt load Americans now carry in addition to bearing the high cost of living in cities like NY.

Yet, as an early sign of the development of consumer debt we need look no further than the American university system where undergraduates typically pay as much as $60,000 for their first degrees. A summer job never fully compensates for economic shortcomings, so many US graduates typically commence life in the workforce owing as much as 5 years' worth of their advanced salaries. For some young Americans, the easiest way to live emotionally with this level of personal debt is to simply spend more.

Although she's fending off creditors every second phone call, Debtors' Anonymous is a natural outlet for her financial angst, and it's free. She goes to meetings daily and has several self selected debt buddies to share her strategic financial healing with.

Many of her new friends are previously successful entrepreneurs, now struggling to resurrect their own lives and businesses. To win at most things, you have to be prepared to lose honorably, and in truth, many of the 20th century's foremost business leaders have at least one catastrophic financial failure behind them.

Sitting in a room full of other debtors talking about failing financially is a way of diminishing the social stigma and personal shame of debt, especially in the US where progress is often measured by increased profit, rather than other equally important socio-economic factors.


But what's fascinating is the public disclosure element of this dimension of the personal healing process. Why not use a therapist or a tough bank manager instead of talking to total strangers? Indeed, for New Yorkers, and increasingly, urbanites throughout the western world, the 12-Step recovery movement's supportive forum for exploring personal disgrace symptomises a newly configured range of personal choices. They've paid their dues on their therapists' couches but its been insufficient for guiding their awareness schedules through the massive agenda of illusions US society has insisted individuals aim towards achieving as personal rights.

Deep feelings of personal inadequacy have lead many to dependencies on self- destructive habits and substances, creating addictions and other self-abusive diseases as the dangerous life-altering consequences. For spendaholics, snipping up the credit cards is the easiest part of the healing process, but in the Debtors' Anonymous meeting rooms, the goal is re-empowerment and developing skills to recognize personal freedom to make emotionally mature life changes without it costing a fortune.

Beneath the crushing weight of personal debt, common sense in crisis is often confused with emotional survival instincts, and the problem of owing more than you're worth quickly becomes a syndrome. When creditors keep calling, many panic, becoming delusional, withdrawn, depressed and unable to cope with their predicament. DA helps members help each other gain strategic insight into how to activate the emotional machinery they'll need to get through their troubled days until they're clear of their debts.

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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