Sunday, February 21, 2016

one nation, under water...,



dailyimpact | I was there when a furniture-store owner I’ll call Chuck introduced, to a certain British-ruled, sub-tropical, behind-the-times island, the concept of hire-purchase — or, in American, rent-to-own. He started selling furniture on credit, for a small down payment and a contract to repay the balance at an astronomical interest rate. His policy scandalized everyone on the island who was rich enough not to need credit for such purposes; and was insanely popular with everyone else.

The establishment railed against what he was doing as somehow immoral, even illegal. Some legislators tried to declare it, and ban it, as “usury” (a quaint, antique sin, now regarded as about as serious as not eating fish on Friday). They decried hire purchase as a practice that would corrupt the moral fiber of poor people, which they seemed to think was somehow improved by not having furniture. They did not feel, however, that the large mortgages they held on their villas had in any way corrupted them.

Despite their disdain, the lower classes got their tables and chairs and Chuck got very rich indeed and was soon a welcome guest in the homes of the island’s rich and famous.

It was hard to follow or to credit the arguments against selling products on credit. Indeed, the upper classes — on the island as elsewhere in the world — soon abandoned all compunctions about selling on credit when they realized that selling things to people who could not afford them made them and their bankers, obscenely rich.

Since the innocent days of yesteryear, when having a mortgage was embarrassing, borrowing money was evidence of a character flaw and declaring bankruptcy was the secular equivalent of eternal damnation, debt in America has become a vast cancerous growth that now threatens the very life of its host. Let’s set aside for now the scary dimensions of public debt  (now $19 trillion and rising) and corporate debt (over $14 trillion and rising) , and focus just on the debt of individual Americans (now over $12 trillion).

Total individual debt is almost back to where it was in late 2008 when the Great Recession began. For five years after the last crash it declined, not because people were paying their debts but because foreclosures and bankruptcies were obliterating them. Since 2013 overall debt has been increasing again, but changing in nature.