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Archive for Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Assigning blame for debt crisis

May 6, 2008

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She hooked me with the word "debt."

"The word alone causes people's blood pressure to rise. It's a hard-sounding word, phonetically in sync with its impact on people's lives," writes Tamara Draut in the foreword to the compelling "Up to Our Eyeballs: How Shady Lenders and Failed Economic Policies Are Drowning Americans in Debt."

Draut is director of the Economic Opportunity Program at the research and advocacy organization Demos, which co-published the book with the New Press.

"Up to Our Eyeballs" has a mission: to slam the folks who have pushed credit on American households for decades with little accountability for what it could do to borrowers or our nation.

Given current economic conditions, "Up to Our Eyeballs" is a timely choice as the May selection for the Color of Money Book Club. The title alone will start a debate that could go on for hours.

This well-researched book provides a historical perspective on how we got into our current financial jam. And I say "we" because all of us are feeling the ramifications of a heavily leveraged population.

For example, you may be able to handle your monthly mortgage payment but if your neighbors can't, their eventual foreclosure may affect your property values and ultimately your ability to sell or refinance your home.

"Up to Our Eyeballs" was written by Jose Garcia, James Lardner and Cindy Zeldin, all researchers who work on issues of economic opportunity and security.

Lardner is a senior fellow at Demos and editor of Inequality.org. Garcia is a senior research and policy associate at Demos. Zeldin formerly worked in federal affairs for Demos and is currently pursuing a doctorate in heath policy at Emory University.

Assigning blame

Rather than launch an attack on consumers, who admittedly signed up for their debt burden, "Up to Our Eyeballs" looks at the government policies and business practices that have allowed many financial institutions to help people dig their own debt grave.

Garcia, Lardner and Zeldin don't just point a finger at lenders, they poke them in the eye.

"Set free by two decades of deregulation, today's creditors have cooked up products that are so complicated, deceptive, and trap-laden that even the most sophisticated borrowers can't tell a good loan from a bad one," the authors write.

Some of the stories in the book are heart-wrenching and all too familiar, such as the 70-year-old retiree who was persuaded to refinance her home into an adjustable-rate mortgage that started at $832 a month and eventually jumped to more than $1,400. The mortgage was more than the woman's monthly income.

Seriously, I want to throw the person who made that loan in jail. It's an inhumane way to do business.

Relaxed lending standards have helped more families become homeowners and more people to attend college. But financial institutions and regulators have failed to keep the debt spiral from getting out of control.

Rising costs

Too often, too much blame falls on consumers, who are depicted largely as materialistic spendthrifts.

That's only part of the problem, the authors say.

"Are some of us spending money we don't have on things we don't need? Absolutely," they concede. "Does that fact explain the more than $2 trillion of household debt that American families are carrying? Not even remotely."

Consumers aren't just buying big-screen televisions with all that debt. They are using it to get a college education, pay for medical services or buy groceries.

For instance, a typical two-earner family today spends about 80 percent more on housing, 74 percent more on health insurance, and 42 percent more on transportation than that same typical family in the early 1970s, according to research in the book.

"Americans are borrowing more because incomes have failed to keep up with the cost of health care, housing, and other basic needs," the authors write.

The book is not just a rant. It also contains practical solutions. But what makes it worth the read is how angry it should make you. And ticked-off people tend to help facilitate change.

Comments

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 5 years, 11 months ago

"For instance, a typical two-earner family today spends about 80 percent more on housing, 74 percent more on health insurance, and 42 percent more on transportation than that same typical family in the early 1970s, according to research in the book."But the wealthiest 1% of the population who profited from the "Reagan" revolution that got us here have done quite nicely.

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