How many economic collapses will it take?

I drove to work this morning past more evidence of our zombie economy.

There’s an electronic billboard along the Highway 169 as you go through Hibbing. It’s one of those low res, pixelated types, not as sharp as the ones you see along Twin Cities highways. Kind of like the difference between a 60-inch rear projection TV and a 60-inch plasma. This thing is a relic.

I want to say it’s been there 13 years or so. I remember when it first came on and it served as a beacon leading me home at night from grad school in Superior. You could see it for miles. Nothing special, but bright as hell.

Anyway, for at least a year, the thing has stopped working properly. The display is impossible to read on both sides. None of the pixels line up. You might pick out a word or part of an image, but it’s all gibberish. For a while one side worked, and the only ad that ran was to sell the billboard itself. But since one side didn’t work and the other was starting to go, no one would have considered buying the fool thing. Now it’s busted on both sides.

Nevertheless, whoever owns the thing is leaving it on. It’s still bright as hell, advertising .. something? Mostly it’s just light pollution. It got me wondering, why would you pay for the electricity on such a thing when it’s not bringing in any money?

Either someone owes money on the thing, or else they have a contract that forces them to keep it on — perhaps to break even or lose less than they otherwise would. It’s another economic zombie. Just like the global steel business. The oil business. Our whole financial sector.

That reminded me of an exchange I had online last night.

Yesterday’s Super Bowl was an underwhelming game speckled with underwhelming ads. The game could be explained by a solid Denver Broncos defense. The ads could only be explained by a lack of creativity on a very expensive scale.

Quicken Loans ran an ad for its Rocket Mortgage product, an app that claims to speed up the mortgage process, which Quciken further claims will encourage more people to buy homes and stimulate the economy.

This is the ad:

This spot just drove me nuts. Near as I can tell, the United States holds more public and private debt than has been amassed at any time in human history. Most people make decisions based on paying bills, which are mostly debt service. Nations operate based on who owes them money and to whom they owe money. Our entire economic system appears built on companies taking on as much debt as possible without going over the line. When they do overextend, they just declare bankruptcy and try again.

In each instance, it’s the consumer and/or worker who is hurt most.

So something about watching legions of people poking at their phones to take out the biggest loan they’ll ever have struck me as an exercise in collective madness. I tweeted: ”

Tweet from Quicken Loans

Ah, that’s true. It’s a good reminder that this insanity is completely legal, even commonplace.

I talk to a lot of millennials who say they never want to get into the trap of debt-for-housing. My wife and I don’t dream of elaborate vacations; we dream of unshackling ourselves from a mortgage. Yet, shows in which people argue about which $500,000 three-bedroom home to buy are among the most popular in the land. What comes next? I’m betting a resurgence in hand-lathed wooden furniture legs is not the most likely outcome.


  1. Why take on a mortgage anyway? Build your own house and pay as you go. We did it here in CA, with some of the strictest building regulations in the country (earthquake, fire, etc.), with no prior building experience. It can’t be any harder in MN, except for getting past the ridiculous mound/septic thing. Give up the internet gaming, turn off the TV, get busy. It’s not as difficult as everyone seems to think, and yes, you’ll make mistakes, but so what. If frogs didn’t jump, they wouldn’t bump their butts. Many of our parents/grandparents built their own houses, why aren’t we able to? That $500,000 home only costs 1/5th of that if you build it yourself.

  2. The smartest thing we did early in our marriage is to live extremely frugally, with lower rent, simple life style, so that we were able to save money to get started on our house when the time was right. And then, yes, we finished most of it ourselves, so there were no interest payments on that labor. Of course, with mortgages running at 9-12%, we had a lit of incentive. Whether that is possible now, I can’t say. I know for sure that people have run into some pretty *funny* things in houses they have bought from do it yourselfers. But back in the day (a phrase I hate) we didn’t have the temptation of easy plastic. It’s one thing to take on a 15 year low % mortgage. It’s quite another to run up a big 23% Target bill for cheetos, cheerios, and a new chemise. Or pizza, pretzels, and a new pickle dish.

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