OK, somebody bring me up to speed here. Are we supposed to hate credit cards, or love them?
Are the credit-card companies just evil incarnations of Mr. Potter in Frank Capra's classic, "It's a Wonderful Life," looking for ways to rule the world and control us through fees, or are we the ones to blame, because we never listened to parents and grandparents who made it through the Depression and never complained?
Or are credit cards the key to a happy shopping season that, if we'd all just holster them in our wallets, would finally blast away the stagnant inversion of this recession?
It's a bit confusing right now, frankly.
Not long after the 9/11 attacks triggered a minor recession, President George W. Bush hinted that we all had a responsibility to buy stuff. Go to Disney World, he said. Enjoy life. Spend. People knew how to follow their leader in those days. But since few of us really had that much cash on hand, we had to use plastic. Credit cards became good — patriotic, even.
And then the economy collapsed, Americans saw that maybe it wasn't a good idea to pile up thousands of dollars in unsecured debt, because maybe someday they couldn't make the minimum payment any more. Who knew that an economy built on air could blow away so quickly? Credit cards suddenly turned to lead, and they kept us all from getting things moving again.
But then Congress stepped in last winter and passed the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009. This was to make it easier for people to wave their plastic wands and return to the good old days when folks were happy, employed and paying lots of taxes. The mean old credit-card companies, which by now were dealing with billions in bad loans, no longer could assess fees or raise interest rates willy-nilly.
However, in a fit of kindness, Congress decided to postpone the effective date of this bill. That led a host of those companies to hike their interest rates and immediately charge a bunch of fees, even for things like simply not using your credit card.
So, are they good or evil?
This is important, because tomorrow begins the annual week that ends with "Black Friday," so named because retailers hope enough people crowd their stores that ledgers change miraculously from red to black. If we all emerge from our turkey-induced stupors and spend only the real money in our wallets, the headlines on Saturday will tell us just how sad Christmas is going to be.
Well, let's step back a moment and look through a different lens. According to the Web site creditcards.com, by the end of last year, Americans had $972.73 billion tied up in credit cards. That translated into $8,329 in unsecured debt for each household.
But, of course, not each household carried credit-card debt. For homes that did, the average load was $10,679. Add together all consumer debt from cards, car loans and everything else except mortgages, and it came to $2.56 trillion at the end of 2008.
Americans have long been obsessed with how much people spend at Christmas. It's part of the reason generation after generation has complained about how commercial the season has become. With a week to go in 1919, the New York Times published a report that said things had "steamed up considerably in the big stores," and sales records had been broken. "Whatever is done from now on will be 'velvet.' "
But velvet is nicer than plastic, which wasn't a factor in 1919.
I suspect most of you already know the answer to the old question about whether consumers or credit-card companies are to blame for all of today's debt. The answer is, it doesn't matter. You may have dozens of credit cards, but not one of them can force you to buy anything.
Not even Congress can do that.