Credit crunch

While I was buying the iPhone, they pulled me aside for a credit review. Since I have good credit, this was shocking--and humiliating. For a middle class American, telling your two friends in the store that the AT&T folks are having second thoughts about giving you credit feels a little like confessing that you're a criminal. This is even though I know plenty of journalists with bad credit, the vicissitudes of the industry being what they are. I found myself earnestly protesting to the store clerk that seriously, I really do pay my bills on time, and I don't run a credit card balance.

It turns out they just wanted to look at the activity on my account, since I've just applied for a car loan, and bought a Verizon broadband modem. But in a way, it's a reminder of just how obsessed our society has become with borrowing money. The worst thing that happens to you if you borrow too much money is--it gets hard to borrow still more money. Yet during the recent financial crisis, commentators refer to bankruptcy, or foreclosure, as something akin dying of cancer, rather than losing your credit cards and moving to a rental flat. This may be because we so often confuse credit rating with moral virtue: good people have good credit, and bad people . . . well, best not say the "B" word out loud, lest the dread disease should spread to you.

I can't say that I've noticed that a good credit report is an obvious testimony to sterling character. I've known plenty of people with A+ ratings who I wouldn't trust to take care of my goldfish. And I don't even have a goldfish.

Of course there are irresponsible profligates who borrow money they've no intention of repaying. But most of the people I know with awful credit histories have rather more understandable explanations: a divorce. An unexpected illness. Trouble finding a job when they emerged from graduate school with hefty loans. Freelance jobs that took too long to pay--or went bust without reimbursing sizeable expenses.

The worst part is that the profligates are immune to the shame (or seem to be). It's the decent people, the ones who were overtaken by events, who cringe when the store clerks motion them aside.