Last week, the credit rating of the United States was downgraded by the credit agency Standard & Poors. Debate has ensued as to whether this was warranted. I am agnostic on the reasons for the downgrade, since I have no qualifications to adjudicate the differences between an AA, AA+ or AAA rating.

However, it does not take technical expertise to know that the credit rating of the world’s largest economy is by itself no real indicator of health. That process is hardly as objective as they make it seem. Talking heads on television may pontificate regarding projected impacts on interest rates, GDP, and stock exchange indexes but for most of us, these numbers are glazing. It all sounds precise and mathematical but the real triggers are our expectations and moral choices, not mathematical formulas.

It is easy to suggest it is the morals, or lack of the same, on the part of our leaders that should be in focus. The folks at Standard & Poors rebuked the American political class, suggesting that the "brinkmanship" displayed during the debt crisis was evidence of a "less stable, less effective and less predictable" policymaking environment. To be sure, there is plenty of blame the politicos can own. But blaming politicos is as mistaken as thinking that a better credit rating will pay the bills.

Most of the conversations seem to be judging the crisis by faulty standards. Yes, the politicians have been unwilling to make tough choices but at least part of the reason is that they know the population is not ready to support them if they did. Too many are still married to standards of living that are beyond our means to support and relying on entitlements that cannot be sustained.

Tinker with the borrowing cap and credit ratings all you will—all we are doing is playing with the timelines over which our present problems will be dealt with. Ours is a generation living beyond our means. We have not yet demonstrated that we are prepared to bite the bullet and make some real changes to our lifestyles and expectations.

Focusing on numbers and credit ratings is deceiving. In a materialistic society where so much of our identity and self-worth are defined by our possessions, how will we respond to the emptiness that not being able to have these goodies will produce? When our economic expectations changes from growth to something far more modest, where will we turn for answers? When our standards are no longer rooted in things we can hoard but in something far more intangible, then maybe we’ll be one step closer to satisfaction.