5 min read

What's the Score, America?

We didn't know how completely the credit industry has intertwined itself into the fabric of American life until we were on the ground.
What's the Score, America?

Greetings fellow travelers.

I apologize in advance, but I may offend some of you today. I am not writing with that purpose. But I've got something that needs saying, even at the risk of offending. Bear with me and see if you don't see some merit in the point.

A lot of Americans appear obsessed by sports. In our new Southern hometown, the many sports bars are well-populated, and there's always a game on. In just the last few months, we've hosted a Bassmaster competition (which seems to have as much to do with fast boats as it does catching fish) and some NCAA games, and the baseball season has started up. It would be hard to exaggerate the prevalence of sports in American life.

Today's post is not about sports, however, but a game with another score. This score affects even more Americans, and it says much more about us than our favorite football teams. I am talking of course about our credit scores.

We had some idea that credit scores were important before we moved back. We didn't know how completely the credit industry has intertwined itself into the fabric of American life until we were on the ground. Actually, that's not true. The lure of credit starts as soon as your plane crosses into American airspace.

We've taken a number of flights so far on three different American airlines, flying internationally and domestically. On every flight we've been pitched some credit card offer:

  • "Limited time, today only!"
  • "Sign up on this flight to receive an extra 50,000 miles."
  • "Get priority boarding and premium lounge access."
  • "Your first two checked bags free!"

This is an utterly strange practice. I've not seen it's like anywhere else in the world, although I'm sure the U.S. can't be unique. Being asked to apply for a credit card before your plane even lands in America reinforces like nothing else that everything in the U.S. can be reduced to commercial terms. Everything is a transaction, and everyone is trying to sell you sometime. All the time.

You really have no idea how bathed we are in commerce until you're once again out of the soup that is American commercialism. We took a several week trip to Europe recently, and the feeling was a great calming sigh of relief. Aahhh, we can go to the grocery store and just buy some food. We can visit a city and just sightsee. We can take a flight to just get somewhere.

So, then we flew back to the U.S. and the Post Office delivered our held mail. "Wow, look at all these letters. I had no idea we were so popular already!" "Oh wait, that's a credit card offer. Here's another." "Why have they sent us three letters with the same offer? Ooops, this is one too." I'd say at least half of our mail was credit card offers, and most of the rest was someone trying to sell us something else. Still. I suppose we should consider this progress over what we faced upon moving to the U.S.

When we first arrived, our U.S. credit was in tatters. No U.S. address, U.S. credit cards, or payment history. No salary statement from a U.S. employer, no car loan, no mortgage. No rent payment and no mortgage. It was like we didn't exist. Our initial attempts to re-establish credit were pathetic and doomed. Do you know how hard it is to even verify your identity for credit purposes when you've been out of the U.S. for 25 years?

That said, there's nothing that motivates me more than a tough challenge. The credit score racket has defined rules in a defined system. We would work their system and win. And so work it we did, incremental step by step. No General ever surveyed the positioning of their forces splayed across the battlefield as painstakingly as we navigated the U.S. credit system.

It was only after playing the game for months that I awoke to a key realization about this obsession with credit cards and our credit scores. It's that we've been sold a bill of goods, all right, but it's not nearly as wonderful as we may be thinking. With the focus on how to improve our credit scores, we have been led unthinkingly straight past the much more important point: credit cards are a seductive evil.

Rather than trying to improve our scores and take out more credit so we can buy more things, we should be running full speed away from their illusory promise. Credit cards trap tens of millions of Americans in a spiral of usurious interest payments on debt balances they will never repay, only roll over from time to time. I can tell you two things with certainty:

  1. Nothing will keep you poor more reliably than trying to spend your way to wealth.
  2. Nothing will sap your happiness more thoroughly than thinking possessions are the way to achieve it.

We are so far gone in our embrace of credit cards that it is difficult to navigate American life today without one. And I know that having a decent credit score helps you in not overpaying on certain loans, like your mortgage. So go ahead and have one or a couple credit cards.

But let me say this: if you carry a balance on those credit cards, any balance, you are being extravagantly ripped off. There is no exception. To ignore this and see your credit card as anything but corrosive to your wellbeing, financial and otherwise, is willful blindness.

There is one upside I can see to Americans' credit card overconsumption. That is, in the pursuit of equity we have been eliminating all the ways of measuring how people perform relative to one another, but credit cards still offer an insight.

  • IQ tests were one of the first to be banished, because there were hints that average scores varied across persons of different racial backgrounds. It must be racism!
  • Then grades in high school came under assault, again because some kids got better grades than others. Classism! (In the sense that kids of wealthier parents tended to get better grades.) When a third of your class graduates as Valedictorian, it's safe to say grades have become unreliable indicators.
  • Then standardized testing for college admission had to go. Some kids scored higher than others, and here the scores had correlations to both race and class. The horror!
  • I predict it's only a matter of time until performance reviews at work become so generic that you can't really tell anything about a person's performance. Because some people will do better than others and evaluating them honestly will reveal something about them.

With the virtual elimination of any way to tell how smart someone is, how well they did in school, how suited they may be for college, and how they perform on the job, what remains? Well, the credit card might just give us an indirect view, at least into a person's intelligence. Just ask them if they've carried a balance on their credit card for more than a month (allowing for some extenuating circumstances). If they say yes, you've got your answer.

Be well.

PS - Important note for anyone reading this who themselves carries a balance on their credit card: I am not suggesting anything about your intelligence because I am sure you have good reasons. This only applies to other people.