Communities are defined by a consensus trance about how civilization is supposed to work. This trance goes through periods of transformation - like the shift from medieval beliefs in spirits and witches to post-Enlightenment trust in science and progress.
About a century ago, a big piece of the consensus trance gradually shifted. Credit became something normal and helpful rather than sinful. Paul’s injunction to “owe no man anything” had earlier given force to the distrust of debt, which society frowned upon in 1900 the way that it frowned on homosexuality in the 1960s – it was something at best to be pitied and at worst to be banned as un-Godly, a sign of moral corruption and communities that accepted it were bound for imminent collapse.
As it turns out, credit is not so bad. It creates opportunities. A bank lends a company credit to build a factory. The company lends the consumer money to buy its products. This system has proven robust.
It works because the company hires people to make products. The people take these jobs to earn the income to pay back their loans for the things that they buy. You have to look at the whole system in order to appreciate its stability. You'd panic about oxygen levels if all you knew was that we mammals are using oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. But once you understand that plants are exhaling oxygen while breathing our carbon dioxide, the system looks stable.
But sustaining this system depends on consensus trance. If households stop buying, they’re likely to lose their jobs when products stop selling. If banks stop extending credit, they’re liable to see defaults increase as the economy slows.
FDR could have been talking about economics when he said that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Oddly, this consensus trance of credit and consumption has worked for more than a century. About the only time it doesn't is when the trance itself is questioned, and some link in the chain is broken. And then the trick is getting society back into the trance before they have a good look around to see upon what fragile structures we're all standing.
Sales are down this holiday season. Do your bit. Stare into the eyes of a mannequin until you feel that consensus trance once again begin to take hold. Reach for your credit card. Walk towards the neon lights. Things will once again be merry and bright.