Credit Card Nation 

I am, I swear, working very hard on becoming a deadbeat.

Good evening, my name is Dave, and I'll be your cultural stereotype for the evening. Suburban, white, male, married, two teenagers, a dog, two cars. And several credit cards, which makes me a thoroughly dangerous guy. I am the reason why service charges, interest, and late fees are so high. I am undermining the Puritan work ethic and helping usher in a new era of idleness, sloth, and wasted effort.

But I am, I swear, working very hard on becoming a deadbeat. More about this in a second.

The truth is that I'm not a dangerous guy. The banks only pretend I am. In fact, they love people like me. Using the media as handmaidens -- along with their own massive marketing campaigns -- consumer credit providers like to paint scary pictures of people who binge on credit and get overextended. It makes for good copy, and (more important) it allows the banks to justify the fees and rate increases that they charge in spite of their record profits in recent years.

The people whom the banks really can't stand are the ones who pay their bills in full every month or who use no credit cards at all. The banks call them "deadbeats," not because they don't make their payments, but because they don't get sucked into the quicksand of consumer debt.

All of this comes via Robert D. Manning, a senior fellow of the Institute for Higher Education Governance and Law at the University of Houston Law Center (try getting all that on a business card) and the author of Credit Card Nation: The Consequences of America's Addiction to Credit, which is about as scary a book as you'll read this year.

Manning writes that people like me -- the ones who charge such luxuries as stereos, TVs, golf clubs, and vacations -- are easy scapegoats. Reporters like to paint us as spendthrifts with no regard for the connection between work and consumption. We are idlers, living on the money saved by the prudent folks who know how to squeeze a dollar and buy a savings bond. Many of us even use credit cards for such items as groceries, medicine, doctor bills, school clothes, retirement costs -- anything to preserve, in short, a standard of living that we've fought hard to achieve.

And we're the lucky ones. The folks in lower socioeconomic brackets must resort to such devices as "payday loans," often at more than 500 percent annual interest. For them, consumer credit can be as poisonous, as addictive, and as ruinous as crack.

I'm lucky not to have faced this sort of usury. Although I have binged, I have paid for it many times over. Someday, I might just learn my lesson.

Lately, though, I charged a whole mess of tinwhistles -- Celtic wind instruments that come in all manner of sizes, keys, tones, and price ranges. I love them, and I became determined to play them, but I soon found that there just aren't very many tinwhistle merchants in Memphis.

So I had to order them, and to do that, I had to use a credit card. In all, I spent more than a few hundred bucks on tinwhistles -- the hand-crafted ones can get right expensive. The hell of it is that I still can't play them, but I nevertheless get great pleasure from sitting out back in the evening and trying make music come out of them, even though it does upset dogs for miles around and summon bats to come roost in our trees.

Ever since this tinwhistle binge, my wife has changed the numbers on all the credit cards and keeps them in a secret location. She trusts me, I'm sure, but she's not taking chances.

Now I can show her this book and let her know that my behavior is downright normal -- or at least it's not too weird -- and that there are a whole slew of suburbanites out here just like me, only more so.

While Manning offers copious insights and a boatload of anecdotes and statistics to document the hows and whys of our addiction to credit, he doesn't provide much in the way of solutions. So, lacking credentials -- other than all the years I've spent slaving away to make monthly payments to credit card providers -- I'll do so for him. I'll even invoke some wisdom from Will Rogers in the bargain, who said that the quickest way to double your money is to fold it over and put it back in your pocket.

The same goes for credit cards, only the trick is to fold them hard enough -- back and forth -- to break them in half. Go ahead. Be a deadbeat. Word has it that it feels something akin to freedom. Let me know if you manage to pull it off. I need to join you.

You can e-mail David Dawson at letters@memphisflyer.com.

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