Re-examine the notion of consumer credit


I heard that the size of the consumer debt of an average Canadian household was $44,000. I was surprised how fast the perception of ‘credit’ had changed. The notion of ‘consumer credit’ is relatively new. Thirty years ago, credit cards were privileges accorded to only credit-worthy people. When I was living in Southern Africa during the seventies’, I had a relatively comfortable income as a lecturer of an university. Many of my white colleagues had Diner’s Club and/or American Express cards. But my credit card application was rejected probably because my name put me into a category of a certain racial group. None of my black colleagues had credit cards. As soon as I moved to Switzerland, I got a credit card. I don’t condone race-based criteria, but being refused a credit card taught me that credit isn’t a necessary prerequisite for life. Nevertheless, I wonder if the time has come to examine the current financial crisis in the light of what the whole notion of credit should be.

A few decades ago, many Evangelical Christians preached against debt. They quoted the Bible, “Owe no-one anything” (Romans 13:8) as the basis for rejecting consumer credit. I don’t usually accept a literal interpretation of the Scriptures. However, we are facing a crisis of the financial system today. I wonder if my evangelical friends were onto something we should think about. An older version of the Lord’s Prayer uses “Forgive us our debt” with the implication that debt is a sin or a transgression. This sounds very strong. But I wonder if we have moved too far to the other extreme. Guilt free debt and greed have become “cool.” People have no patience for delayed gratification: “I want it, so I get it right now, and pay later.” People feel entitled to own stuff without responsibility. There is a problem here. I just wonder if time has come to think about uncool things like discipline, frugality, and patience. People who lived through the depression of the thirties used to speak about those values. “Consumer credit” is a given in our economy today, but perhaps we need to consider the point at which it “trespasses” against common sense and other important values.

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