Weber described the “Protestant ethic” as the view that it is a person’s duty to work hard and save. By accumulating wealth, yet refraining from spending it, one would be “saved.” As Weber noted, these religiously sanctioned beliefs and practices helped lay the foundation for capitalism in Northern Europe in the 16th century. Five hundred years later, most US households are in debt. No doubt Americans work hard — when they are fortunate enough to be employed — yet most are unable to save. This has less to do with lax morality than with stagnating wages and the spiraling costs of basic goods such as housing, healthcare, and education.
According to Andrew Ross, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU, we now live in a “creditocracy,” where debts are not supposed to be paid off entirely. Ross writes in the Guardian:
Wage conflict was the great strife of the industrial era, but the struggle over debt is shaping up to be the frontline conflict of the years to come. Not because wage conflict is over (it never will be) but because debts, for most people, are the wages of the future, to which creditors lay claim far in advance. Each new surrender of a part of our lives to private debt-financing further consumes the fruit of labor we have not yet performed, in the form of compensation we have not yet earned. That is why, to put it bluntly, many household debts are a thinly disguised form of wage theft.
In stark contrast to the Protestant ethic, Ross suggests that “it may be more moral to refuse some of our obligations to creditors than honor them all. The alternative is a failed democracy.” What do you think? Do our changed social conditions call for a rethinking of conventional standards of morality?