How do we stop the credit industry’s predatory business model and get Americans out of debt when incomes aren’t rising as fast as the costs of healthcare and housing?
Trillions in Debt, Can the Middle Class Hang On?
By James Scurlock
Last week, the FDIC and the Federal Reserve Board were forced to remind the nation’s bankers to verify their customers’ incomes — adding that it might be a good idea to determine whether or not said customers could afford their mortgage payments. The new guidelines are expected to have a chilling effect on what the industry calls “home ownership.” Many esteemed economists have expressed hope that the resulting declines in home values, which have been inflated by the lack of such guidelines, will not stop too many Americans from cashing out the equity in their homes to keep consumer spending up. In other words, the “new economy” is based on people slowly losing home ownership, not gaining it.
Yes, this is both absurd and dangerous. But no, go-go bankers are not entirely to blame for our national credit fiasco, of which subprime mortgages — the ones that have been blowing up lately, wreaking havoc in markets here and abroad — will ultimately prove but a footnote. Go back and do the math, like professor Elizabeth Warren of Harvard Law School, and you’ll discover a systemic problem: Incomes aren’t rising nearly as fast as big-ticket costs like healthcare, education and housing. Ergo the negative savings rate, the two-thirds of us who can’t pay our credit card bills off every month, and the proliferation of “liar’s loans” — where customers fabricate an income high enough to qualify for a mortgage and banks promise not to call them out on the lie.
I have been criticized for making a film about such Americans. A banker who joined me on a radio show, for example, sniffed that it was simply too easy to find examples of Americans drowning in easy credit. I completely agree with him. It’s far too easy, mainly because those people are most of us. Bankers would do well to listen to a few of the stories behind the numbers, or else they will never understand the numbers themselves.
Some will argue — with no empirical evidence, mind you — that the culture itself is to blame. We have become a bunch of materialistic, Paris Hilton-loving deadbeats! they trill. Such was the argument the banks used to railroad bankruptcy reform through Congress a year and a half ago. If we accepted their argument and blamed the “gamers” — the new welfare queens — they promised us a dividend in the neighborhood of several hundred dollars apiece in the form of lower interest rates. Last quarter, these same bankers announced record credit card profits (JPMorgan Chase, the biggest, more than doubled their profits), but alas, no check arrived in the mail for you or me.
The “personal responsibility” argument, as it is euphemistically known, appeals to our love of false nostalgia if not history itself. It assumes that Jimmy Carter wasn’t imploring us to cut up our credit cards three decades ago (he was); that the Me Generation never happened (it did); that the ’80s was not the decade of greed (it was); or that, going back a bit further, the Roaring Twenties never happened (it did).