Getting Carded

Time magazine blames credit card consumers

Credit cards are on the agenda this week for the Senate Banking Committee, which is considering a bill that “would protect consumers from abusive credit card industry practices.” The new rules would require more disclosure on rate increases, and limit card issuers’ ability to hike rates. The passage of the bill would bring long-awaited protections for consumers.

But, bucking the conventional wisdom that consumers need help, Time magazine argues that it knows “The Real Problem with Credit Cards: The Cardholders.” Why is that?

Every penny of Americans’ nearly $1 trillion in revolving debt started with someone — some individual person — whipping out a piece of plastic and making a decision to use it. We could consider that free will and just call it a day, but there’s plenty of reason to believe the story isn’t so simple. There are piles of evidence that people are bad decision makers when it comes to how they use credit cards. Even when presented with full and fair information, they often make decisions that are not in their own economic best interest — a reality only partly taken into account by the new rules and pending legislation.

This irrational spending is the reason why, in the face of soon-to-be-enacted consumer protections, “credit-card companies, though, may not be the only ones we need to be protected from.” Reporter Barbara Kiviat goes on to cite several behavioral economics studies which suggest that people are terrible at weighing the pros and cons of spending, especially when armed with a credit card.

Once we’ve got our card in hand, our behavior becomes riddled with irrationalities. In one experiment, Drazen Prelec and Duncan Simester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that people were willing to pay twice as much for basketball tickets when they were using a credit card as opposed to paying cash. Credit-card spending just doesn’t feel like real money. In another study, Nicholas Souleles of the University of Pennsylvania and David Gross of the consultancy Compass Lexecon calculated that the typical consumer unnecessarily spends $200 a year in interest payments by keeping a sizable stash of cash in savings or checking while at the same time carrying a credit-card balance. In our heads, the two don’t line up.

Which is all fine and good, except that those illogical tendencies in human behavior are exactly what credit card companies exploit to make a profit with confusing fine print, hidden fees, low introductory rates, payment deferments, and incentives to spend more. After all, no company would make money if everyone just paid off their balance at the end of the month.

And Kiviat concedes that new disclosure rules should tailor how that information is presented with how consumers are likely to make the most sense of it. For example,

In 2007, a group of Senators introduced a bill that would have required credit-card companies to state on each billing statement how long it would take a person to pay off his balance and how much it would cost in principal and interest should he make only the minimum required payment each month.

All good points, but while the piece lays out ways that the credit card companies can improve, it lets them off the hook by omitting the ways that they prey on their customers. As it stands, the Time account intimates that credit-card consumers would benefit from stern admonitions about living above their means just as much as they would benefit from industry-wide protections and reforms. Which is neither fair nor true. Until the majority of users are enrolled in comprehensive financial literacy programs that will inform them about the risks associated with credit cards—and also their self-defeating cognitive tendencies—it seems more fair and plausible that credit card companies simply make their rules more fair and transparent. Sure, consumers should be better prepared to deal with a complex adversary, but it seems just as important to remove the threat in the first place.

The press has been playing the economy blame game for months, and credit card consumers are the latest scapegoats. There’s no doubt that irresponsible spenders armed with shiny pieces of plastic are active participants in their own financial woes; but, in the context of the wider economic crisis, such a stance absolves regulators too easily. Blame is cheap, and there’s lots to go around. But a serious consideration of how we deal with debt and spending in this country would be truly worthwhile.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.