The Price of Worthless

None of us clearly know to whom or what we are indebted.
-Charles Dickens, from Little Dorrit

I’m worth very little. Actually, I’m worth even less than that, or at least that’s what I was told when I began loan proceedings for graduate school a number of years ago. According to the government’s projections, my “net worth” was $0.00 and even that number was exceedingly high. Since I had no monetary investments, did not own a house or property, had not paid off my then-new 2003 automobile (I’m still plugging away at it, month by god-awful month), and had no other sources of long-term income, the government’s computation prompted me to enter $0.00 as my net worth for the simple and irreconcilable fact that my debts far exceeded my investments. Though a majority of the American adult population is most likely in a similar boat, the thought that I was “worth” negative $XX,000 was a suffocating and terrifying idea. Realistically, many of us don’t mind owing someone (or something) large sums of money. If we do, there certainly doesn’t seem to be a large-scale migration away from the practice. Perhaps I am naive and narrowly traveled in the financial universe, but it doesn’t seem to bother us much that we rarely fully own the places in which we live, the cars we drive, or the trips we take. As such, not many people (especially not my father) would argue that a loan for an advanced degree is anything but a mature and wise decision.

What a difference a century makes. Though it’s not widely read today, Charles Dickens’s 1857 novel, Little Dorrit, explores the troubling emotional consequences of debt, the very ones I began to feel when I saw those goose eggs next to my name on the loan application. In Dickens’s time, debt was an imprisonable offence. (Imagine that! Not paying your bills was criminal.) And now look at us: debt (personal, national and international) is the basis of almost every “civilized” economy. In the wake of the recent sub-prime mortgage collapse and just as some of us are receiving the first checks issued under the Economic Stimulus Act of 2008, we might fairly wonder whether this is the wisest model to follow. Little Dorrit is arguably and maybe even hopelessly outdated, yet still successfully examines the intertwined and cloudy relationship between finances and a sense of fulfillment, a fact that may make it worth reconsidering to remind ourselves what is at stake when we exchange money and who exactly is “well-off” in our current economic framework. The downward spiral of debt is no doubt a dangerously powerful vortex into which many of us have been pulled. In order to get by or get up that next rung in the ladder, we have been encouraged to take out loans and buy things on “credit” even though we really cannot afford to do so. Left with little choice, our spending continues and our debt increases. Maybe Dickens was onto something in investigating that blurry space between guilt as 1) economic consequence and guilt as 2) emotional state, because I suspect that I’m not the only one who feels guilty for owing what I owe.

All this begs a lamentably rhetorical question: Who is poorer? One who lives in a $450,000 home and owns three cars, but who will be mired in steep mortgage and car and credit card payments for the next 35 years, or one who has only $182.57 in the bank and few possessions and yet owes nothing to anyone? As it is, I am basically (and I suspect legally) owned by Chase Bank. I am trying hard not to descend into vague capitalist critique in line with the monologues Tyler Durden vehemently spouts in Fight Club, but this cycle of debt surely cannot be the best solution, can it? And yet the choices seem slim. Either we, like many of Dickens’s characters, enter into a flawed economic system as dependent beings who are defined (and tethered) in relation, through borrowing, to those who support us in the economic system, or we refuse to make decisions that anchor us to things we cannot afford and risk being shunned as impoverished, uneducated, and lacking critical foresight. Complex situations of this magnitude certainly cannot be boiled down to simple binary oppositions, but if there is a third, fourth or fifth option here, let’s please entertain it.

Truly living “within our means” would require us to almost exclusively pay cash—as archaic as that may seem—and buy only what we could afford in the given moment. Whether or not we see it, the reliance on future or nonexistent monies is fraught with deeply paralyzing affects, because those who are unable to provide for themselves in the here and now are made to feel guilty (both economically and emotionally) in a societal construction that is built on the individual contributing to the efficiency of the whole economic machine. To survive and thrive in economic endeavors, then, we must promptly repay our loans, or simply not incur any.

Obviously, the concepts of “poverty” and “being poor” are inextricably related to the perception of what makes one “wealthy” (if being poor is indeed the inverse of being rich) and for many the accumulation of things, regardless of what debt is accrued in doing so, will keep them “wealthy.” Ultimately, this version of wealth will break down if ever the entire illusion on which it is built is revealed. This, of course, may never actually occur; debt-laden lives are happily lived out everyday. But debt, like being poor, has many subtle connotations that seep in regardless of how hard we might work to ignore them, not the least of which is that to be in debt is to be literally and metaphorically insufficient, “insufficient” as meaning financially incapable, as well as “insufficient” as being partially or wholly inadequate or worthless. An imbalance materializes in the process of financially relying on someone other than oneself, an imbalance that makes the very idea of “worth” both a pivotal and yet extremely subtle tenet of our daily interactions. Arthur Clennam, one of the main characters in Little Dorrit, for example, is driven over the course of 900 pages to repay a debt he feels he owes. It takes him a majority of the book to determine what exactly that debt is, but he is nevertheless strongly motivated by a desire to reestablish balanced emotional and economic accounts. As long as an imbalance exists, there remains a relation of power in which the debtor is literally inadequate, deficient and morally immobilized.

On returning from abroad rather late in the novel, another of Dickens’s characters named Doyce looks over and audits his business books. He remarks in conclusion, almost sublimely, “It’s all beautiful, Clennam, in its regularity and order. Nothing can be better.” Doyce clearly finds something aesthetically pleasing in the books that balance. Affected, Dickens continues, “as if he were absorbed in the contemplation of some wonderful engine.” The affect of seeing such a balance is an almost speechless joy in Doyce, but his simple declaration as he “admired it all exceedingly” reveals another underlying aspect of money matters—he realizes that not to feel balanced (being in the red as opposed to the black) is to be in debt. Doyce’s joy, then, is the happiness of coming clean and clear in the capitalist economy, owing nothing to anyone; he is settled completely. To be a productive and honorable part of that “wonderful engine” (Dickens’ thinly-veiled metaphor of industrial society) is powerfully enticing, but not nearly as motivating as the want to be out from underneath this “ingenious piece of mechanism.”

Dickens’s message is one we might be wise to heed: when one has the means by which to balance him or herself and feel confident, guiltless, and ethically stable, she or he is left free to reap what she or he wishes from the world. By the same token, whoever remains within the clutches of debt will never be free do to as they wish, even if they think they can. When such an affective and economic balance remains unattained, a cycle of borrowing and debt build into an unscalable wall of oppression. Accordingly, the neighborhood just beyond Dickens’s debtors’ prison, around which there is an ominous and imposing physical wall, is called the Bleeding Heart Yard, which itself is surrounded by a symbolic wall of judgment and cultural subjugation. Both walls issue a warning to those behind them: this wall is one of guilt that stands between you and happiness. To get over the wall is to balance one’s accounts by getting out of the debt and authority of others.

The inhabitants of the Bleeding Heart Yard are renters and laborers, people like me who do not own because they don’t have enough money to do so. Living month to month, the Bleeding Heart Yarders toil long hours, but usually make ends meet. And though they are looked down upon, are continually disrespected and routinely feel the guilt of not being wealthier, it is they to whom Dickens has symbolically given heart. If that’s the case, $0.00 may not necessarily be that bad of a sum after all.