Survey suggests debt is now the dueling scar of our society: a disfiguring sign you’ve made it.

Among the upper classes in the Germany and Austria of the late 19th and the first few decades of the 20th century, dueling scars, called “Mensur,” were considered a badge of honor, a sign of status.  Fencing was the most popular sport among college students, and the social and economic elite among young men proudly wore scars across their left cheek.  Many seeking to fit in with the upper classes would scar themselves.

In other words, people hurt themselves or welcomed someone else hurting them because they saw it as a sign of status.  As Mel Brooks might put it, “Those crazy Germans!”

I hadn’t thought of the Mensur since my days of studying German literature in graduate school.  But this purposeful scarring came to mind last weekend when I read first online and then in The New York Times about the survey that said that the more debt a young adult had, the more self-esteem they possessed, except among the wealthy. 

The Ohio State researchers looked at both college and credit card debt.  For both kinds of debt, the more that a young person from the lower 25% of family income has of it, the higher the self-esteem.  Only credit card debt raises the self-esteem of those in the middle, and those from the most affluent families get no ego boost from holding either kind of debt.  The effect starts to wane at age 28, by which time people are worried that they may never pay it off.

We can all speculate on why having debt raises self-esteem.  The leader of the team that did the study thinks “young people have come to view debt favorably because they interpret it as an investment in their future.” 

One reason or another, though, the study suggests that debt has become a status symbol.  A status symbol is nothing more than the socialization of self-esteem.  People have high self-esteem because they have attained or embody something that society or a subset of society thinks is of value.

Like a cut on the face, debt is usually harmful, because it results in paying more for something than it is worth and it prevents you from accumulating money for the future, which often necessitates future indebtedness.  Once on the debt merry-go-round, it’s hard to get off.

There are a handful of things for which it is worth going into debt: to fund a business that has a viable business plan; to purchase a house in which you plan to live for a while; and certainly to pay for a college education.

But credit card debt is never a good idea, except for the bankers who collect the interest.  Businesses may like the convenience of credit card payments, but every penny that a customer sends to banks in interest and penalties is a penny not spent on additional goods and services.

The attitude expressed in the survey was not cautiousness about debt, but an embracing of debt as a status symbol.  And like all status symbols in all societies structured into classes, those seeking to attain status put more stock in the symbol than those who already have achieved status.

Something harmful and disfiguring that people embrace as a sign that they’ve made it.  That sounds like both the German dueling scar and debt in contemporary America, especially credit card debt.  Both symbolize a sickness weakening their respective societies.  In Germany and Austria, it was the militarism of the ruling elite that helped cause the slaughter known as World War I.   In 21st century America, it’s the “have it all now” exhortations of advertising, TV, cinema, other mass entertainment and the celebrity, how-to, travel, and lifestyle stories in the news media. 

“Have it now” is part of an unholy trinity of ideological imperatives that are driving us towards environmental, physical and spiritual ruin.  The other two ideas destroying America are: 1) The politics of selfishness, Ronald Reagan’s idea that it is best to seek self interest and never think of the greater good; 2) The idea that buying something is the way to express all emotions, opinions, commemorations, rituals or other inner experiences.   


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