Kevin Frisch: Credit where credit isn’t due

Kevin Frisch

I had to use a credit card the other day.

This isn’t big news; people use credit cards all the time. I’m just not one of them.

I have several, and my credit line is in the tens of thousands, but I prefer to think of these little pieces of plastic as contingency cards, to be broken out only in case of dire emergency: a malfunctioning furnace, unexpected car repairs, the release of a box set of the best of “Girls Gone Wild.”

That’s the way I was raised. While the emergence of credit cards — and the buy now-pay later mentality they manifest — came to the fore in the 1970s, my family continued to buy things the old-fashioned way: with money. That meant saving until you had enough and going without until you saved enough.

This is evidently a lost art. Because on the very day I had to blow the dust off my card, I heard several examples of families that had failed to live within their means. One family is called the United States of America.

President Bush last week signed a bill intended to shore up the mortgage industry and — by extension — the overall economy. It included $300 billion — with a “b” —  in new loan authority for the government. Some 400,000 at-risk homeowners could swap their mortgages for less costly loans. There’s also $15 billion in tax cuts and $4 billion for communities to fix up foreclosed properties for resale.

According to the Associated Press, “The measure ... is designed to help stabilize markets, in part by making credit more easily available amid rising defaults and falling home values.” Credit more easily available? Isn’t that what caused the problem?

Congress, in part to accommodate the cost of the measure, added $800 billion to the statutory limit on the national debt, raising it to $10.6 trillion — with a “t.” Uncle Sam evidently has a credit card the size of Connecticut.

As this story was weighing down the news cycle, yet another bit of cheery financial intelligence emerged: Roughly a quarter of our nation’s 600,000 bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete (interestingly, these same two phrases were uttered by my physician at my last check-up).

The cost for wholesale upgrades: An estimated $140 billion. Among the feds’ suggestions for generating this revenue: “Increasing gasoline taxes and new taxes on alternative fuels (and) turning free highways into toll roads.”

In other words, you and I will be paying more.

But we’re getting used to it. We’re already paying more for not only gasoline and food, but for gas-dependent services both benign (trash pickup) and exotic (air travel). And as soon as it gets cool, we’ll be paying more to heat our homes.

And nobody seems to have any clear idea how to reverse the trends.

“We are going to have to cut spending,” said New York Gov. David Paterson, who has already jettisoned one of the “t”s from his last name to save ink. “The time has come for America to cut up its credit cards.”

Not a bad thought but, unfortunately, that time came and went long ago.

Messenger managing editor Kevin Frisch’s column, Funny Thing ..., appears each week in the Sunday Messenger. Contact him at (585) 394-0770/Ext. 257 or by e-mail at kfrisch@messengerpostmedia.com.