By Lynn Paris
Last night we watched a horror movie. It’s not that we set out to watch a horror movie, but that’s how sitting through the documentary Maxed Out made us feel. You know how when a film is about two-thirds done and you say, “I don’t think I can stand to watch this any more; it’s too horrifying?” That kind of horror movie.
Actually, Maxed Out is to the banking and credit card industry what Sicko was to HMOs and healthcare and SuperSize Me was to the fast food industry; it’s filmmaker James Scurlock’s scathing indictment of lending practices in this country. And as angry as the other two made me, this one hit home with even more power than the others for two reasons. The first is that it clearly demonstrated the complicity of the President and Congress (and not just this President and this Congress) in the financial debacle in which we find ourselves. On a personal level, it was painful simply because I’ve lived almost everything depicted on that screen; we could relate to most of the horror stories we were watching. Thank God we were able to watch the film having come out the other end of our story whole again; many are not so fortunate.
It’s almost impossible to believe, but back in the early 70s a family of four could afford a lovely home, two cars, and all the necessities plus some luxuries on ONE middle-class person’s salary and no credit cards. My husband took the train to work and I stayed home and raised the kids. Like Leave It To Beaver, or Happy Days. In fact, they were happy days, because in the 70s there was a middle-class, and we were firmly entrenched in it. I remember now, as though it were a fairy tale, when I decided to go back to college and get my degree, that there was no need for a student loan and no worrying about the expense of me attending a private college in New York. A woman cleaned our house every week. When one of us got sick, we went to the doctor of our choice and paid him directly after our office visit. We took yearly vacations. We belonged to a rather posh beach club. No, we were not rich, not by any means. That’s just what being middle-class meant!
By the late 1980s, I’d been divorced for ten years, working for ten years, and had been utterly seduced by credit cards. Everyone I knew paid for everything with credit cards; they had become the status symbols of the middle-class. When your card went from green to gold it was even more impressive to whip it out, and once it turned platinum, it was a symbol of your success. I earned enough to easily manage the very low monthly payments, and it was exciting to be able to get a new TV for only $15 a month. I was hopelessly naïve. Not just naïve; I didn’t really care. As long as it only cost me a small amount every month, I was oblivious to how much more I’d be paying for that TV, that refrigerator, that car. Interest rates on credit cards were still quite low, and late fees were around $5.00 a month. I didn’t get it, and I don’t think very many people did; credit cards were part of our culture and it was considered cool to have an assortment of them in your wallet.
Fast forward to the present, which is where we all meet in Maxed Out. Most of us baby-boomers continued our addiction to credit even as the interest rates, penalties, and late fees were raised to obscene levels. Some of us were forced to use credit to pay for necessities when our circumstances changed. Some took cash advances to make their mortgage payments. Soon many of us found ourselves drowning in debt. Some of us resorted to filing for bankruptcy and starting from scratch. We were the lucky ones; at least we got a second chance. And even as the credit card companies had us in their grasp, they trolled for millions of additional customers, no longer among the credit-worthy, but among the most vulnerable—single moms, college students, the poor, anyone who might be a bad risk, because that’s where the big money could be made.
Of course the credit card companies are run by the same banks that brought us the enticing adjustable rate mortgage now forcing thousands into foreclosure. And those huge banks—sacred institutions like Citicorp, MNBA and Bank of America—have actually branched out. In their desire to squeeze every last dime out of the dying middle class, they also own the small “Mom and Pop” loan shops and credit unions and consolidate/clean-up-your credit operations. And all of them are in collusion with the credit bureaus, the ones who issue your credit score, which determines the interest rate you’ll pay on your house or car. Finally, there’s the biggest conspirator of all, our federal government. No matter how many subcommittees hearings, legislation suggested, or bills passed, ALL favor the banks and the lending institutions in their war against the middle class, because they ALL put gargantuan sums of money into the campaigns and pockets of the Congress and the President.
For anyone who’s ever struggled to get out of debt (which appears to be about 90% of Americans); for anyone who’s ever attempted to get their credit reported corrected (they are notoriously filled with inaccuracies and close to impossible to fix; trust me, I’ve tried); and for anyone who thinks the government will ultimately find a solution (as it bankrupts the Social Security Fund to pay off the interest on the staggering national debt); this film will indeed be a horror show. What it did for us was to illuminate the depth of this frightening financial situation, but also leave us with the depressing conclusion that short of a revolution of massive proportion, there’s no way out for individuals, or for a country that’s totally
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