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Nichols: Too much debt fueling our economic crisis

POSTED: October 13, 2008 5:00 a.m.

In the period right after World War II ended, I was a student at the University of Virginia. One of my most challenging teachers was a professor of economics, David McCord Wright, before he moved to teach here in Georgia. His basic lectures on the nature of the economic system of our country and the other countries of the world stayed with me.

It is difficult to get a grasp of economics since so much of it is in our minds. However, Wright made one economic prediction that was absolutely wrong. He said that the American dollar would always be in short supply since foreigners wanted to buy more of our superior automobiles, airplanes and foodstuffs because American products were the best in the world. We did not want or need as much from foreigners.

Our balance of trade reversed the flow of dollars by the time Jimmy Carter won the presidency, We moved from being an exporting country to an importing one, and we became more and more dependent on foreign oil to fill our energy needs.

The credit card became more and more popular. It was introduced in the 1920s as a way to pay restaurant, hotel and gasoline bills. The first bank-issued credit card was introduced in 1946. The Diners Club Credit Card was introduced in 1950. The American Express card came in 1956 and Visa in 1958.

I have only one credit card and always pay it off each month to avoid interest. However, many Americans have four to eight credit cards and many families have credit card debt ranging from $2,000 to $8,000. As a nation, we the people live on our credit. We buy our homes, cars and start businesses with borrowed money. Without credit, our nation would halt.

So we as individuals want to consume more and more. As our family gets started, we need one car, then two, and sometimes three cars in a family.

We want larger, more expensive homes and try to buy in an expensive neighborhood. Gainesville has a large number of homes costing more than $1 million, I believe.

So the root of our current economic crises starts with our own people who want to consume more and more. Then some real estate mortgages are granted by lending organizations who bend the rules to sell homes at a higher price (meaning higher bonuses to the sales persons) than the customer can afford.

I rush to note that only a few real estate transactions are the base of "toxic assets" that are causing so much trouble in the banking world. These toxic assets should never have been made in the first place. Yet they have been sold and resold and, apparently, are like blood clots that spread havoc throughout the financial world.

Citizens should know not to buy houses, cars or luxury items that are clearly beyond their ability to pay on a monthly basis.

The banks and investment organizations should have been more carefully regulated by our government, with both the administration and Congress failing to oversee the entire system carefully.

As families have fallen deeper and deeper into debt troubles, bankruptcy and many foreclosures, our nation has fallen deeper into debt, also. We now have a $9 trillion national debt. Where is the additional $1 trillion coming from to finance AIG and other institutions that have reached the breaking point and need to be bailed out?

If we bail out one business after it has made major mistakes in the way it has been run, do we reward incompetence? Do we set a standard so low that other businesses might undertake bad risky business deals, thinking they will certainly be bailed out too if they fail?

On July 15, 1979, President Carter gave his "malaise speech" which contained many ideas that are still relevant today. He called for us to reduce our intolerable dependence on foreign oil and cut oil imports by half within a decade.. He said, "too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption." He suggested we turn to our historic American values of "true freedom for our nation and ourselves."

Carter lost his bid for re-election. That "malaise" speech might have been one of the causes of his defeat. We don’t like to be told we must conserve. Gasoline prices at $4 a gallon and higher have forced us to conserve recently.

Let us hope we can find a way out of our current financial meltdown. We can rebuild after hurricanes (though too slow for many citizens.) I trust we can rebuild our fiscal and monetary system after this economic hurricane.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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