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Jack Lessenberry: Culture of Debt

By Jack Lessenberry

Jim McTevia never had a credit card growing up. That’s largely because there weren’t any in the small town of Marine City, Michigan where he was born. Today, he thinks that just might have saved him. He's done all right for himself; he became a well-regarded business turnaround expert without a college education.

Today, he has homes and businesses in the Detroit area, Harbor Springs, and West Palm Beach. McTevia, who turns a healthy seventy-four this weekend, isn‘t worried about his future.

But he's desperately worried about his country's and that of the state of Michigan. He thinks we’ve become addicted to spending money we don’t have, stealing from our kids’ future.

And he worries that if we don’t do something soon, our country will be destroyed. Now, conservatives have been saying things like this since the New Deal began.
They were predicting the speedy collapse of America back when Franklin D. Roosevelt began deficit spending, and after awhile, people regarded them as the little boy who cried wolf.

But eventually there was a wolf, and there are increasingly troubling signs that we are drowning in debt.

McTevia thinks the main problem is that we have become accustomed to the idea  that we should get whatever we want, right now, and that there is nothing wrong with borrowing to get it .

Regardless of whether we have a reasonable expectation of ever being able to pay the money back. So he has written a small, very readable book about this: The Culture of Debt: How a Once-Proud Society Mortgaged Its Future.

Bill Haney, the founder of the specialty publishing house Momentum Books, brought it to my attention. Haney tends to be a supporter of pump-priming Keynesian economics. But he told me he thought this book had an important message.

And after talking to the author, I have to agree. McTevia has spent his career rescuing or, these days, mainly  liquidating businesses drowning in debt. He wants to save our e nation from the same fate. “I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that we are truly a sick society, and just don’t realize it yet,“ he told me.

This isn’t his first effort; seventeen years ago, he wrote a similar book called Bankrupt. He drove to Washington and gave one to every member of Congress. “I only heard from two of them. Some congressman in Florida and Vice-President Al Gore, who thanked me for caring about my country,” he said yesterday.

This time, he hopes to bypass the politicians and try to convince young people to have the courage to just say no.

McTevia isn’t a single-issue crank. “Some debt is good. Few people can buy a house or car for cash.” Nor does he think all taxes are bad. In fact, he thinks our state needs to increase taxes until we get out of the current mess we are in.

His bottom line is that we have to realize there is no free lunch. His book may attract little notice. But I can’t help thinking of how General Motors used to go on losing billions every year, until one day it was bankrupt. If that happens to our nation, there won’t be anywhere to go for a bailout. Which is why McTevia wrote this book.


The thoughts expressed in this essay by Jack Lessenberry are his; they do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio or its licence holder, The University of Michigan.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.