Stateside: The Town Bike Of Wilmington, Delaware
The Town Bike Of Wilmington, Delaware
Those of you old enough to have seen the moon before it had footprints on it might recall a fun little song with the words: "What did Delaware, boys? What did Delaware?... She wore a brand New Jersey, that's what she did wear."
I don't know if that song's reference to shopping was what inspired Delaware to become the credit card capital of the US, but if I had a penny for every new jersey that was bought with the help of a company in Wilmington, Delaware, I would be a very rich person indeed.
Au contraire. It seems the word has got around that, like the town bike, I'm easy. I'm asking for it. The financial equivalent of fishnet stockings, short skirt, bustier, and a needy look--my horrendous credit score--has been circulating, and the johns are lining up to get a piece of the action.
Only thing is, not only are they not going to pay me--the very definition of the town bike is that she puts out for free--but I'm going to have to pay them, and they'll be laughing all the way to their tax haven.
Now, I know that many people consider this subject not fit for decent conversation, but unless people talk about it, debt--like sex--assumes a power that is far beyond its importance in the grand scheme of things. Others think that if you bring up the subject of how much money you owe, you're subtly trying to get them to give them money.
Not so. I've been in debt before. Back in the early '80s I worked for a large financial institution that gave its staff very low interest rates on their credit card. How easy it was to rack up $3,000 on the card! How frightful it was, after the financial crash of Black Monday, 1987, to find myself on the dole and paying off that $3,000--with its now much higher interest charges--at the rate of $5 a week. But I did it.
That was Down Under, where all the sharks are off the coast.
Here in the US, the winner-take-all economy means that everyone is fair game for financial institutions that are now about to be given open slather on anyone who has succumbed to telemarketers, and/or the television, print, radio, direct mail, and internet advertising the credit industry has spent billions of dollars on in order to convince people that debt is practically a patriotic duty.
It starts like this: 1) Certain things can't be bought without a credit card. My downfall was the 2002 trip I took to Ireland, where I couldn't book my hostel accommodation without having either Visa or Mastercard. So I opened a $500 credit card with my bank.
2) Banks call your credit card "overdraft protection" and when you go over what you have in your checking account, they make a cash transfer from your credit card to cover it. Even if you have only gone over 50c and your pay is sitting there waiting to be electronically transferred in, a minimum of $100 comes off your credit card.
Hold it right there, you say! Couldn't I have used my ATM card account number to secure the hotel booking? Well, duh! Yes, but I didn't know that at the time. And why didn't I just pay back the $100 to my credit card account as soon as my pay went in? Hey, look, if someone came up to you today and put $100 in your hand, would you say no?
The whole psychology of debt is that you don't think of the consequences. In fact, if you asked me what the defining characteristic of US society is, I'd say it is that people here believe there are no consequences to anything they do. Well, you know, maybe there are Really Big Consequences, like God smiting all the unbelievers to hell, but day-to-day? Nah.
No. Let me refine that. People here *are led to* believe there are no consequences for their actions. And for those who have had that belief shaken by having to face hard reality there are the self-help books, the credit counseling courses, and the magazine articles to restore you to the fold. Like the one in the March 2005 Readers Digest.
"Debt free for life", the cover proclaims. (If only!) The article's homilies are summed up in a sidebar headed "Pay it off": Get organized, negotiate with creditors, get to work! Getting organized means that you balance your checkbook every month and pay your bills on time. Negotiating with creditors means that you should shop around for a better deal. And getting to work means taking a second job to pay off your debts.
Make sense? Of course it does. After all, that's what you've been led to believe. But let's look at those three things a little more closely.
"Balance your checkbook every month and pay your bills on time." For people who have succumbed to the blandishments of easy credit, whether it's a store card or a credit card, the payments they have to make on those cards can eat up practically all their income. That's why there are such large numbers of "working poor." They're counseled into paying off their debts, but then can't afford their basic needs--food, shelter, warmth.
Who wins? Big Credit. Who loses? The taxpayer, whose taxes are used to subsidize the food and shelter programs that many of these families of working poor are forced to use.
(For Kiwis unfamiliar with the term, "Big Credit" is like "Big Pharma"--a catch-all term for companies that are part of a powerful industry with awesome lobbying power in Congress.)
"Negotiate with creditors." This one is priceless! After calling your credit card company and saying you're going to transfer the balance to some institution that charges a lower interest rate, "you might find your rate drops quickly." You might also find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But let's say you are successful:
Who wins? Big Credit. Who loses? You, the particular debtor, because this goes on your credit record and reduces your credit score, making it possible for whichever credit card company you are with to raise your interest rates because of your lower score.
"Get to work!" What, is the guy who wrote this article a congenital idiot? Get a *second* job? I'm sorry, but aren't there a couple of million people who can't even get a first one? Or is this the reason that they can't get a job--because people with credit card debt have taken a second job to pay off their brand new jersey?
Who wins? Big Credit. Who loses? The taxpayer, whose taxes are used to fund unemployment payments and social welfare programs for those who can't find a job, not to mention the crime-related costs of the underground economy that, of necessity, grows up where the economy at large has failed to produce a society that protects the vulnerable from the strong.
And while we're speaking of taxpayers, the very financial institutions that are sucking all this money away from where it would be doing productive work--being passed from hand to hand; homebuyer to builder, housekeeper to grocer, grocer to distributor, distributor to grower, grower to farmhand, enabling the farmhand to become a homebuyer--are usually incorporated in states, or even offshore, where they pay very little tax.
So, Mr. President George W. Bush, when you put your signature on that bill that takes away the one piece of cover people could run for when they were in the sights of Big Credit--Chapter 7 bankruptcy--you are signing away any belief at all that anyone had in the integrity of what you say.
Ownership society, you say? Oh, I get it--you mean that ordinary people get the illusion of ownership and Big Credit gets to own them and their home? For someone who recently pontificated on how the mark of a great person is that they protect the vulnerable, you really have got it all sewn up, I'll give you that. But actually, I don't think it counts if, in the first place, it is you who has made them vulnerable. That's how pimps operate.
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P.S. See also Town Bike Part II