Shiny Red Boots

Posted on Tuesday 22 July 2008

When Adorable Child was in elementary school, I volunteered to teach a Junior Achievement module. The subject was “Want vs Need”, and my targets were squirmy little six-year-olds in first grade.

Since I had an entire six weeks with which to work, I decided to build a frame first… and so we started with shoes — my shoes.

I love to go barefoot. There’s just nothing quite like the tickle of the grass around my ankles, or the strange sliminess of mud squishing up between my toes.

[giggles and ewwwwws]

And I can get out the door much faster if I don’t have to stop and put shoes on first — very helpful when I’m in a hurry to tickle AC.

[more giggles, with some nudging of AC]

But in the summer in Texas, the sidewalk burns my feet! I can’t stand there for more than a few seconds before it feels like they’re frying and I start hopping around like a grasshopper. And I look really silly, mincing across a patch of gravel, afraid to put my feet down on those sharp rock edges.

[nods and interruptions as everybody tells a gravel story]

And sometimes, there are really dangerous things waiting to bite at my toes, or take a big chunk out of the bottom of my foot. Like nails. Or glass.

They got it. We need shoes. Our feet are sensitive, and also vulnerable.

Over the next week or two, we talked a lot about physical needs. Food. Shelter. Clothing. And then we came back around to shoes.

Now, Polimom loves the color red. Bright red — like the sun just before it sets. And one day at the mall, I saw a pair of really beautiful, shiny, high-heeled boots in a store window. They were glorious! And exactly my color! The more I looked at them, the more I knew I had to have them. Had to! I loved those shiny red boots!

[out and out laughter, with some background discussion on favorite colors]

I needed those boots!

They weren’t sure about this.

There were some tentative nods, since boots are, technically, shoes, but there were also some head-shakes and “No’s”.

But we all agreed that we need shoes, didn’t we? And these gorgeous shiny red boots are perfect for me, and they’ll match my red dress and earrings! I won’t be happy if I can’t have them! I need them!

[Kids] No…. You don’t need them, Mrs. Polimom — you want them.

Of course they were right. I didn’t need them, anymore than I need chocolate for sustenance, or a BMW for transportation — and we talked about all of that, too. A want, no matter how badly desired, does not equate to a need.

Recently, in light of the credit crisis, I’ve been thinking a lot about chocolate and BMWs and fancy shoes. If first-graders could understand this most basic of lessons, how is it that we now have a culture that needs shiny red boots?

David Brooks writes that we’ve become a “Culture of Debt” — that “norms changed and people began making jokes to make illicit things seem normal”.

Instead of condemning hyper-consumerism, they made quips about “retail therapy,” or repeated the line that Morgenson noted in her article: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

I agree with him. Our society is being eaten alive by consumerism. But Brooks is only acknowledging part of the credit crisis equation — because while it’s absolutely true that many people have been conflating want with need, a want sometimes is a need.

[T]heir homes were now showing those signs of neglect. They needed a roof, they needed their porches repaired and their money was all tied up in the equity of their home. And that’s what they needed to tap into in order to make any repairs.

There are an awful lot of “needs” packed into that paragraph, but it really doesn’t sound like a shiny red boot story to me. The real problem is in the last sentence.

Was an equity tap really the only option? And who sought out whom, in the lending equation? Because predatory lending isn’t a figment of the liberal imagination; the responsibility for the mortgage market meltdown can’t be laid fully at the feet of the borrowers. It was a known, looming problem years ago.

The credit crisis isn’t just the result of a changed society. Yes, I do think that norms have changed. As a parent, I push back against the onslaught every day. And yes, I agree — there are lots of people walking around in shiny red boots they couldn’t afford.

But there are also people who borrowed money to patch the holes in the soles of their very basic — and totally necessary — footwear.

One can fairly debate whether society should be funding those patches, but it’s hard to deny the need.

Even a first grader can understand the difference.

4 Comments for 'Shiny Red Boots'

    July 22, 2008 | 11:36 pm

    Good lesson. LOVE that age!

    July 23, 2008 | 9:58 am

    At one time, an equity tap wasn’t even an option in Texas. Then, the Lege (after intense pressure from the lending lobby) changed the law, and once that happened then about the only way you could get that type of loan was to put your home equity up as collateral. We saw it happening in places like California, yet bought the whole “Texans are mature enough to be able to make the decisions for themselves” line of bull.

    Now, the chickens are coming home to roost – and they are mighty big suckers, to boot!

    (BTW, a hint for the summers in Texas: stand on the grass instead of the concrete.)


    July 23, 2008 | 10:30 am

    Dear Husband and I spent a fair amount of time trying to date the changes in federal legislation that led to this catastrophe. We think there were two waves: one in the late 80s, and another in the mid 90s. Between the two, regulations were relaxed to the point of utter stupidity.

    The predatory lending really ticks me off. But it bothers me at least as much that everything’s getting dumped into one big “credit crisis” basket.

    We do have a problem with consumerism in the US. We also have a problem with predatory lending and, frankly, fraud, on the part of the mortgage companies. They’re separate issues, and as you say, these are some BIG chickens coming home to roost.

    (and yes, I know about the grass. and I still go barefoot a lot, too. AND — red is NOT my color at all. I took several liberties with my lesson to those kids.)

    Goldenrod — yup — great age! I’m glad you liked the lesson.

    July 23, 2008 | 12:17 pm

    I don’t know about the Federal legislation, however in Texas it wasn’t legal to take out home equity loans until sometime in the 1980s I think. This was part of the old homestead act, and I do remember the campaign to change that law (that’s where I heard the bit about the homestead protection being an archaic anachronism that wasn’t necessary in modern-day Texas.) It took effect, I think, sometime after the Tax Reform Act of (1986?) which killed off the deduction for credit card interest, yet retained the deduction for home-mortgage interest. After the Federal legislation passed, then the Texas Lege modified the homestead laws to match.

    You (and David Brooks) are correct in that there are multiple sides to this story. The scary thing to me is that we didn’t learn the lessons of the great real-estate crash of the late 80s, and now we are doomed to repeat history yet again. Even scarier is that with the change in the bankruptcy code, the borrowers are going to be even deeper in the hole, and besides they don’t have the lobbying strength that the big banks/investment firms do.

    Given the price of both gasoline and shoes, maybe we all better get used to walking barefoot…


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