I generally thought this David Brooks column on debt was interesting, but I've got a couple quibbles. His invocation of culture bothered me, not because I don't think it's true, but because of how selective he was in applying it:
Some of the toxins were economic. Rising house prices gave people the impression that they could take on more risk. Some were cultural. We entered a period of mass luxury, in which people down the income scale expect to own designer goods. Some were moral. Schools and other institutions used to talk the language of sin and temptation to alert people to the seductions that could ruin their lives. They no longer do.
It's interesting that he applies a "economic" explanation to home owners and " cultural" explanations to "people down the income scale." This, basically, is my beef with conservatives who invoke culture. It isn't that culture isn't an important factor--it is--it's that culture impacts people at all levels. So if you live in the projects and you got a big-screen TV from Rent-A-Center, you are crazy, no question. But if you live in the suburbs and gambled on a second mortgage, so you could build a a home theater, you are equally crazy. Furthermore, you're a victim of the same culture as the person who lives in the projects. The fact that other factors--some of them cultural, some of them not--allowed you to move into the middle-class doesn't mean your values are automatically different from that person who lives in the projects. Some of them are. Some of them aren't.
Conservatives often whip out the culture card to reinforce this idea that if this large group of people change their individual behavior, then they too could have the American dream. Bet. But don't switch up the logic because we now have middle-class people foolishly running up credit card bills, taking out second mortgages which they can't afford and then crying to the government for relief. We've seen this transference game before--let's not talk about antisemitism, let's just focus on black antisemitism. But it's a dodge, in that it allows folks to not deal with their own issues. It's like saying "Yeah, my kitchen is on fire, but look over there, that dudes whole house is burning down."