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1 $!i THE CREDlT CARD: PRlVATE TROUBLES AND PUlLlC SSUES <:lit C'ldlt Ctl'ld: ~'lltjtlt <:l'lou6ls tlnd ~u6llc jssus GEORGE RTZER Th Univrsity of Maryland Crdit cards ar a takn-far-grantd and convnint mans to "pay" for things that w want or nd. Howvr, in this slction Gorg Ritzr hlps us sc anothr sid of crdit cards and thir impact on our livs. His focus is on how crdit cards gnrat what C. Wright Mills calld prsonal troubls and public issus. As you rad this articl, think about th rol crdit cards play in your own lif. Ar thy th sourc of a prsonal troublfor you? C7"'h crdit card has bcom an Amrican icon t is trasurd, '~vn worshippd, in th Unitd Stats and, incrasingly, throughout th rst of th world Th crdit card xprsss somthing about th ssnc of modrn Amrican socity and, lik an xprss train, is spding across th world's landscap dlivring Amrican (and mor gnrally consumr) cultur. My goal is to xplain what th crdit card tlls us, both good and (mainly) bad, about th ssnc of modrn Amrica as wll as why and how th crdit card is hlping to transform much of th world. Th crdit card is not th first symbol of Amrican cultur to play such a rol, nor will it b th last. Othr important contmporary Amrican icons includ Coca-Cola, Lvis, Marlboro, Disny, and "Th Crdit Card: Privat Troubls and Public ssus," by Gorg Ritzr, rprintd from Expmsing Amlica: A Clitiqu of th Global Crdit Card Socity, Copyright by Pin Forg Prss. Pp McDonalds. What thy hav in common is that, lik crdit cards, thy ar products at th vry hart of Amrican socity, and thy ar highly valud by, and hav had a profound ffct on, many othr soci ) tis throughout th world. Howvr, th crdit card is distinctiv bcaus it is a mans that can b usd to obtain thos othr icons, as wll as virtually anything ls availabl in th world's marktplacs. t is bcaus of this gratr vrsatility that th crdit card may prov to b th most important Amrican icon of all. f nothing ls, it is likly to continu to xist long aftr othr icons hav bcom footnots in th history of Amrican cultur. Whn th Unitd Stats has an ntirly nw st of icons, th crdit card will rmain an important mans for obtaining thm. S <Zh ;4dvantags of Crdit Cards... Th most notabl advantag of crdit cards, at last at th socital lvl, is that thy prmit popl to spnd mor than thy hav. Crdit cards thrby allow th conomy to function at a much highr (and fastr) lvl than it might if it rlid solly on cash and cash-basd instrumnts. Crdit cards also hav a numbr of spcific advantags to consumrs, spcially in comparison to using cash for transactions: Crdit cards incras our spnding powr, thrby allowing us to njoy a mor xpansiv, vn luxurious lifstyl Crdit cards sav us mony by prmitting us to tak advantag of sals, somthing that might not b possibl if w had to rly on cash on hand. Crdit cards ar convnint. Thy can b usd 24 hours a day to charg xpnditurs by phon, mail, or hom computr. * Thus, w nd no longr b inconvnincd by th fact that most shops and malls clos ovrnight. Thos whos mobility is limitd or who ar housbound can also still shop

2 $ THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC ssues $ ~ THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC SSUES \$ Crdit cards can b usd virtually anywhr in th world, whr as cash (and crtainly chcks) cannot so asily cross national bor drs. For xampl, w ar ahl to travl from Paris to Rom on th spur of th momnt in th middl of th night without wor rying about whthr w hav, or will b abl to obtain on arrival, talian lira. Crdit cards smooth out consumption by allowing us to mak purchass vn whn our incoms ar low f w happn to b laid off, w can continu to liv th sam lifstyl, at last for a tim, with th anticipatlon that w will payoff our crdit card balancs whn w ar calld back to work. W can mak mr gncy purchass (of mdicin, for xampl) vn though w may hav no cash on hand. Crdit cards allow us to do a bttr job of organizing our financs, bcaus w ar providd ach month with a clar accounting of xpnditurs and of mony du. Crdit cards may yild itmizd invoics of tax-dductibl xpnss, giving us systmatic rcords at tax tim. Crdlt cards allow us to rfus to pay a disputd bill whil th crdit card company invstigats th transaction. Crdit card rcipts also hlp us in disputs with mrchants. Crdit cards giv us th option of paying our pills all at onc or of strtching paymnts out ovr a lngth of tim. Crdit cards ar safr to carry than cash is and thus hlp to rduc cash-hasd crim1 Of cours, crdit cards also carry advantags to mrchants. Mrchants who accpt crdit cards ar, for xampl, likly to gain a grat dal of businss thy would not othrwis gt And, unlik cash in th till, crdit card rcipts ar not magnts for thivs. *Th lattr will soon bcom mor convnint with th dvlopmnt of a gnrally availabl mthod of charglng purchass in cybrspac. S John Markoff "A Crdit Card for On-Lin Sprs." Nw York Tims, Octobr 15, 1994, pp. 37, ! r ~ Thn thr ar th comparativ disadvantags associatd with cash and chcks. For xampl, cash is far mor transint than crdit cards and can thrfor mor asily h stoln, lost, dstroyd, or simply worn out. t is also not as portabl as crdit cards bcaus it is bulky, spcially in larg amounts, and it is not asily usd in othr countris. Finally, to run a cash conomy-to "print, mint, rplac, circulat, protct" mony-costs a grat dal 2 n contrast, crdit cards hav no dirct cost to th stat Th crdit card companis foot th bills out of profits drivd from thir crdit card businss. Chcks hav vn gratr problms. Thy, too, can b stoln, lost, dstroyd, or (lss likly) worn oul. Forgry is an vr-prsnt problm with chcks. Chcks ar also awkward to us. For xampl, ach chck must b writtn out individually, many placs do not honor chcks, and vn thos that do frquntly rquir on or mor forms of idntification Crdit card us has boomd bcaus of its advantags as wll as th disadvantags of its main comptitors-cash and chcks. Howvr, cash and chcks do hav som advantags ovr crdit cards. For xampl, cash and oftn chcks can b usd at no cost to th consumr, whras crdit cards oftn nd up ntailing substantial xpns. Mor important, cash and chcks avoid many of th social problms associatd with crdit ;4 Ky ~roblm with Crdit Cards n th cours of th twntith cntury, th Unitd Stats has gon from a nation that chrishd savings to on that rvrs spnding, vn spnding byond on's mans... At on tim, dbt was somthing to b avoidd at all costs, but today popl sm to b rushing into dbt as quickly and as dply as possibl. nstad of bing masurd by th amount of mony w hav in th bank, w ar likly to b valuatd on th basis of how far w hav plungd into dbt Th status symbol of an vr-incrasing bank balanc has bn rplacd by ffol1s to imprss our frinds with th magnitud of our mortgag 133

3 THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC [SSUES THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC SSUES loans and hom quity lins of crdit, as wll as th numbr of crdit cards w possss and thir uppr limits. At th lvl of th national govrnmnt, our addiction to spnding is manifst in a onc-unimaginabl lvl of national dbt, th normous growth rat of that dbt, and th widsprad blif that th national dbt cannot b Significantly rducd, lt alon liminatd. As a prcntag of gross natlonal product (GNP), * th fdral dbt dclind rathr stadily aftr World War, raching 33.3% in Howvr, it thn ros dramatically, raching almost 73% of GNP in n dollar trms, th fdral dbt was just undr $1 trillion in 1981, but by Sptmbr 1993, it had mor than quadrupld, to ovr $4.4 trillion] Thr is widsprad far that a hug anl growing fdral dbt may bankrupt th nation and a nar consnsus that it will advrsly affct futur gnrations. Our addiction to spnding is also apparnt among th aggrgat of Amrican citizns. Total prsonal savings was lss in 1991 than in ~ 1984, in spit of th fact that th population was much largr in \ Savings fll again in th arly 1990s from about 5.2% of d isposabl incom in lat 1992 to approximatly 4% in arly A far smallr prcntag of familis (43.5%) had savings accounts in 1989 than did in 1983 (61. 7%) 5 And th citizns of many othr nations hav a far highr savings rat. At th sam tim, our indbtdnss to banks, mortgag companis, crdit card firms, and so on is incrasing far mor dramatically than similar indbtdnss in othr nations. Dwindling or nonxistnt savings accounts ar a big problm for individual Amricans. Most popl hav littl or no financial rsrvs, to sustain thm if thy should find thmslvs unmployd and without stady incom. n othr words, most popl ar abl to surviv only from paychck to paychck. Many of thos sam popl ow comparativly larg sums of mony to banks, mortgag companis, 'Whil th Lrm GNP is still usd for historical purposs, it should b Tmd that th trm GOP (gross domstic product) is now prfrrd. S Gary E. Clayton and Martin Grhard Gisbrcht A Guid to Eviyday Economic Statistics. Nw York: McGraw-Hill, ( j t j and crdit card firms ($777.3 billion altogthr in 1991, as compard to $350.3 billion in 1980)6 With littl or nothing in th way of savings, such popl ar likly to dscnd rapidly into dlinquncy and ultimatly bankruptcy if Lhy should los thir jobs. n fact, many hav plungd so dply into dbt that thy ar in dangr of bing forcd into bankruptcy vn whil thy ar mployd Who..'Js to Blam? Th choking lvl of indbtdnss that facs th fdral govrnmnt (as wll as stat and local govrnmnts), th aggrgat of Amricans, and many individual Amricans is a significant problm. Who is to blam for this situation? Th main suspcts ar th individual, th govrnmnt, businss, and banks and olhr financial institutions. Clh jndividual n a socity that is inclind to "psychologiz" all problms, w ar likly La blam individuals for not saving nough, for spnding too much, and for not putting sufficint prssur on officials to rstrain govrnmnt xpnditurs. W also tnd to "mdicaliz" ths problms, blaming thm on conditions that ar thought to xist within th individual.? On clinical psychologist notd, "Just about vryon [ trat] who has an ating disordr-bulimia, bulimarxia or just plain ovrating, or who has a drug problm-also has th spnding disordr."8 Although thr ar lmnts of truth to psychologistic and mdicalistic prspctivs, thr is also a strong lmnt of what sociologists trm "blaming th victim." That is, although individuals bar som of th rsponsibility for not saving, for accumulating mounting dbt, and for prmitting thir lctd officials to spnd far mor than th govrnmnt taks in, in th main individuals hav bn victimizd by a social and financial systm that discourags saving and ncourags indbtdnss. Why ar w so inclind to psychologiz and mdicaliz problms lik indbtdnss? for on thing, Amrican cultur strongly mpha 135

4 THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC SSUES THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC SSUES sizs individualism W tnd to trac both succss and failur to individual fforts, not largr social condltions. For anothr, larg social and financial systms xpnd a grat dal of tim, nrgy, and mony sking, oftn succssfully, to convinc us that thy ar not rsponsibl for socitys problms. ndividuals lack th ability and th rsourcs to similarly "pass th buck." Of prhaps gratst importanc, howvr, is th fact that individual, spcially mdical, problms appar to b amnabl to tratmnt and vn sm curabl. n contrast, larg-scal social problms (pollution, for xampl) sm far mor intractabl. t is for ths, as wll as many othr rasons, that Amrican socity has a strong tndncy to blam individuals for social problms. <lh 00vrnmnt Whr dos th rsponsibility for high lvls of indbtdnss li if individuals ar not th main culprits? W can bgin with th fdral govrnmnt, which is smingly unabl and crtainly unwilling to rstrain its own spnding. As a rsult, it is forcd to tax at a high lvl and thrby to drain funds from individuals that othrwis could b usd to incras prsonal savings and to draw down dbt. Sinc th fdral d bt bing bgan in 1981, th govrnmnt has also bn rsponsibl for crating a chmat in which financial imprudnc sms accptabl. Aftr all, th public is ld to fl, if it is accptabl for th govrnmnt to liv byond its mans, why can't individual citizns do th sam? f th govrnmnt can smingly go on borrowing without facing th consquncs of its dbt, why can't individuals? f th fdral govrnmnt truly wantd to addrss socity's problms, it could clarly do far mor both to ncourag individual savings and to discourag individual dbt. For xampl, th govrnmnt could lowr th taxs on incom from savings accounts or vn mak such incom tax-fr. Or it could lvy highr taxs on organizations and agncis that ncourag individual indbtdnss. Th govrnmnt could also do mor to control and rstrain th dbt-crating and dbt-incrasing activitis of th crdit card industry. Businss Although som of th blam for socitys dbt and savings problm must b placd on th fdral govrnmnt, th bulk of th l'sponsibility blongs with thos organizations and agncis associatd with our consumr socity that do all thy can to gt popl to spnd not only all of thir incom but also to plung into dbt in as many ways, and as dply, as possibl W can bgin with Amrican businss Thos in manufacturing, rtailing, advrtising, and markting (among othrs) dvot thir working hours and a larg portion of thir nrgis to figuring out ways of gtting popl to buy things that thy probably do not nd and that many of thm cannot afford. Thr is no nd to ritrat hr historic criticisms of ths ky lmnts of th capitalistic systm, but it might b worth noting a fw of th mor rcnt dvlopmnts. On xampl is th dramatic prolifration of sductiv catalogs that ar maild to our homs. Anothr is th advnt and rmarkabl gmwth in popularity of th tlvision hom shopping ntworks. What ths two dvlopmnts hav in common is thir ability to allow us to spnd our mony quickly and fficintly without vr laving our homs. Bcaus th crdit card is th prfrrd way to pay for goods purchasd through ths outlts, catalogs and hom shopping ntworks also hlp us incras our lvl of indbtdnss Banks and Othr ~inancial..1nstitutions Th historical mission of banks was to ncourag savings and discourag dbt. Today, howvr, banks and othr financial institutions lad us away from savings and in th dirction of dbt. Saving is discouragd by, most importantly, th low intrst rats paid by banks. t sms foolish to popl to put thir mony in th bank at an intrst rat of, say, 25% and thn to pay taxs on th intrst, thrby lowring th ral rat of rturn to 2% or vn lss. This practic sms spcially asinin whn th inflation rat is, for xampl, J% or 4%

5 THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLlC SSUES Undr such conditions, th savr's mony is dclining in valu with ach passing yar. [t sms obvious to most popl that thy ar bttr off spnding mony bfor it has a chanc to los any mor valu. Whil banks ar discouraging savings, thy ar in various ways ncouraging dbt. On good xampl is th high lvl of comptition among th banks (and othr financial institutions) to offr hom quity lins of crdit to consumrs. As th nam suggsts, such lins of crdit allow popl to borrow against th quity thy hav built up in thir homs. f on owns a $200,000 hom but ows th bank only $120,000 on th mortgag, thn on has $80,000 of quity in th hous. Banks agrly lnd popl mony against this quity Laving th quity in th hous is a kind of savings that apprciats with th valu of th ral stat, but borrowing against it allows popl to buy mor goods and srvics. n th procss, howvr, thy acquir a larg nw dbt. And th hous itslf could b lost if on is unabl to pay ithr th original mortgag or th hom quity loan. Th crdit card is yt anothr invntion of th banks and othr financial institutions to gt popl to sav lss and spnd mor. [n th past, only th rlativly wll-to-do wr abl to gt crdit, and gtting crdit was a vry cumbrsom procss (involving lttrs of crdit, for xampl). Crdit cards dmocratizd crdit, making it possibl for th masss to obtain at last a minimal amount Crdit cards ar also far asir to us than prdcssors lik lttrs of crdit. Crdit cards may thus b sn as convnint mchanisms whrby banks and othr financial institutions can lnd larg numbrs of popl what collctivly amounts to an normous amount of mony. Normally, no collatral is ndd to apply for a crdit card 9 Th mony advancd by th crdit card firms can b sn as borrowing against futur arnings. Howvr, bcaus thr is no collatral in th convntional sns, th crdit card companis usually fl fr to charg usurious intrst rats. Crdit cards crtainly allow th popl who hold thm to spnd mor than thy othrwis would. Many cardholdrs pay thir bills in full ach month, but a substantial majority ar in prptual dbt to th crdit card companis. Whn a crdit limit on on card is THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC SSUES rachd, anothr card may b obtaind. Som popl vn mak monthly paymnts on on crdit card by taking cash advancs from anothr card. Othrs, ovrwhlmd by crdit card dbt, tak out hom quity lins of crdit to pay it ofr. Thn, with a clan slat, at last in th ys of th crdit card companis, such popl ar rady to bgin charging again on thir crdit cards. Vry soon many of thm find thmslvs dply in dbt both to th bank that holds th hom quity loan and to th crdit card companis. A rprsntativ of th crdit card industry might say that no on forcs popl to tak out hom quity lins of crdit or to obtain crdit cards; popl do so of thir own volition and thrfor ar rsponsibl for thir financial prdicamnt Although this is crtainly tru at on lvl, at anothr lvl it is possibl to viw popl as th victims of a financial (and conomic) systm that dpnds on thm to go dply into dbt and itslf grows walthy as a rsult of that indbtdnss. Th nwspaprs, magazins, and broadcast mdia ar full of advrtismnts offring various inducmnts to apply for a particular crdit card or hom quity loan rathr than th ons offrd by comptitors. Many popl ar bombardd with mail offring all sons of attractiv bnfits to thos who sign up for yt anothr card or loan. Mor gnrally, on is mad to fl foolish, vn out of stp, if on rfuss to b an activ part of th dbtor socity Furthrmor, it has bcom incrasingly difficult to function in our socity without a crdit card. For xampl, popl who do not hav a rcord of crdit card dbt and paymnt find it difficult to gt othr kinds of crdit, lik hom quity loans, car loans, or vn mortgag loans. An jndictmnt of th ~inancial Systm Th major blam for our socitys lack of savings and our incrasing indbtdnss must b placd on th doorstp of larg institutions... Th financial systm... is rsponsibl for making crdit card dbt so asy and attractiv that many of us hav bcom dply and prptually indbtd to th crdit card firms. n offring us crdit cards and

6 \i?j THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC SSUES \i?j Bfor moving on to a mor spcific discussion of th sociological prspctiv on th problms associatd with crdit cards, on mor xampl of th way th crdit card industry has cratd problms for popl would b usful: th incrasing ffort by crdit card firms to lur studnts into possssing thir own crdit cards. Th ovr 9 million collg studnts (of which 5.6 million ar in school on a full-tim basis) rprsnt a hug and lucrativ markt for crdit card companis. According to on stimat, about 82% of full-tim collg studnts now hav crdit cards. 10 Th numbr of undrgraduats with crdit cards incrasd by 37% btwn 1988 and 1990]1 Th crdit card companis hav bn aggrssivly targting this population not '1 only bcaus of th immdiat incras in businss it offrs but also bcaus of th long-trm incom possibilitis as th studnts mov on to full-tim jobs aftr graduation To rcruit collg studnts, crdit card firms ar advrtising havily on campus, using on-campus booths to mak thir cas and vn hiring studnts to lur thir prs into th crdit card world. n addition, studnts hav bn offrd a varity of inducmnts. hav in front of m a flyr aimd at a col THE CREDT CARD: PR1VATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC SSUES othr financial instrumnts, lik hom quity loans, th banks and othr financial institutions appar to b offring us th kys to frdom. Crdit cards sm to b th mans of walth, happinss, and libration from our othrwis humdrum livs. Howvr, for many, crdit cards bcom instrumnts of bondag locking popl into a liftim of indbtdnss. Mor gnrally, crdit cards playa major rol in hlping popl bcom mor firmly mbddd in th consumr socity. Finally, popl ar lockd into a liftim of work, frquntly in unsatisfying occupations, just so thy can b activ consumrs and l \ prhaps so thy can mak mor than th minimum monthly pay mnts on thir crdit card bills. as in j)oint: 'jtting <lhm d-lookd Whil <lhy'r ")toung lg-ag audinc t proclaims that th cards hav no annual f, offr a comparativly low intrst rat, and offr "spcial studnt bnfits," including a 20% discount at rtailrs lik MusicLand and Gold's Gym and a 5!c) discount on travl. Th crdit card firms claim that th cards hlp tach studnts to b rsponsibl with mony. Th critics claim that th cards tach studnts to spnd, oftn byond thir mans, instad of saving: 'v sn kids with $50,000 to $70,000 in dbt Thy spnd mony on cloths, pizza, tuition, books, fun travl, prsnts for girlfrinds, shos, watchs, ngagmnt prsnts, proms, formals. Kids just go haywir 12 Som studnts ar vn using crdit cards to pay thir tuition. According to an xprt on crdit cards, "W ar taking th opportunity away from thm to start on a halthy foot, to b abl to tak car of thmslvs."lj Yars aftr thy hav graduatd, collg studnts may nd up paying off crdit card dbts run up in collg. Som univrsitis hav grown uncomfortabl about ths problms and mor gnrally with th incursion of crdit card companis and hav gratly rstrictd th markting of crdit cards on campus Som studnts find that thy cannot pay thir bills whil thy ar still in collg. Although parnts ar not lgally liabl for such bills, it is not unusual for parnts to pay thm... Th crdit card firms ar willing to targt collg (and high school) studnts, most of whom hav littl or no incom of thir own, bcaus thy know that parnts will oftn bail out childrn who gt into troubl with crdit card dbt n running up crdit card dbt, it can b argud, collg studnts ar larning to liv a li. Thy ar living at a lvl that thy cannot afford at th tim or prhaps vn in th futur. Thy may stablish a pattrn of consistntly living byond thir mans. Howvr, thy ar mrly postponing th day whn thy hav to pay thir dbts. Th crdit card companis hav clarly bn affctd by th critics. nsid on brochur aimd at studnts is a so-calld "Ownrs Guid to a Chas Crdit Card." Thr guidlins ar offrd: 1. f you want to play, you'v got to pay

7 1$ THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLlC THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLlC SSUES 2. f you cannot pay your ntir balanc, pay at last th minimum du. 3. f you cannot pay th minimum, do not play. Th guid closs with a "bottom lin": "To avoid a bad crd[t history, you must pay th minimum paymnt ach month." Thus, th crdit card companis ar trying to inform studnts of th potntial dangrs. Howvr, thy ar doing so in th contxt of an xtrmly activ advrtising campaign aimd at a dramatic xpansion of th us of such cards among collg studnts. Not satisfid with th invasion of collg campuss, crdit card companis hav bn dvoting incrasing attntion to high schools. On survy found that as of 1993, 32% of th countrys high school studnts had thir own crdit cards and othrs had accss to an adult's card. Strong fforts ar undrway to gratly incras that prcntag. Th prsidnt of a markting firm notd, "t usd to b that collg was th big fr-for-all for nw customrs... But now, th big push is to gt thm btwn 16 and 18.,,14 Although adult approval is rquird for a prson undr 18 yars of ag to obtain a crdit card, card companis hav bn pushing mor aggrssivly to gain gratr accptanc in this ag group. Thir fforts hav includd annual supplmnts sponsord by th Discovr card in magazins publishd by Scholastic nc. and aimd at high school studnts. On supplmnt was titld "Extra Crdit," and on th back pag was an advrtismnt dpicting a classroom, a Discovr card, and this hadlin: "Go Ahad, W'r Bhind You" Similarly, Visa has dvlopd financial ducation programs for th high schools that do not idntify Visa as th sponsor and, at last according to th company, hav th broad objctiv of taching studnts about prsonal financ. To many obsrvrs, th problms with ths programs is that th schools may b cding th rsponsibility for taching financial managmnt to organizations that hav a vstd intrst, at last to som dgr, in ncouraging financial mismanagmnt. A spoksprson for th National Association of Scondary School Principals admittd th nd for such school-sponsord pro grams but contndd that "w hav to balanc all nds against how many minuts thr ar in th day."15 f th schools do not hav tim to prpar programs in financial managmnt, th crdit card companis ar all too willing to fill th void. Howvr, th crdit card firms ar not simply trying to hlp out th schools; thir goal is also to incras thir businss. As on spoksprson for a consumr advocacy group said, "Studnts] nd to know that crdit card companis ar not doing thm a favor but ar in th businss to mak mony off thm."16 Th motivation bhind all ths programs is th industry viw that about two-thirds of all popl rmain loyal to thir first brand of card for 15 or mor yars. Thus th crdit card companis ar trying to gt high school and collg studnts accustomd to using thir card instad of a comptitor's. Th largr far is that th crdit card companis ar gtting young popl accustomd to buying on crdit, thrby crating a whol nw gnration of dbtors. A Sociology of Crdit Cards Sociology in gnral, and sociological thory in particular, offrs a numbr of ways of daling with th crdit card industry and th individuals affctd by it. Throughout much of th 20th cntury, sociological thory has bn dividd btwn macro thoris (such as structural functionalism and conflict thory) that would b most usful in analyzing th crdit card industry itslf and micro thoris (such as symbolic intractionism and phnomnological sociology) that would b most hlpful in analyzing individuals within our consumr socity. Howvr, sociological thory has gnrally bn plagud by an inability to dal in a fully adquat mannr with micromacro rlationships, such as th rlationships btwn th crdit card industry and individuals. Sociologists hav grown incrasingly dissatisfid with having to choos btwn larg-scal, macroscopic thoris and small-scal, microscopic thoris. Thus, thr has bn a growing intrst in thoris that intgrat micro and macro concrns. n Europ, xpanding intrst in what is known thr as agncy

8 \ THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC SSUES THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC ssues StrucLUr intgration parallls th incrasing Amrican proccupation with micro-macro intgration. 17 ;hills: ;brsonal <lroubls, ;bublic!ssus This nw thortical approach has important implications for th study of sociological issus... Micro-macro intgration lads th sociological study of social problms back to on of its roots in th work of th Amrican social critic and thorist C. Wright Mills ( )... of... importanc hr is th now-famous distinction mad by Mills in his 1959 work, Th Sociological magination, btwn mtcrolvl prsonal troubls and macro-lvl public issus. 18 Prsonal troubls tnd to b problms that affct an individual and thos immdiatly around him or hr. For xampl, a fathr who commits incst with his daughtr is crating prsonal troubls for th daughtr, othr mmbrs of th family, and prhaps himslf. Howvr, that singl fathr's actions ar not going to crat a public issu; that is, thy ar not likly to lad to a public outcry that socity ought to abandon th family as a social institution. Public issus, in comparison, tnd to b problms that affct larg numbrs of popl and prhaps socity as a whol. Th disintgration of th nuclar family would b such a public issu. What, thn, is th rlationship btwn ths two sts of distinctions-prsonal troubls/public issus and charactr/social structur-drivd from th work of c. Wright Mills 7 Th charactr of an individual can crtainly caus prsonal troubls. For xampl, a psychotic individual can caus problms for himslf and thos immdiatly around him. Whn many individuals hav th sam charactr disordr (psychosis, for xampl), thy can caus problms for th largr social structur (ovrtax th mntal halth systm), thrby crating a public issu. Th structur of socity can also caus prsonal troubls for th individual. An xampl might b a prsons dprssion rsulting from th disjunction btwn th culturally instilld dsir for conomic succss and th scarcity of wll-paying jobs. And th structur of socity can crat public issus, as xmj, ic rcssions and dprssions. All ths connctions and, mor gn plifid by th tndncy of th capitalist conomy to gnrat priodrally, a wid array of macro-micro rlationships ar possibl.1 9 Howvr, [our] focus... is th crdit card industry as an lmnt of social structur and th way it gnrats both prsonal troubls and public issus. A usful paralll can b drawn btwn th crdit card and cigai rtt industris. Th practics of th cigartt industry crat a vari ~ ty of prsonal troubls, spcially illnss and arly dath. Furthrmor, thos practics hav cratd a numbr of public issus (th cost to socity of dath and illnss tracabl to cigartt smok), and thus many popl hav com to s cigartt industry practics thmslvs as public issus Exampls of industry practics that hav bcom public issus ar th aggrssiv markting of cigartts ovrsas, whr rstrictions on such markting ar limitd or nonxistnt, as wll as th markting of cigartts to young popl in this country (for xampl, through advrtismnts faturing th controvrsial "Jo Caml") Similarly, th practics of th crdit card industry hlp to crat prsonal problms (such as indbtdnss) and public issus (such as th rlativly low national savings rat) Furthrmor, som industry practlcs-such as th aggrssiv markting of crdit cards to tnagrs-hav thmslvs bcom public issus. 01obalization and Amricanization A sociology of crdit cards rquirs a look at th rlationship among th crdit card industry, prsonal troubls, and public issus on a global scal. t is not just th Unitd Stats, but also much of th rst of th world, that is bing affctd by th crdit card industry and th social problms it hlps crat. To som dgr, this dvlopmnt is a rsult of globalization, a procss that is at last partially autonomous of any singl nation and that involvs th rciprocal impact of many

9 ~ THE CREDlT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC SSUES ~ > THE CREDT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC SSUES. conomis.20 n th main, howvr, Amrican crdit card companis dominat th global markt... n many countris around th world, Amricanization is a public issu that is causing prsonal troubls for thir citizns ;1ticro-;1tacro 'Rlationships Although... th macro-lvl crdit card industry crats a varity of public issus and prsonal troubls, it is important to raliz that popl, at th micro lvl, crat and r-crat that industry by thir actions. Not only did popl crat th industry historically, but thy hlp r-crat it daily by acting in accord with its dmands and xpctations. Howvr, popl also hav th capacity to rfus [0 conform to th dmands of th crdit card industry. f thy wr [0 do so on a rasonably larg scal, th industry would b forcd [0 altr th way it oprats Popl can also b mor proactiv in thir fforts to chang th crdit card industry Howvr, thr ar limits to what individuals, vn whn acting in concrt, can do about macro-lvl problms. n many cass, macro-lvl problms rquir macro-lvl solutions.. Th crdit card industry, as wll as th govrnmnt, can... dal with th public issus and prsonal troubls [causd by crdit cards]'.. 2ndnots 1Galanoy, T (980). Charg it nsid th crdit card conspiracy. Nw York Putnam. 2Galanoy, T (980). Charg it nsid th crdit card conspiracy. Nw York: Putnam, p. 53 3Board of Govrnors of th Fdral Rsrv Systm. (994). Slctd masurs, Fdml Rsrv Bulltin, 80 (5), pp. A30, A51 4Blakly, F. R 0994, March 30). Consumrs loading up on dbt again, but many viw trnd as positiv sign. Wall Strtjoumal, pp A2, A6. \ Sus Burau of th Cnsus. (1993) Statistical abstracts o[ th Unitd Stats: th d) Washington, DC: Govrnmnt Printing Offic, p U S. Burau of th Cnsus. (1992). Statistical abstracts of th Unitd Stats th d). Washington, DC: Govrnmnt Printing Offic, p Conrad, P. &: Schnidr, J (980). Dvianc and mdicalization: From baldnss to sicknss S. Louis: Mosby. 8Russll, B. (1991, May 6) Urg to spnd mony can lad to ruin, thrapy. Los Angls Tims, p 85 9Nocra, J (1994). A pic of th action: How th middl class joind th mony class. Nw York: Simon &: Schustr, p. 96. lobrooks, A. 0994, Novmbr 5). Lssons for tn-agl's: Facts o[ crditcard lif. Nw York Tims, p. 40. llcrdil cards bcom big part of campus lif 0991, Fbruary 9). Nw YOlk Tims, pp. 16,48. 12Cassidy, C. 0991, Jun 25) Chaarrrg!: Amrica's card-carrying tns. Washington Post, p Crnshaw, A. 0993, Novmbr 7). A crash cours in crdit Washington Post, p. H3. 14Mir, B. 0992, Sptmbr 5). Crdit cards on th ris in high schools. Nw York Tims, p. 9; Brooks, A 0994, Novmbr 5). Lssons for tnagrs: Facts of crdit-card lif. Nw YOlk Tims, p. 40. lsmir, B. (1992, Sptmbr 5) Crdit cards on th ris in high schools Nw York Tims, p 9. 16Mir, B. 0992, Sptmbr 5). Crdit cards on th ris in high schools. Nw York Tims, p Ritzr, G (1991). Th 1980s: Micro-macro (and agncy-structur) intgration in sociological thory. n G. Ritzr (Ed.), Mtath011zing in sociology. LXington, MA: Lxington Books, pp ; Ritzr, G. (1991) Th rcnt history and th mrging rality of amrican sociological thory: A mtathortical intrprtation. Sociological Forum 6, Mils, C. W. (1959) Th sociological imagination Nw York: Oxford Univrsity Prss

10 <9> THE CREOlT CARD: PRVATE TROUBLES AND PUBLC SSUES ~ 19Munch, R. &' Smlsr, N. (1987). Rlating th micro and macro. n J C Alxandr t al. (Eds.), Th micro-macro link Brkly: Univrsity of California Prss, pp Robrtson, R (1992). G!obCllizalioll. Social tholy and global cullwt'. London: Sag, Fathrston, M (Ed). (1990) Global cultur. Nationalism, globalization and modrnity London: Sag. Qustions 1. What dos Ritzr man whn h says that crdit cards ar an Amrican icon7 2, What ar som advantags and disadvantags of crdit cards for consum rs7 3, What is mam by privat troubls and public issus7 Explain how crdit cards qualify as both a privat troubl and a public issu. 4. What is "blaming th victim"7 Explain how and why this concpt is usd by many Amricans to xplain individual indbtdnss. 5. Examin a crdit-card application (you probably rciv svral ach month) s thr a yarly f for th card7 What is th intrst rat for an unpaid balanc? How much crdit is th company Willing to giv you7 s Ritzr right about how asily studnts can b trappd into dbt by using crdit cards7 148

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