by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
April 10, 2009
THE ROWBOAT AND THE DESTROYER: A PARABLE
BRADENTON, April 10, 2009 -- Somewhere in the godforsaken waters off Somalia, a rowboat with four pirates and a brave hostage aboard is holding off an American destroyer. A rowboat is a launch that has run out of gas, which is why it no longer merits the more elegant name. But the pirates aboard are defiant and determined to succeed, and have threatened to kill their hostage if attacked.
American consumers are in the same boat: They have no money, and the huge credit card issuers who gave them credit are parked at their door, so the consumers are holding the last of their own cash hostage. They threaten to declare bankruptcy if the destroyer doesn't back off or tries to destroy their credit. At least, that's the boat I'm in.
I'm like tens of millions of consumer who have lost their jobs, lost their homes or half their home's value, lost the pension money, lost the IRAs and the 401Ks and the Keoughs, maybe lost their wife or husband due to stress, and face giant bills without the income to pay them.
Today, I got a bill from Home Depot, which wanted $43 for this month's payment on a $277 balance (nothing is past due). Last month, with a slightly higher balance, the payment was $10. I know Home Depot is going broke. They don't know whether I am or not, but as an institution, it's hard to care about individuals; individuals only disrupt the nice, neat flow of funding.
Bankruptcy is anathema to me, but that feeling is visceral. My hard-working Republican mother and father would never contemplate doing all they needed to do to get out of debt. Their liberal Democratic son doesn't like it any better, but what are his choices? There is not enough money out there to hire a 62-year-old online newspaper editor, not when large numbers of J school graduates willing to work for almost nothing are standing at their doors, desperately afraid the adless local newspaper is going under at any moment.
He can spend his few hundred dollars in savings or he can declare bankruptcy and blow away $43,000, and then try to live without credit on social security checks of $412 a month. His indecision and pain is well deserved, because he didn't husband his money well, yet the choices remain the same. Pay until you are broke, or pay until you are almost broke, declare bankruptcy, and survive for the next 30 years on almost nothing.
I could sell my home for half of what I paid for it and pay off my debts and then nurture the remaining $30,000 for the rest of my life. That's almost an attractive proposition, and probably the "honest" thing to do. But is honesty black and white? Does the contract I have with all my host of creditors survive the many thousands they've charged me in late and overlimit fees, 24% and 27% and 31% interest rates and shortened payment cycles? They've changed the contract dozens of time, collectively - can't I change my inner contract just once?
A rowboat against a destroyer. Why don't they just kill me? Or why don't I spend my last few bucks on a lawyer and go out and sue them to death? That's the American Way, or so it's become these days.
I would also note that none of the large number of mass murders we've seen lately have been carried out by rich people, or even solid middle-class people with good-paying jobs, moderate debt loads and ample savings. In Binghamton (13 dead) and Alabama (9 dead), jobs had been lost, slights had been felt, shame was lurking deep within the desperate souls of men who could not face this new world of huge destroyers at the door, and live.
As President Obama promises hope and Sen. Chris Dodd promises credit card relief, I am picking up my paddle. They don't seem to believe high interest rates and overlimit and late payment fees are a real problem. They don't think in terms of having a total of $300 in their banking accounts and how to make a minimum payment of $10 plus a late fee of $39 and still be able to eat. That is the last thing they worry about, even if on some level they are good and compassionate men. They just do not know what it's like, and they just aren't offering help. They are standing on the bridge of the destroyer, ready to fire, watching me and my hostage cash.
Being it's Good Friday, and American Express has just called (they forgave the late fee) and Home Depot has just gotten its pound of flesh, I may not die today. Jesus may have thought the same thing. They'd whipped him and beaten him and hung him on a cross. Wasn't that enough?
The phone just rang, and a long silence ensued - that's another creditor, trying to get through a long list of debtors, giving up on me. I just hope I can outpaddle the rest of them.