No one wants to talk about who is most to blame for the financial crisis that now threatens the U.S. economy, though there is plenty of blame to go around. It is far easier to blame other people -- greedy Wall Street executives, predatory lenders, President Bush, federal regulators, members of Congress --than it is to look at ourselves.
For too long, Americans have been living on borrowed money they could never pay back. We've bought houses we couldn't afford and taken out loans on home equity that didn't materialize, assuming housing values would continually move upward. We've paid for every new gadget Madison Avenue hawked with credit cards whose principal we never paid down. We sent our children to college on loans, saddling them with debts that crush their futures. And all the while, we've kidded ourselves into believing the bill wouldn't come due. Now it has -- and all of us, responsible and irresponsible alike, will foot the cost.
But you will never hear this explanation from politicians who are scrambling to resolve the credit crisis. It is far easier to talk about the evil of CEO "golden parachutes" or the dangers of mortgage-backed securities and sub-prime loans. Don't get me wrong. It is obscene that executives who mismanaged their companies leave with millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains while shareholders see their investments plummet and employees lose their jobs. But until we recognize the culpability for the giant Ponzi scheme that was the housing bubble goes beyond Wall Street to Main Street, we won't really fix the problem.
The average American now owes more than $16,635 in consumer debt, excluding mortgages, according to U.S. News. A 2004 Federal Reserve Board survey found that a majority of credit card holders, 58 percent, do not pay their card balances every month. Nearly 10 percent of households owe balances of $9,000 or more on their credit cards. And young Americans are especially dependent on credit cards to finance their lifestyles. Some 76 percent of undergraduate college students have credit cards, and the average undergrad has $2,200 in credit card debt, and overall will amass nearly $20,000 in student debt during their college years, according to a 2004 study by Nellie Mae.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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