Warning: Old Man Being Cantankerous

Here’s a link to Richard Cohen being extremely old in his Washington Post column. I’m not sure if you need to register or anything. But it’s basically about how tattoos caused the national debt:

Tattoos are the emblems of our age. They bristle from the biceps of men in summer shirts, from the lower backs of women as they ascend stairs, from the shoulders of basketball players as they drive toward the basket, and from every inch of certain celebrities. The tattoo is the battle flag of today in its war with tomorrow. It is carried by sure losers.

About 40 percent of younger Americans (26 to 40) have tattoos. About 100 percent of these have clothes they once loved but now hate. How can anyone who knows how fickle fashion is, how times change, how their own tastes have “improved,” decorate their body in a way that’s nearly permanent? I don’t get it.

I asked a college professor what she thought of tattoos, and she said that for young people, they represent permanence in an ever-changing world. But how is that possible? Anyone old enough and smart enough to get into college knows that only impermanence is permanent. Everything changes — including, sweetie, that tight tummy with its “look at me!” tattoo. Time will turn it into false advertising.

The permanence of the moment — the conviction that now is forever — explains what has happened to the American economy. We are, as a people, deeply in debt. We are, as a nation, deeply in debt. The average American household owes more than its yearly income. We save almost nothing (0.4 percent of disposable income) and spend almost everything (99.6 percent of disposable income) in the hope that tomorrow will be a lot like today. We bought homes we could not afford and took out mortgages we could not pay and whipped out the plastic on everything else. Debts would be due in the future, but, with any luck, the future would remain in the future.

There’s really no point in criticising the actual content of the article (though it would be an interesting economic study to see if people with tattoos have higher discount rates than those without them), because its just another old man confusing a change in fashion for a change in attitude.

Generational change is not caused by some sort of fashion, as if irresponsibility (or promiscuity or whatever else old people try to pin on young people) were a virus that afflicted our parents’ sex cells and caused us all to come out horribly deformed in character. The way we act is a response to our surroundings. If kids today spend alot on credit and don’t save very much, it’s because A) it’s not as necessary to save and B) It’s much easier to spend.

Those solid, thrifty Americans of old didn’t put away money because they were good people. They did it because they had to. They did it because there was no way to rustle up money on short notice if you hit a momentary shortfall. You either had to beg money from your friends or get evicted. Guess what? Credit cards allow people to weather those kinds of shortfalls. The consequences of not saving are much less…so people don’t save as much.

Secondly, how much do you think your average fifties mom would spend during her days dusting the house if she had plastic and the internet…rather than having to walk all the way to store, where her husband probably kept her accounts on a pretty tight leash. They would have spent more money back then, if they could have. Cohen’s article is like praising people in a famine-stricken region for showing restraint in not eating so much.

The problem comes about when people who grew up in a certain era look around them and decide that whatever they happen to have grown up doing is the virtuous thing. And then, when younger generations who are logically responding to entirely different circumstances, do something different, they decry that as immoral.

And then the younger generations shoot back at their elders, calling them old-fashioned. And then when they get old, they do exactly the same thing. Can we please be the generation that cuts out of the cycle, admits that we’re all just cogs in a vast machine, settles down, and enjoys it? Or did Generation X already do that?