Thursday, September 9

In Debt We Trust

In Debt We TrustI chose this movie because it was a warning about consumer credit and the national savings rate prior to the current financial crisis. Consumer debt has doubled in the last 10 years. When this movie was made in 2006, consumer debt was at about $2 trillion. When mortgages are included, total consumer debt is about $7 trillion. This money is owed to fewer and fewer companies. 10 banks dominate 92% of the industry. After our recent series of bailouts, the industry today has consolidated even more. The movie points out that the largest contributors to political campaigns in the US are these financial institutions.

The movie spends a lot of time interviewing people who are behind on their bills or shuffle debt around from one credit card to another. Another section is devoted to the marketing of cards. I think this focus on this is misplaced. A major issue mentioned in this movie and should be focused on more is the issue of rising interest rates, late fees, and finance charges. Much of this was addressed in the credit card bill passed last year. The movie also discusses rent-to-own establishments and tax advance offers with very high loans. The filmmaker also gets kudos for outing the subprime mortgage as a predatory lending scam years before it was cool to say so.

Beyond that, the biggest problem we face is that we live in a culture of consumption. Financing and refinancing mortgages, according to the movie, is creating serfdom of the 21st century. According to the people interviewed, most people will not pay off their homes during their lifetime and will spend their whole lives serving those debts. All of this is going on in an atmosphere of stagnant income and rising costs for health, housing, and education.

This movie has an honorable mission but it fails because it talks down to its viewers. The movie generally talks about deregulation and favorable court decisions. There are no specifics. The filmmaker goes to Wilmington,
Delaware to talk about political corruption but says nothing concerete about any particular law or politician. A bankruptcy attorney who was interviewed called credit cards evil. To really hit home, the movie needed to be more specific and concrete and not spend so much time in emotional fluff. Simply saying we need legislation and regulation is not a solution.

The exception to this was coverage of the 2005 Bankruptcy Bill, which the movie handled very well. Highlighting this give-away to the credit card companies is important. Ted Kennedy's floor speech was especially poignant. The bill limits the ways in which people can file for bankruptcy protection. One notable change is that, thanks to the bill, student loans can no longer be discharged in bankruptcy. This was a basically a give away to the industry. Prior to the bill, student loans were one of the most profitable types of loans. There was no need to 'reform' this type of loan. Also notable, was that the bill, passed a year after Hurricane Katrina, floods were also ruled out as a ground for bankruptcy. The recommends that we watch the K Street Gang, and I think I will. The book focuses on the Republican party, but this is a problem that affects both parties. Joe Biden is from Delaware, and both Obama and Biden voted for the Bankruptcy Bill. You can currently buy it used for $0.01 on Amazon, but, ironically enough, you need a credit card to buy it online!

No comments: