After September 11, 2001, ordinary Americans were urged to shop. Patriotic shopping would thwart terrorists, celebrate public life and pull us back from the abyss of recession, we were told.
But we knew that we could not really save America by shopping: Too many of us carried too much debt.
Credit and debt appear to be natural, permanent facets of Americans’ lives, but a debt-based economy and debt-financed lifestyles are actually recent inventions. In 1951 Diners Club issued a plastic card that enabled patrons to pay for their meals at select New York City restaurants at the end of each month. Soon, other “charge cards” offered the convenience for travelers throughout the United States to pay for hotels, food and entertainment on credit. By 2003, Americans owed nearly $8 trillion in consumer debt, amounting to 130 percent of their average disposable income. The role of credit and debt in people’s lives is one of the most important social and economic issues of our age.
In “Debt for Sale: A Social History of the Credit Trap,” Brett Williams provides a sobering and frank investigation of the credit industry and how it came to dominate the lives of most Americans. Williams argues that credit and debt act to exacerbate other inequalities, and that it is in the best interest of the banks and corporations to keep consumer debt at high levels.
Throughout his book, Williams provides firsthand accounts of how Americans from all socioeconomic levels use credit.
These vignettes complement the history and technical issues of the credit industry, including strategies people use to manage debt, how credit functions in their lives, how they understand their own indebtedness and the sometimes tragic impact of massive debt on some people’s lives.
Brett Williams is professor of anthropology at American University. She is the author of “Upscaling Downtown: Stalled Gentrification in Washington, D.C.”
—University of Pennsylvania Press
Originally published on September 23, 2004