Apply subprime lessons to credit cards

Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: I don't know what all this talk is about a slowing economy, because we're spending money like it's burning a hole in our pockets, or a hole in our credit cards more properly. The Federal Reserve reported this morning, consumer credit, that's basically everything we all owe money on except our houses, rose more than 7 percent last month to $2.5 trillion worth of revolving debt.

Commentator Robert Reich says the mortgage crisis offers a valuable lesson in the hazards of our mounting credit card balances.


ROBERT REICH: Americans owe billions on their credit cards, and the price tag is mounting daily as interest charges accumulate, even though most Americans are pulling in their belts and economizing.

You see, for years credit card companies have been sending us greater and greater sounding offers, but they've been hiding how much interest they'll be charging and how they calculate the outstanding balance. They suddenly increase annual interest rates, impose high penalty fees, even shorten billing cycles to make it harder to pay on time. Now sure, they disclose their right to do this stuff when you sign up, but it's in print so small as to give you a headache even if you understand it.

In other words, credit card companies offer what look like great deals, but become nightmares for millions of Americans.

Sound familiar? It's just like what mortgage lenders were doing before the bust, but the housing bust has been something of a wakeup call, and now both Congress and the Fed are considering banning these practices.

Yet the American Bankers Association is vowing to block these reforms. It argues that stopping credit card companies from bilking their customers who get behind on their payments will increase the costs of credit to those of us who pay on time. Sound familiar? It's much the same argument mortgage lenders are using for why their abusive lending practices should be allowed to continue.

Make no mistake, the Bankers Association is a powerful lobby, and it's not just Republicans they control. Only 11 of 36 Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee have backed the bill so far, and the going is likely to be rougher in the Senate, which is why the Fed may be the only hope for protecting Americans while avoiding the kind of meltdown that hit the mortgage market.

It's another reminder of how our democracy has drifted into the hands of non-democratic agencies like the Fed, because the political branches are answerable to money interests rather than to the public interest.

RYSSDAL: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His latest book is called "Supercapitalism."

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