Our New Year's vow: Keep piling on the debt!
By Geoffrey Colvin

(FORTUNE Magazine) – AS WE GREET THE NEW YEAR, LET'S THINK CLEARLY about one of America's most popular and least realistic New Year's resolutions: to get out of debt.

Don't be confused by the lines of argument about rising home values or low interest rates counteracting our expanding debt load. The truth is that any way you cut it, we Americans are in debt like never before in our history. We are borrowing with a last-days-of-Pompeii abandon and forking over an unprecedented portion of our income just to pay the interest, even at today's low rates. That is more than an economic phenomenon; it's also a cultural one, a sign of how we see ourselves, which means it will be excruciatingly hard to change.

I could give you all the statistics about consumer debt levels, showing how they rocketed in the '90s and then just kept on going up, even as the stock market tanked and the economy went into recession, and showing also how debt service as a percent of disposable income has lately hit record levels. But you've seen all those statistics. The one you haven't seen, and that illustrates the situation most vividly, was buried in a Zogby poll last summer. The question asked respondents "what it means to be well-off or successful." You might have expected answers about expensive cars or multiple homes or luxurious retirements. But the top answer by a mile--cited more than twice as often as anything else--was far more modest: "eliminate credit card debt." That's financial success? The term used to mean having enough assets to live on. Now it just means getting out of the hole.

Why have we put ourselves in hock up to our armpits? As always when something really extraordinary happens, it's a combination of factors. Most fundamental is the historic worldwide abundance of capital, one of the mammoth changes influencing many aspects of our lives over the past decade, including the rise of China and India, M&A madness, and global overcapacity in most industries. The financial services firms that buy money at wholesale and sell it at retail are awash in inventory and working feverishly to tempt us.

The relentless rise of home values has certainly played a role, but not as great a one as many people seem to think. Our borrowing has roared ahead even faster than home prices. That's partly a result of those hyperthyroid finance companies. Turn on a radio today and you can hear an announcer bellowing, "Ask about our 103% mortgages--we pay you at closing!" You'd better pray home prices keep increasing.

Another explanation you hear is that people are borrowing more because they have to. That one is nonsense. The argument goes that since certain costs like health care and college tuition are rising fast, families are forced into debt to meet them. But of course other costs, including fairly significant ones like food and clothing, are actually falling. Overall inflation, taking all costs into account, is still minuscule. On the whole, it's hard to argue that America is borrowing more because it needs to.

But, then, what does "need" really mean? This is where our debt addiction becomes cultural. Japan and Europe are demonstrably less rich per capita than America. If "need" meant the same thing to Europeans and Japanese that it does to us, they would be far more deeply in debt than we are. But of course reality is just the opposite: They borrow much less than Americans. Even more striking, when recession hits, they cut borrowing further and save more to prepare for hard times. Makes sense, but it isn't what we do--we borrow still more in bad times in order to maintain our lifestyles. Hey, we have needs!

Some people think our wastrel ways will mean eventual disaster for the U.S. economy, but that seems unlikely in light of its size, strength, and flexibility. The effects will more likely be corrosive than explosive. Individually we'll steadily become a little more miserable, and nationally a little less dominant, than if we weren't such a self-indulgent, consumption-obsessed, ADD culture.

I'd love to inject a bright note here, but I can't find one. For most Americans, the chances of getting out of debt in 2005 look about as great as the chances of achieving our other favorite New Year's resolution and actually losing those 20 pounds.

GEOFFREY COLVIN, senior editor at large of FORTUNE, can be reached at gcolvin@fortunemail.com. Watch him on Wall $treet Week With FORTUNE, Friday evenings on PBS.