Imagine having to say no to an over- indulged generation used to waving credit cards like magic wands. What do you tell them when the magic no longer works?

The free market doesn't monkey around with heart-to-heart talks or group sessions to deal with personal issues. Without the magic, a nation of princes and princesses wouldn't be able to afford that, anyway. As any true believer in the market knows, bad behavior, even if it succeeds for a time, eventually will be punished — often harshly.

Which brings me to some recent news reports. I had to blink a few times this week to make sure I was reading correctly. Credit-card companies are making it harder to borrow. Some Americans are learning how to (gasp!) pay cash for the things they want.

I had to check the date on those papers to make sure I hadn't passed through a wrinkle in time back to 1934.

But I knew that wasn't true. Back then, people used to laugh at a cartoon character named Wimpy who promised to pay next Tuesday for a hamburger today. These days, we might as well erect statues of Wimpy in our town squares.

Not too long ago, I thought about wallpapering my house with the credit-card offers I got in the mail. These included offers sent to my daughter when she was 11. Others received offers in the name of family pets.

Now those offers are down by 16 percent nationwide and falling, according to a Wall Street Journal report published in this newspaper. In addition, only 32 percent of the folks who apply for new credit cards are being accepted.

As a nation, we've been sailing blithely along on the bright red rivers of debt for several years now, counting on the friendly ports of zero-interest balance transfers and the swift currents of ever-rising home prices to keep our boats moving. But that distant sound we once thought was the din of merchants touting shiny and glamorous new wares is coming into focus.

It's the sound of an approaching waterfall.

If we have any conscience at all, we will learn from this and teach the coming generation. Utah lawmakers right now are considering a bill, sponsored by Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Holladay, that would set up an enhanced financial literacy program in the state's public schools. Kids would learn about basic budgeting, banking, investing, home buying and borrowing in ways that are integrated with their normal curriculum.

Similar concerns in Wisconsin led one teacher to set up an after-school investment club. Students there learn all aspects of handling money, from tax liabilities to compound interest. A recent story about this in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted a state official as saying too many students spend their college years falling into debt, with little understanding of why it is bad.

Schools in Utah ought to be equipping kids with financial skills early. Many of today's grown-ups never had those lessons.

Corrections aren't easy. Just ask those who are going over the falls and being dashed against the rocks below. The New York Times last week featured a woman with an MBA and a six-figure salary who, because of medical bills and a luxurious lifestyle, ended up with a six-figure credit-card debt and a house worth less than she owed on it. She's now sleeping on a pull-out sofa in the tiny apartment she shares with her two boys.

And more people are poised to follow her. The Times said about one-third of Americans borrowed against their home equity during the last four years. Many in this group have made a habit of going into debt to finance their day-to-day expenses.

There are plenty of skeptics out there who say Americans won't learn so easily. We'll find ways to put magic back into those wands. The economy, after all, depends on consumer spending.

I understand the skepticism, but the market may not be so forgiving. If we at least teach the rising generation how to walk along the black shores of the red river, slowly and carefully gathering their wants, the future will be much safer.

Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret Morning News editorial page. E-mail: