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Give Us This Day Our Daily Debt | The Nation

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Give Us This Day Our Daily Debt

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It was almost 100 years ago that Henry Ford startled the world by giving his workers a raise without being asked. He explained that if they didn't have money they could not buy Ford automobiles.

How indebted are we? Danny Schechter's In Debt We Trust, produced by the Media Education Foundation, takes a look.

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Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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What would he tell Obama to do?

Bank of America's Ken Lewis has done his bit to reinforce the idea that the CEOs who got us into this mess are a pack of liars.

From then on, his self-evident bit of common sense was accepted decade after decade. But in recent years it got lost and forgotten. The big boys have stopped giving us little folks enough to buy the big boys' stuff.

Get this from the Wall Street Journal: "The wealthiest 1% of Americans earned 21.2% of all income in 2005, according to new data from the Internal Revenue Service. That is up sharply from 19% in 2004, and surpasses the previous high of 20.8% set in 2000, at the peak of the previous bull market in stocks. The bottom 50% earned 12.8% of all income, down from 13.4% in 2004 and a bit less than their 13% share in 2000."

Or as Forbes Magazine put it recently, "The price of admission to this, the 25th anniversary edition of the Forbes 400, is $1.3 billion, up $300 million from last year. The collective net worth of the nation's mightiest plutocrats rose $290 billion to $1.54 trillion." So 400 individuals, or about 0.00001 percent of the population, own the equivalent of more than 13 percent of the gross national product of the United States.

This is bad news for Wal-Mart, for Proctor and Gamble, for Delta faucets, for Whirlpool, for Dupont, for everybody who sells anything to the American consumer because the consumers, as the figures show, have run out of money with which to buy. The rich people are sitting on top of all the dough. Even with yachts the size of ocean liners and private planes of the dimension of an Airbus A380, the rich cannot, even if they shop day and night, buy enough to keep the wheels of American and world commerce turning.

It takes but a whisper that the American consumer is dying on them to cause near panic on the world's stock markets and central banks. It is a settled truth that without the American mass market booming away, the much-advertised and overly praised global system will swoon.

The American consumer, however, has the financial equivalent of angina pectoris and has had it for some years now. Terrifying cardiac incidents have been prevented by administering a financial form of nitroglycerin, which we call credit. With credit comes debt, and for tens of millions of us debt is how we live. We use it to buy the houses we live in and the milk our children drink.

It used to be that debt was something you got into when you were fully grown up. It was only after you had a job, got married and were buying a house or car that you contracted debt and worry lines and a disposition not to take risks because you owed too much money.

Since so few people have so much of the money locked up and do not plan to share, either the masses cut back on their spending, which is the road to universal disaster, or they must borrow and borrow and borrow without end. Not only the grownups.

From the point of view of the big rich, getting young people in debt not only keeps the money coming in but also makes youth timid and obedient. Debt ensures that they won't turn up on the streets to demonstrate for some unwholesome cause. You could almost call it a rule that all people--black people, Hispanic people, white people, trailer trash people, college graduate people--when put in debt pretty much do what they are told.

Debt, of course, breeds more debt, as people contract new debt to pay off old debt. As the process proceeds, first it becomes a practical impossibility to pay off the principal and then people find they cannot pay the interest on their debts. That is what has happened to the subprime borrowers.

Should we reach the point where the half of our population trying to make it on 12 percent of the nation's payroll can no longer meet the interest payments, we shall have a crisis where all the choices are worse than awful. And a happy doomsday to you, too.

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