TED Conversations

Andreas Schmieg

Sr. Business Analyst, Ecolab

This conversation is closed.

Can you imagine a society without consumer debt?

Call me crazy. I am trying to imagine what our society and economy would look like if the majority of people abandoned consumer debt (except for housing, maybe). People wouldn't be stuck in jobs just to make their next car payment. Instead of paying interest, people would have disposable money to do things with. The car industry would likely have a severe problem. Anyone want to join this crazy idea? What would be better or worse?

  • thumb
    Mar 20 2013: Here is an attempt of a visualization:
    Negative picture: In the U.S. it is common for many people to live paycheck-to-paycheck (i.e. with no or little left-over money or reserves) while making house and car payments every month. Being this financially tied up often means that a single week without a job means a significant risk to people's finances and a month without a job may put their house and car in jeopardy. People that are this unfree (or enslaved by their debt) are more likely to stay in their current job (because they 'need the money') and are less likely to quit underpaid jobs or go out and get more education.
    Positive picture: A person without consumer debt and a financial reserve (as a buffer between them and life) could actually afford to take more risk and potentially quit a job that sucks or does not provide decent pay. That person would not have to be rich. If everyone was in this '(debt-)free' situation, the supply of people that are willing to work part-time for minimum wage without benefits might drop significantly. It could potentially reshape the power difference between low-skill employees and potential employers. In China I have seen examples of companies competing for employees offering much better than part-time at minimum wage without benefits.
    My interpretation of Fordism: Pay workers enough to actually live vs. just exist. Should be good for the economy (and both - workers and employers).
  • thumb
    Mar 14 2013: Visualize a picture of what you are imagining. What does it look like to you?
  • Mar 13 2013: Hmm... Perhaps some sort of interest-free loan from the state/some organisation could work? I'm reluctant to propose that as some law, though, since I'm not very well-versed in the relevant fields.

    I think it would be more effective to work towards a change in priorities from accumulating wealth or influence to increasing knowledge and understanding for all. The structure of society and the economy would likely follow to reflect that, I assume.
  • thumb
    Mar 13 2013: in most countries, people actually live without personal debt. in my country, debt is typical only in 3 forms: mortgage, commodity credit and credit card debt. the 3rd is not that very common, the first two are indeed frequent. the 3rd can be considered crazy stupid, and obviously we don't need that. the first two could be easily replaced with rent. so yes, debt is not at all necessary for consumers.

    would it be better? i think yes, but personal preferences differ. apparently, many people prefer having a house and a huge debt on it over living in a rental.
    • thumb
      Mar 13 2013: Thanks for pointing this out. Sometimes it is easy to forget that most of the world is different than us 'get it now - finance now - pay it later' Americans. :-)
      • thumb
        Mar 13 2013: it is more like modern. many times when we laugh on americans, turns out that they are just ahead of the curve. if someone is aware of the risks and costs, why not live on debt? in theory, there is nothing wrong with that. of course it is wrong if it is the result of some government shenanigans, like the recent meddling with interest rates in the US. that is a problem. but that is a problem with government policy, not the decision making of the average joe. it is quite possible that people would live in debt even in a free market economy.
  • thumb
    Mar 13 2013: Are you counting in consumer debt situations in which people pay with a credit card but then pay their credit card bills when they are due?
    • thumb
      Mar 13 2013: I wouldnt' really count consumer debt where people pay off their entire credit card every month. I am more thinking of a society where all people would have to worry is their house payment and everything else they would save for and pay cash. And of course everyone would be smart enough to have an emergency fund :-).
      • thumb
        Mar 13 2013: In that case, I think life is much simpler for those who live within their means without carrying consumer debt. So that is the choice I have made.
        • thumb
          Mar 14 2013: Same here. I got a severe case of car payment allergy and a credit card phobia. :-)