Monday, December 3, 2007

Maxed Out: a look into the soul of American culture

I recently read a really great book entitled Maxed Out and was written by James Scurlock. It is a follow-up to his documentary of the same name and was very intriguing and entertaining. Scurlock himself appears to have moderate left views on politics, but I did find his look into the spread of the credit card and the nature of the housing market as it relates to the mortgage industry very well done.

The examples he provided were great as well, although he seemed to be much more emotional then needed toward the end. I will say that half the people who were stuck in debt were their because of their own lack of sense and not because it was forced on them. I really only felt sorry for the mentally retarded mother and her son and how they will probably be losing their homes due to banks taking advantage of their mental condition. Honestly, we need the government (and this is one of the few times I will advocate government force) to reign in on the mass mailings and telemarketing that is done to the mentally retarded. I don't think they have the capacity to identify the difference between a scam and a legitimate deal. I doubt the government will do anything and they probably could get help from other people who could help them screen through their mail and help manage their finances without going into debt (after all, what's a mentally retarded person need a credit card for?).

But most other people I had little sympathy for, to be honest. Most of them needed to just switch jobs or get a second one the shore up income. In some cases, there were people who probably needed to seek out help from a charity. There were few cases where people were legitimately wronged (the lady who was declared 'dead' on her credit report due to clerical error and the subsequent legal blockades to change that simple falsehood). But many of the people were not using their credit responsibly or managing their lives appropriately and now they were suffering.

I think the biggest story he pushed was the one about the woman who racked up gambling debts and subsequently committed suicide when she found her husband would be getting a credit report. Apparently, though, she had been hounded by collection agencies and God only knows what they threatened to do with their information. While her suicide was unnecessary and good Christian Charity (that is, love) would have resolved her issue, she choose to take her life for fear of being exposed.

This speaks volumes to me on the state of the soul of the American culture. Like or not, we are all about excess and materialism while we have no bones about getting there any which way we can. The broke and the in-between classes (that is, the poor and the middle class) will do anything to get something that makes them look successful whether it be a nice cell phone, a luxury car, or a huge house. And the salespeople are more than happy to help them finance it.

I personally don't hold any credit cards. My wife has one, but it is work-related and only for when she needs to make a purchase for the store she works in. I told her that if there is any outstanding balance on it when she decides to leave, that the owner would need to take on the balance and the card should be canceled immediately. Maybe we can convince him to just save up whatever the limit is on the card and use a debit card for emergency purchases.

I believe that debt is dumb. It is never referred to in the Bible in a positive light (in fact, sin is often referred to as a debt we owe God) and while it is not a sin itself to have, it is not wise to have it either. Debt means you are not free and that you owe the lender money for the stuff you have obtained.

This documentary and book have both served to confirm these simple truths. The government, as Scurlock demonstrates, does little to regulate or stop this madness. I don't expect them to and I hope that our society can survive this test of fire to understand that playing with such things doesn't lead to prosperity, just false hope. I myself have made a pledge to not go into any more debt, except for a home mortgage on a home I plan on living in for more than the duration of the mortgage payments, because I do not want to be stuck in a perpetual rut financially.

James Scurlock does complain a lot about how the government hasn't handled itself properly in all matters concerning banking, but he also shows us how the government protects the banking industry. I ask, why do we need the government to do so? With good education and straight facts, the American consumer can become more enlightened and will eventually understand that debt is never the answer to troubles. Only then will we truly be free of the elites. Until then, I hope that many consumer advocates will keep on pushing out the facts and that people will listen and think about what is said.