By David K. Shipler
I am old enough to remember when there were no credit cards. Yes, children, there was such a time, in the Olden Days. Personal accounts could be arranged at some local stores, which would note your purchases in a ledger, to be paid off eventually. Then some department stores—Macy’s, Sears, and the like—issued their own cards, valid for use in their stores only. Esso (now ExxonMobil) had its card for charging gas at Esso stations.
But the only real private borrowing people did was to buy a house or a car. Even student debt was minuscule. The use-everywhere piece of plastic came along later, and with it, the ease of overspending and the boom in personal debt. Under the law, national banks’ interest rates were exempt from state restrictions on usury, and their terms weren’t exactly transparent. Add the second mortgage and the home equity loan, which allowed people to treat their houses like ATM machines, and you have a nation of folks craving what they see advertised, buying insatiably, and living beyond their means.
Now, put that phenomenon onto the tectonic shifts in the American economy as it moves from an industrial age to a digital robotic age, and you have an upheaval as uncontrollable as global warming—only marginally manageable by the will of humans to make sacrifices and alter behavior. As manufacturing declined, union membership plummeted, eroding workers’ clout in the marketplace of labor. Wages did not keep pace with consumers’ appetites. As high-tech jobs mushroomed, the skills gap grew, with more and more Americans unable to compete effectively in a global economy.
That’s where the current politics of rage enters the picture. Donald Trump tells people what they want to hear, but what they want to hear is a lie. It has two parts: First, everybody is at fault except yourself. Blame Mexicans. Blame Muslims. Blame “losers.” Blame liberal Democrats. Blame corporations that move jobs abroad.
Second, solve the problems with a sweep of the hand: Ban Mexicans. Ban Muslims. Discard “losers.” Make deals. Run Democrats out of office. Isolate the U.S. from world trade. Bar corporations from closing factories here and opening them there.