Financing the American Dream

Financing the American Dream

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Financing the American Dream, subtitled "A Cultural History of American Credit," takes a hard look at the effect that consumer credit facilities have on the social values in modern American culture. The author, an assistant professor of history at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., and the featured speaker at ABI's annual NCBJ luncheon (see p. 1), investigates whether the increasing role of consumer credit as a means to facilitate consumer spending has changed America's traditional work ethic.


Others who have reviewed the book give it high marks for content and style. Prof. Calder writes clearly and with a lot of energy while presenting the rise of the use of credit in America from the 1890s to the present. His thesis is that Americans see having access to credit facilities, primarily credit cards, as a right—indeed, a necessity.

Consider a person on an average day. He or she gets up in the morning, removes pajamas purchased at Saks Fifth Avenue with a Mastercard, showers using shampoo purchased from the local pharmacy using a Visa card and gases up at a Chevron using an American Express card before stopping for breakfast, which will be paid for with a Discover Card.

With the advent of the Internet, which provides almost instant gratification of every consumer's dreams as long as there is a credit card number to punch into the computer, the credit facility has moved from one used to allow the purchase of big-ticket items on installments to a medium of exchange for household purchases as common as gift-wrapping paper.

Prof. Calder provides information that might strike some as astounding. For instance, American consumer indebtedness has skyrocketed from $5.7 billion in 1945 to $1.266 trillion in 1998. He also points to the explosion of credit facilities available from Gold, Platinum, Silver and other cards to special credit cards that allow purchases only from one store. Today, banks are not the only lenders, and every major corporation has its own method of lending to consumers to spur purchasing.

With the growth of lenders, the base of borrowers has changed to include minorities, demographic groups based on age and gender, and people with poor credit ratings. As accessibility has increased, so has the clamor about the loss of traditional values such as the work ethic, patience in making purchases, prudent savings and general restraint as it pertained to not spending what you don't actually have.

Credit put women to work, according to the professor, as the need for additional income to pay off credit debt increased. There are many ills that have come from consumerism, but what about budgetism? Has the American family actually lost the self-discipline that was a hallmark of the apparently more frugal post-World War II generations?

[I]s the [American] dream to work hard to keep the metaphorical credit plates spinning on the end of the sticks so as not to cause the consumer's economic world to collapse?

Therein lies one of the more remarkable features of Prof. Calder's book. He looks well beyond the surface and suggests that all the facts and figures that point to the loss of the real American dream of responsible spending need a different look. Below the frothing surface of the sea of debt today lies the same hard work required to handle finances that has always existed in American culture.

The dream is the same, and the responsibility and work required to manage finances based on credit are the same as those required to deal with finances based on actual earnings. "What Americans did on the installment plan was to transform consumer culture into a suitable province for more work." And so ends the professor's thesis. But is the dream to work hard to keep the metaphorical credit plates spinning on the end of the sticks so as not to cause the consumer's economic world to collapse? Read all about it, and then—dream on. You may find a new and interesting theory for rationalizing that overspending is the real American way.

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Saturday, December 1, 2001