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CREDIT CARD NATION: The Consequences of America's Addiction to Credit.

CREDIT CARD NATION: The Consequences of America's Addiction to Credit

by Robert D. Manning

Basic Books, $26.00

WITH 1.5 BILLION CREDIT cards floating around, $560 billion in outstanding credit-card debt, and negative personal savings rates, clearly credit-card debt in the United States is a problem. With a million-plus bankruptcies each year, borrowing has taken on a role far beyond traditional economic justifications of investment or income smoothing.

While Robert Manning acknowledges in Credit Card Nation that over-consumption plays a role in the mounting piles of debt consumers are shouldering, he doesn't just fault individuals. He casts a wide net of blame, including the marketing and profit maximizing practices of financial companies, Reagan's supply-side tax cuts, financial deregulation, an unstable post-industrial economy, growing income and wealth inequalities, and a shift in cultural norms from the Calvinist ethos of industry and frugality to one of competitive consumption and short-term gratification.

Manning's comprehensive approach to the causes of credit-card debt is far more compelling than the simple notion that aggressive marketing campaigns and solicitations alone have propelled the trend of credit-card-based lifestyles. While much of Credit Card Nation is devoted to exploring these causes, the book also relies heavily on characters who actually leave the reader thinking that this problem, in large part, boils down to a lack of personal responsibility.

There is Ron, painted as a victim of the leveraged buyout of Revlon. But somehow his swirling career path from postdoctorate researcher to private-sector chemist to part-time clothing salesman to stockbroker back to chemist back to stockbroker is not reminiscent of most people's experience of the 1990s. To blame the merger and acquisitions era for what appears to be a rather whimsical career track and the thousands of dollars in credit-card debt that financed the various transitions seems a bit of a stretch.

Then there is Catherine, whose predicament is intended to represent "the effects of student loan obligations and personal bankruptcy as strategies for coping with credit-card debt" particularly on single women. While there is a worrisome rise in single women petitioning for bankruptcy, it is difficult to conjure up much sympathy for Catherine's use of her student loans to pay her credit-card bills amassed from spending sprees at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus because she wonders, "Why should the bourgeoisie have all the nice things?" Her frustration mounts when she finds that declaring bankruptcy wipes away her remaining credit-caM debts but not her student-loan obligation. The lesson a more hard-heart ed reader might glean is that student loans are better used for educational pursuits than theater tickets and expensive cosmetics.

It is not hard to empathize with college students struggling under the burdens of school loans and part-time jobs. But Jeff? Upon entering college, Jeff found himself a clique of new friends who apparently thought paying in cash was behavior reserved for "quaint and backward cultural practices of Depression- era farmers," so he used his 16 credit cards to impress them, shelling out for vacations in London and Canada. "Poor Jeff" doesn't quite cut it.

Nonetheless, Manning insightfully traces many of the changes that have led to credit-card debt as a mainstay of consumer culture. He covers the story of how, during Citicorp's challenges with deregulation and with poor Third World and real-estate loans, the conglomerate used credit-card networks to bypass interstate banking regulations and state usury laws, leading to profits of three to five times those of other banking activities. As Manning illustrates, the promise of increased competition from deregulation did not bear out in the marketplace.

In 1977, the top 50 banks had half of all credit-card accounts; today the top 10 control over three-quarters, helping explain why interest costs have climbed to such heights. Manning also points out how new technologies have been used for financial profiling and customer acquisition rather than to increase customer-friendly information or efficiencies.

Jeff aside, one of the most troubling trends Manning covers is the rise in undergraduate students' access to, and use of, credit cards, a trend originally documented by one of this magazine's contributing editors, Joshua Wolf Shenk, five years ago. Over three-quarters of students today have at least one credit card. Average balances are $2,748, up almost 50 percent from two years ago. Most students are unaware that paying the minimum amount on an average balance could leave them repaying their debt for 15 years.

Manning also traces the growing divergence in what different groups pay for credit. While the cost of consumer credit has nearly doubled since banking deregulation, corporate lending rates have only inched up. More disturbing is the pulling out of "reputable" financial institutions from underclass neighborhoods, leaving a void that has been filled by check-cashing outlets, pawn shops, and rent-to-own stores, with some rates reaching an astronomical 700 percent.

Varying rates based on specific individual risk characteristics may be fair business practices, but generalizing based on residence is clearly an offensive market failure. Still, Manning never reconciles his conflicting points that companies were first irresponsible in targeting low-income individuals who could not afford the debt levels offered, and then classist when they eventually pulled back.

In the end, Manning leaves the reader wondering what should be done. Short of policy solutions, one is left to assume Manning would like to return to the Puritan ethos of frugality and savings he talks about so fondly. But cultural norms are unlikely to shift without an economic crisis.

There are plenty of options, from the student counseling Manning mentions to stronger regulations concerning the cost of credit or the amount of debt that lending institutions are permitted to extend. Many regulatory steps would be objectionable to free-marketeers, but given the tremendous costs to society, there is a case for such interventions. Sure, it would be nice to think that the financial industry might introduce some of these measures on its own--but I'm still hoping gun manufactures will choose to introduce trigger locks.

The story of unsustainable spending, paltry savings, and mounting debt is not a simple one. Manning does justice to the intricacies of the causes. But after reading 300 pages on the topic, one is left feeling that the reader deserves at least the suggestion of a comprehensive solution.

MAYA MAcGUINEAS is a fellow at the New America Foundation.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:MacGuineas, Maya
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2001
Words:1046
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