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James Ferragut, Published January 31 2010

Ferragut: Have we learned a lesson?

OK, now what? What next? What have we learned since the economy crapped out and shook our world? Over the past two years and for the first time in eight decades, Americans have been forced to look at the way they conduct their lives.

We’ve had to ask ourselves serious questions. We should challenge the core of our foundation. Is it possible that the way we’ve learned to live over the past couple of generations has pushed us close to economic calamity?

We did it to ourselves. Since World War II, Americans have morphed into the planet’s most addicted consumers. Our consuming culture is in our DNA. The siren’s song has beckoned us: heady marketing strategies, enticing credit card companies, eager lending institutions and mortgage companies. Carnival barkers offering No Interest, No Payments, No Nothing for 60 months. We lapped it up like starving mongrel mutts.

We ate more than we could swallow, and the entire system backed up. We all know victims, the unintended collateral damage of a system out of whack. Now we’re surveying the landscape and starting to put the pieces back together again.

Will the recession change our behavior, attitudes and values? The logical conclusion is, “Yes, it will.” We will control household budgets by saving more and buying less. Our financial institutions will tighten credit by holding consumer offers to more stringent borrowing criteria.

But is it enough? Have we really learned that we can’t buy more than we can afford and that mortgaging our future to buy more stuff is a flawed concept?

When I hear about middle schools in Pasadena, Pittsburg, D.C. or a hundred other cities with average class sizes of 38 to 40 students, it’s telling me we don’t value the education of our young very much.

The health care system is a mess, but efforts to untangle it are virtually unmanageable, smothered by a political system too heavy, burdened and complicated to carry its own weight. The national deficit is in the trillions and many of our states are running with deficits and are borrowing money from the Fed just to stay afloat.

Here’s my bet. I think our culture has dumbed down to a point where Americans act like teenagers on a Jet Ski. We’re moving faster than we should, cutting and turning in and out of the wake on the slightest whim, jumping the high wave, crashing without warning and getting back on the ski at light speed without a second thought or backward glance.

Real change, substantive, life-altering change, takes time. It takes work, sacrifice and constant monitoring. It’s akin to changing the course of an ocean liner one degree at a time. I don’t think we have it in us. After all, it’s been a long winter, spring is coming, and the roar of the Jet Ski beckons.


Ferragut is a marketing executive and regular contributor to The Forum’s commentary pages. He can be reached at jferragut50@gmail.com