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Maxed Out: Hard Times in the Age of Easy Credit

Maxed Out: Hard Times in the Age of Easy Credit

by James D. Scurlock


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In this shocking and illuminating road trip through an America ravaged by debt, award-winning film director James Scurlock examines our multitrillion-dollar addiction to easy credit in all of its absurdities and contradictions.

Maxed Out ventures beyond the mind-numbing statistics to expose a financial industry spinning wildly out of control. From the gilded master-planned communities of Northern Las Vegas to the shotgun shacks of the Deep South, the world's largest financial institutions are trolling for customers, hooking the nouveau riche and the poor alike with promises of cheap and easy credit. Maxed Out exposes how Wall Street and Congress spawned the subprime mortgage crisis and reveals how credit card issuers form multimillion-dollar partnerships with universities — paying them millions for access to their students' personal information, setting kids up for financial ruin before their first job. The industry's final frontier, "debt buying," is a veritable Wild West in which ambitious young men make quick fortunes off the misery and misfortune of others.

Hilarious, fascinating, and deeply disturbing, Maxed Out is one man's answer to modern America's most pressing question, "Why can't we get out of debt?"

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416532538
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 12/26/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

James D. Scurlock studied at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania before dropping out to pursue an entrepreneurial venture and later a documentary film career. His first film, Parents of the Year, won numerous awards and was an official selection of more than twenty-five film festivals. His first feature-length documentary, Maxed Out, explored our culture of debt and won the Special Jury Prize at South by Southwest. His first book, a companion to the award-winning documentary, was nominated for the National MS Society's "Books for a Better Life" Award. He has written, primarily about the impending (and now realized) financial crisis, for Slate, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, and AARP Magazine, among others. He has also appeared on numerous programs, including Nightline, The Today Show, and CNBC’s Power Lunch. Scurlock lives in Santa Monica, California.

Read an Excerpt

Maxed Out

Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders
By James D. Scurlock


Copyright © 2007 James D. Scurlock
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781416532514


"I think everyone knows that something just isn't right."

-- Dave Ramsey

The Country Music Hall of Fame sits on the edge of downtown Nashville, across Broadway Street from a row of run-down buildings, one of which houses a FedEx Kinko's store. Downtown is, like most midsize American cities, oddly quiet. The busiest spot is a Starbucks tucked into the mezzanine of a mid-rise office building occupied by a bank. At night, retired couples and newlyweds wander past the Hall of Fame and the FedEx Kinko's on their way to a little strip of bars and restaurants, like the Hard Rock Cafe and Sbarro, the pizza place popular with tourists. The only clue that this is Nashville, and not Louisville or Minneapolis, is a young man in a wife beater and a cowboy hat strumming a guitar on top of a box. He tells the few good folks who pause to listen that he's looking for a record deal, and they seem to appreciate the lonely note of authenticity he's lending their vacation, but it's hard to figure how he's going to end up across the street someday, in that museum. The fans he'll need are being bused from their hotels over to the Grand Ole Opry, a huge entertainment complex near the airport. And the music producers are scattered around the suburbs, working out of small offices and home studios. He'd have better luck perchingoutside a strip mall Starbucks, waiting for one of them to emerge with a Frappuccino.

But if this cowboy decided to make that short trip, setting out past Vanderbilt University and into the suburbs, he'd discover just how much the world has changed. He'd pass countless pawnshops, check-cashing outlets, bank branches, title loan stores, and financing companies. He'd see that most billboards were advertising loans of one kind or another -- and he'd also see plenty of smaller ads, mostly on the sides of the city's buses, for credit repair companies and bankruptcy attorneys. He'd soon learn that Tennesseans have become obsessed with debt: how to get it, get rid of it, or, most commonly, how to "surf it," i.e., how to ride larger and larger waves of debt without wiping out.

Indeed, if the cowboy headed east along the interstate toward Brentwood, the state's plushest suburb and home to many of his idols, he would see several billboards advertising a middle-age man with a bald head and a silver beard, a man who could easily pass for an aging country music legend, a man promising "Freedom." This man, the cowboy would discover, has the number-one radio show in Tennessee, and one of the fastest-growing audiences in the country. This man reaches millions of Americans in over 260 cities who listen to him religiously. He travels the country and commands adoring audiences in the thousands. He has his own reality television show in development. And he can't even sing or play the guitar.

His name is Dave Ramsey. He sells freedom from debt. And he is arguably the most popular recording artist in Tennessee -- which, incidentally, has the second highest bankruptcy rate in the nation.

I first meet Dave at a two-story brick office building that sits across the street from the state's most expensive shopping mall. The building is home to Dave's radio show as well as "Financial Peace University," Dave's twelve-step program to get out of debt. Dave is of medium height, stocky build, and bald. He could be Dr. Phil's nephew. For the uninitiated, his intensity can read scary. Onstage he prowls and contorts every muscle like the evangelist he is. When Dave starts preaching the word, there is no room for argument. He's been to the mountaintop. And he's come back to save your soul from the demon that is debt.

Before every show Dave huddles with his staff in a prayer circle. A rock song leads in, then a quick anecdote or bad joke, and then Dave starts taking calls. The callers, as ever, are lost. They are trapped. They cannot help themselves. They do not understand their lives. They do not understand the terms of their credit card agreements and car loans. They are afraid. They are good people, however. They are just confused. Their hearts are willing but their minds are weak. Math scares them. They need a leader, someone to lead them out of the valley of the shadow of debt. Dave is the man.

He listens to them. Then he yells at them. He probes. He scolds. He exposes their hypocrisy and their secrets, which they didn't really want to keep anyway. He is the stern parent they never knew but wish they had. He tells them to sell the minivan, to live on "rice and beans and beans and rice," to get out of school and start making money. He tells them to hold garage sales. Lots of them. Then, during the commercial breaks, he urges his listeners to visit a mattress store where they can get "the really good $5,000 mattress sets for only $3,000" and why not stop by the pawnshop that has been a sponsor of his show from the beginning? That's where rich folks shop, he tells them. The plugs are not so much advertisements as they are testimonials, though it seems more than a little absurd that someone drowning in debt would plunk down three grand for a trophy mattress or spring for a bargain Rolex.

In many parts of the country, "Dave told me to sell it" is a perfectly good explanation to the buyer of a used Jet Ski, an SUV, or any other toy. Dave knows his audience and he makes allowances for their weakness. The centerpiece of Financial Peace University is what he calls the "debt snowball," which means paying small bills first, regardless of the interest rate. Of course, this is not such a good idea from a strictly mathematical standpoint (most experts advise paying off the highest-interest debts first). But Dave has succeeded by being a realist, not an academic. He knows that his listeners have short attention spans and Americans aren't so good at math in general. Dave defends the debt snowball by pointing out that it makes people feel as if they are achieving something quickly so they stick with the program longer. In other words, the debt snowball is no different from the crash diets which have become so ingrained in American life. What counts is fast results.

And, like Stop the Insanity! Susan Powter, the queen of diet infomercials, Dave can relate. He can tell his flock how, in the mideighties, he built a multimillion-dollar real estate fortune, only to lose it all by being stupid. He had to sell the Jaguar the day before it was going to be repo'd. He lost his house. He almost lost his marriage. He declared bankruptcy. The empire was built on a fantasy -- on debt. Debt is evil. Debt is so evil, in fact, that Dave advocates paying cash for everything, with the exception of a mortgage, which should be no longer than fifteen years. When I ask Dave to define predatory lending, he responds, "All debt, to a degree, is predatory."

The day after I meet Dave, I decide to visit his bankruptcy attorney, Edgar Rothchild. Edgar is perhaps the most successful bankruptcy attorney in the state -- if you define success by sheer volume. Edgar mostly processes Chapter 13s, where debts are not discharged but repackaged into a court-supervised plan. Debtors then make a monthly payment to a bankruptcy trustee, who pays off the creditors. But the vast majority of Chapter 13s that Edgar processes are eventually converted into Chapter 7s, where the debts are discharged, for the simple reason that most debtors can't keep up the payments.

Edgar won't talk about Dave on the record, but the mention of his most famous client brings an immediate smile that says, I operate in the real world. When you ask Edgar why so many Americans are declaring bankruptcy -- the rate is now ten times that during the Great Depression -- he can cite a number of reasons, but they all revolve around a simple truth: Americans' incomes have not kept pace with expenses. And, as far as Tennessee is concerned, the educational system is failing its students. A lot of Edgar's clients are illiterate. They can't get good jobs and they are easy prey for con artists. His wealthier clients have other problems: divorce, medical bills, job losses, children. "Do you have any idea what it takes to feed a teenage boy?" he smiles.

That afternoon, I return to Financial Peace University to ask Dave a few questions. I wonder if his "tough love" approach might be for show -- if, off-air, Dave might have more sympathy for his listeners than he demonstrates on-air. If he might have some insights into why debt has become a cultural phenomenon. After all, the notion that millions of Americans woke up one day and willingly ensnared themselves in a trap they could never escape seems a little far-fetched. It also seems to me that the government bears some of the responsibility. After all, didn't President Bush tell Americans, in the wake of September 11, to go to Disney World, to enjoy America as we want to enjoy it? Didn't Tom Daschle, then the Democratic leader of the United States Senate, tell us to "go out and buy that suit you've been thinking about"? Hasn't the United States Congress put every American family $80,000 in debt in a single generation, using our full faith and credit to pay for thousand-dollar toilet seats and countless "fact-finding" missions to exotic island nations and ski resorts?

But Dave will have none of these excuses. His listeners change their lives, he tells me, when "they look in the mirror and say, 'You! You're the problem! It's the guy I shave with every day.' If I can change his behavior, I can be rich and thin." (Like a number of people I will meet, Dave thinks that obesity and indebtedness are flip sides of the same moral failing.)

"Is it any surprise," he continues, "that people who go into debt elect people who go into debt? I don't think it's the other way around." Finally he adds with a little smirk, "My savior doesn't live in Washington, DC. That's not where he lives."

I leave Financial Peace University contemplating God and debt. And feeling a little like the cowboy with the guitar: that maybe I've missed the boat. After all, I've spent two days in Tennessee and seen dozens of bumper stickers advertising how Jesus saves. I am smack in the middle of the Bible Belt. If the good people of Tennessee were having so many problems with money, surely the first question on their tongues would be "What would Jesus do?"

(Note to cowboy with guitar: Christian music sales are growing much faster than country and western.)

As it turns out, a lot of ministries have started to answer that very question. Earlier that week Jerry Falwell had delivered a sermon from his compound in Lynchburg called "People Who Steal from God." The message? People get into financial trouble because they don't give the church enough money. I've heard about a preacher in North Carolina holding debt revivals, where families cleanse themselves by destroying their credit cards at the altar. There was a pastor at the West Angeles Church in Los Angeles who's developed a ministry called Millionaires in Training. No matter that some of the highest bankruptcy rates are to be found along the Bible Belt. God wants Christians to be debt free.

After trolling the Internet for less than an hour, I find myself with an invitation from an evangelist named Steve Diggs to attend his No Debt, No Sweat! ministry that evening in Antioch, an undergentrified suburb fifteen miles southeast of Nashville whose finest establishment is the obligatory (and cash-only) Waffle House. Steve is a former advertising man who used to be fat and in debt. With the Lord's help, he and his wife conquered those demons. Now he is trim, debt free, and out of the advertising business -- sort of. Steve sells a plan to help Christians get their financial house in order for $36. The No Debt, No Sweat! mission(ary) statement is "to teach you to handle money so you can take off like a bullet with a tailwind." On the phone Steve is a nice guy, full of energy, and he promises a great show, complete with feathered boas, loud Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, and a female impersonation. I can hardly wait.

The seminar turns out to be quite tame, but then again, I am from L.A., a fact that Steve receives with a look of some consternation or apprehension or both. Later on he will tell his "L.A. story": Steve and his wife win tickets to the Emmys from a local radio contest and go to Hollywood, but the moment they arrive at the red carpet, they find that their people are protesting the industry's immoral agenda from the other side of the velvet rope. Steve has a crisis of conscience, realizes he's on the wrong side of the rope, yet he and his wife decide to go to the Emmys anyway. They even go to the after-party to mingle with the hedonists. Steve has had an epiphany not uncommon among the evangelical crowd: It's better to be an insider if you want to effect change. Plus, there's the gift bag...

The Antioch audience listens politely (they are in church, after all) as Steve paces the center aisle talking very fast into a Garth Brooks-style headset. When a gray hair complains that Steve needs to slow it down, Steve shocks me by telling the old guy tough luck. This turns out to be by far the most dramatic moment of the evening.

Steve tries to be funny, but the crowd doesn't laugh much. Maybe he is talking too fast. And maybe they are more confused by the campy antics (feathered boa and otherwise bad drag) than amused by them. He gratuitously mentions his dislike of the "homosexual agenda" to reassure them of his conservative Christian credentials. But no matter. I am here to learn what Jesus would do if he got into debt. And you know what? He wouldn't give up everything he owned. He would hold a garage sale, call his credit card company and renegotiate his interest rate, and probably get rid of the SUV, unless the disciples ponied up some dough for the gas, maybe.

I leave Antioch admiring Steve's spirit but with no more understanding of why Christians, like everyone else in America, are drowning in debt. Except for the obvious -- that some of them have left his seminar with an extra $36 on their Visa card. For all of their good intentions, the financial gurus that Americans turn to offer just as many contradictions as solutions. A pastor I'd visited in South Central Los Angeles, for example, chastised his congregants for driving cars they couldn't afford -- as we cruised South Central in his Range Rover. Suze Orman, the nation's best-selling financial adviser, has done ads for Cadillac (which have among the worst resale values of any automobile). Dave Ramsey has his sponsors (the pawnshop and discount luxury mattress place come to mind) because he's got to pay the rent too. And when Jerry Falwell holds himself up as an example for tithing 30 percent and being plenty prosperous, it's more than a little self-serving. When he tells his congregants that giving his ministry more money will erase their financial troubles -- a strategy he calls "spiritual mathematics" -- it's just plain slimy.

Yet, I've come to learn that, for all of their apparent contradictions, the financial gurus are a pretty accurate reflection of the times. We live in a country where the government tells us that the economy is getting better and better, but most polls show that we believe it's getting worse and worse. A country where foreclosures and bankruptcies have skyrocketed, while the numbers of millionaires and bank profits have increased year after year. A country whose citizens can afford the brand-new Hummer H2 and H3, but whose soldiers are expected to fight a war with the old ones (and with no body armor). Is it really possible that all of these catch-22s will be eliminated by holding biweekly garage sales and skipping the a.m. latte? Where is Susan Powter to jolt us out of our collective denial? Stop the Insanity!

Several months after I visited Tennessee, Hurricane Katrina rolled over New Orleans. A day later the city flooded. And then for seven long days, as the world watched, the people of New Orleans begged for help. Hundreds drowned in their own homes. Babies died in their mothers' arms for lack of water. And I watched in amazement as conservatives demanded answers to the questions many of us had been asking for some time. How could extreme poverty exist in a country of such enormous wealth? Why hadn't we taken better care of our infrastructure? Where was the money going to come from to fix it and pay for the war in Iraq and pay for Social Security and Medicare and all of the other entitlements? Was bankruptcy reform, which President Bush had just signed (really bad timing, Karl), too harsh? Katrina had changed everything, I told myself. People were finally asking the tough questions. Americans were beginning to realize that credit was not the same as wealth -- that a generation of debt surfing had left us extraordinarily vulnerable.

The president gave a dramatic and hopeful speech in the French Quarter, shouting out to the huddled masses who'd been ignored for too long. But then he seemed to lose interest. The telethons came and went. New natural disasters and new scandals took center stage. The death toll in Iraq passed 2,000. A bill to exempt hurricane victims from bankruptcy reform died in the House, as did a measure to offset the costs of rebuilding New Orleans with budget cuts. Insurance companies refused to rebuild homes because they claimed the damage resulted from hurricane-induced flooding and not from the hurricane itself. Private companies, which owned most of the hospitals in New Orleans, expressed doubts that they would ever rebuild. The Small Business Administration offered loan guarantees, but only to those with near perfect credit -- a cruel joke which has so far shut out 80 percent of those who have applied for help. The most hopeful sign was the return of white real estate speculators.

In other words, the status quo quietly eased back into place. The government would take on more debt to rebuild what it could. And the people would take on more debt to do the same. The only difference would be that that debt would be more expensive than before. In other words, we would surf the hurricane, even though the waters were getting far more treacherous. Why? We have no choice.

The federal government -- and the majority of Americans -- can no longer get by a single day without taking on additional debt. And as more borrowing goes to simply pay off old debt, or to make interest payments, the new debt does little more than increase banking profits. Eventually the higher levels of debt will lead to higher interest rates, which will lead to more debt, creating a cycle as vicious as it is inevitable. Over the past generation, banks and credit card companies have made trillions of dollars of high-interest, unsecured debt available, and Americans have scooped it up. Our incomes have risen an average of 1 percent in real terms, while our household debt has increased over 1,000 percent. As a result, we no longer save. We have no choice but to keep spending until our credit is exhausted and we own nothing. As Marriner Eccles, the legendary Fed chairman during the Great Depression, noted, "The economy is like a poker game where only a few people control the chips and the other fellows must borrow to stay in the game. But the moment the borrowing stops, the game is over."

How did we allow this to happen? How could we be so shortsighted? How could banks keep lending to people who can't afford to pay them back? Doesn't that fly in the face of tradition, if not common sense? Don't bank executives realize that they are sowing the seeds of their own destruction? After all, when most Americans can no longer stay afloat, the banks will sink alongside them as they did back in Marriner Eccles's day.

The simple answer is that Americans are a lot like the cowboy with the guitar. While the banking industry has gone through its most profound change since the Venetians invented modern finance hundreds of years ago, Americans have clung to old assumptions. In particular, we've continued to believe that banks wouldn't extend us credit unless we could handle it, and that banks want us to save. Yet, the big banks realized more than a generation ago that they make far more money teaching us to spend than to save. They've also learned that making money upfront, mostly in the form of fees, is a lot more fun than waiting for a revenue stream to trickle in. The reason is simple: Fees can be booked as profits immediately; revenue streams take years. This is why most mortgages, car loans, and even credit card receivables are bundled together and sold off, sometimes instantly, to Wall Street.

Take Enron as an example. Enron executives didn't want to wait for their brilliant ideas to bear fruit. So, with the help of an accounting firm called Arthur Andersen, and the blessing of the S.E.C., they applied a short-term accounting rule called "mark-to-market" to long-term contracts, so that executives could decide how much a new business idea was worth, book it as immediate profit, and then collect a bonus on that profit -- all in the same quarter. When these new businesses instead generated huge losses, executives turned to the world's largest banks to hide those losses -- for a fee. Enron would "sell" the losses to a large bank before reporting its financial results, then buy them back afterward at a greater loss. The bank collected a fee without taking a risk, the bankers got a bonus based on generating that fee, and, most important, the Enron execs rewarded themselves with huge bonuses based on phony -- but consistently growing -- profits. Of course, mark-to-market guaranteed Enron's eventual failure. But consider that the top ten CEOs in America now earn more than $100 million per year, and you realize how quickly short-term gimmicks can create vast fortunes.

The same gimmicks are now being applied to consumer debt. Most mortgages, car loans, and credit card debt are packaged and sold off to investors at a profit within a short period of time, sometimes seconds. Banks create an estimate of how much the credit card debt is worth and sell it to investors, pocketing a profit. There is no banker carefully tending to your mortgage or your credit card down at the local branch, any more than there is a record executive strolling down Broadway Street searching for the cowboy.

But there is an even greater misconception at work. A misconception that debt is not what it used to be. That there is "good" debt, for example, and "bad" debt. Tune in to Suze Orman, for example, and she will tell you that a single number, your credit score (aka, FICO), is the key to your financial future. But while a good credit score gets you better rates on your mortgage and credit cards, it also opens up the floodgates for more "good" -- i.e., cheap -- credit to pour into your life, and this credit does not usually remain good or cheap for too long. The idea that one should stay out of debt, period, is now considered unrealistic. After all, who lives without debt? The Unabomber, maybe?

Even more frightening is the notion that debt is our friend -- a magical tool that allows us, in the words of Napster's new ads, to "own nothing, have everything." No less a fiscal conservative than President Bush has dismissed the federal debt as "numbers on paper." His vice president has flatly stated, "Deficits don't matter." But the apathy prize goes to two-term Florida senator Connie Mack, who was hired to give Bush ideas on reforming the tax code in 2005. Here's a recent exchange between the senator and the New York Times:

Interviewer: Where do you suggest we get the money from?

Sen. Mack: What money?

Interviewer: The money to run this country.

Sen. Mack: We'll borrow it.

Interviewer: I never understand where this money comes from. When the president says we need another $200 billion for Katrina repairs, does he just go and borrow it from the Saudis?

Sen. Mack: In a sense, we do. Maybe the Chinese.

Twenty years ago, when the federal debt passed the trillion-dollar mark, politicians, including Ronald Reagan, as well as economists, including Alan Greenspan, warned of dire consequences. Seven trillion dollars later, borrowing more has become the solution to every conceivable problem. Take Social Security as the largest, and perhaps most insidious, example: In order to reduce deficits, the past four presidents have borrowed $1.5 trillion from Social Security and the "trust fund" now holds nothing more than a very big IOU. In effect, we've been surfing, borrowing from Social Security to pay off the interest on the federal debt every year. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, George W. Bush promoted an idea called "private accounts." In theory, every American would own their Social Security account. The account would contain real money so it could buy real investments, i.e., not IOUs. In theory one could also borrow against it, of course. The trouble is that since the Social Security Trust Fund has no cash, no one can say where the money would come from to fund these accounts. The Chinese again? Probably. But Bush hasn't told us yet. He has, however, loudly warned working Americans not to count on Social Security. (Note to cowboy: Keep strummin'.)

The media never really took the president to task on the math of private accounts. It was the AARP that killed the idea, and, ironically enough, they hated it because private accounts would have reduced the amount of guaranteed benefits to their members, not because it would have indebted their future members.

Pete Peterson, one of the smartest financiers among us, has correctly pointed out that "benefits" like personal accounts are simply deferred taxes if they're not paid for. Yet neither the anti-tax president nor his adversaries once questioned whether borrowing the trillions of dollars needed to fund private accounts was a good idea, much less possible. After all, Americans have accepted the surfing lifestyle in all of its absurdities. We have watched advertisements that say "Pay off your high credit card debts!" and we have called the 800 numbers and attached our homes to new loans in order to pay off our credit cards, then bragged to our friends that we are "debt free." We are encouraged to rent things we used to own -- including music and, paradoxically, the down payments on our homes. We have accepted this new bargain that we will never be out of debt as inevitable, preordained by the God of our choosing. We have forgotten the feeling of solid ground as we have taken on larger and more treacherous waves. We have ignored the greatest investor among us, Warren Buffett, who has derided our "sharecroppers society." He sounds old, cranky, and un-hip.

Until we wipe out. Until we lose our jobs, until we get divorced, until we discover that our health insurance doesn't cover thousands of dollars of "extras," until we lose our job or until our home doesn't appreciate at the anticipated rate. Until we can no longer surf. And then the "debt hell," as a consumer advocate I interviewed calls it, kicks in. The fees pile up. The interest rates increase. The bargain we accepted ceases to be a bargain. It becomes prohibitively expensive. We learn that we are not middle-class at all. We are poor. We own nothing.

And then, just maybe, we finally ask, "Well, how did we get here?"

Copyright 2007 by James D. Scurlock


Excerpted from Maxed Out by James D. Scurlock Copyright © 2007 by James D. Scurlock. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

James D. Scurlock offers a groundbreaking look into the culture of debt that has been institutionalized over the past generation. From Washington, DC to Macon, Mississippi, to Beverly Hills, CA, Scurlocks reveals the breadth and depth of America's dependence on easy credit to finance war efforts, tractors, mobile homes, to acquire the best body and face that plastic surgery can provide and, of course, to keep the American Dream — home ownership — a reality. Scurlock builds a compelling case that the individual is not solely to blame for rising consumer debt, just as irresponsible "gamers" are not the cause of skyrocketing bankruptcy rates and the now-infamous "subprime" borrowers did not precipitate the international credit crisis ; indeed, Scurlock uncovers how revolutionary changes in the banking, credit, and debt collection industries virtually ensure that consumer debt continues to mount, month after month, in order to realize double-digit profit growth. But, Scurlock argues, the financial industry has not changed the laws of mathematics; they have only postponed the day of reckoning. It is now up to individual Americans to re-examine their lifestyles in the context of new definitions of financial success and security. Ultimately, each of us must decide if the American Dream can really be purchased with easy credit.
Discussion Questions:
1. What does Scurlock mean when he says that debt is the only product of the banking industry? How do banks sell and ensure their profitability from this product? Does Scurlock's conceptualization of debt as product alter your understanding of the role and nature of banks? Why or why not?
2. How did Dee Hock's introduction of the credit card impact people's understanding of and relationship to money? What two characteristics of consumer credit were exploited by Hock's Bank Americard?
3. How has credit been marketed to consumers? What roles do distinctions between good and bad debt and high and low credit scores play in this marketing process? Do the aforementioned distinctions have meaning outside of the credit marketing process? Why or why not?
4. What are some of the commonly used metaphors for credit? How have these metaphors been internalized by consumers? Which of the metaphors resonate with you?
5. According to Bob Manning, professor at Rochester Institute and Technology, what underlies America's addiction to credit? Do you agree or disagree? How does Scurlock's exploration support or challenge his claim?
6. What were the banking practices and government policies towards banks in place prior to the 1970s? What assumptions did the banking industry and the federal government make about the American consumer and their responsibilities to them? How and why did banking practices change? How has this contributed to the recent international crisis in subprime mortgage lending?
7. According to Scurlock, how does the federal government participate in and maintain the culture of debt? What government indices of progress are tied to the culture of debt? How does Scurlock suggest that the federal government evaluate its success?
8. How has the meaning and value of homeownership evolved for the American consumer? What do terms such as American Dream, home equity and refinancing mean in the current debt culture?
9. What does the term "debt snowball" mean? How do public misconceptions of "debt snowballing" extend rather than curtail consumer debt?
10. What roles do financial gurus such as Dave Ramsey of Financial Peace University and Suze Orman play in propagating the culture of debt? What does Scurlock suggest underlie these gurus' glorified status in popular culture? Do you agree with his analysis? Why or why not?
11. Scurlock proposes that the solicitation practices of the tobacco and alcohol industries are analogous to those employed by the credit industry. What does his analogy reveal about the nature of Americas' relationship to credit and purveyors of credit? If Scurlock's analogy is correct, what role does the government need to play in mitigating the impact of credit on its citizens?
12. What does Elizabeth Warren's study of middle class spending habits since the 1970s uncover about the American economy and the American consumer? How does she characterize Americans' use of credit and bankruptcy? What part did her findings play in the federal debates about the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005? Were her findings in line with your own understanding of bankruptcy? Why or why not?
13. What do Yolanda Garcia and the many others' stories reveal about the American Dream? How do their stories illuminate the culture of debt and the mechanisms that create and sustain it?
14. Identify the strategies Scurlock offers to fight the culture of debt. Which strategy do you believe has the most likelihood of success? Why? Which has the least likelihood? Why? Can you identify strategies Scurlock missed? What are they?
15. Identify the ways that the financial industry has equated credit with cash, e.g. using a credit card as an "emergency" fund. Then discuss the differences.
Enhancing your book club:
1. Get the film Maxed Out and arrange a movie night with your book club members.
• How did your experience of watching the film differ from reading the text? Which did you prefer? Why?
• Identify any strengths of the book that were sacrificed in the film version. What elements were improved upon by the film?
• Did the film offer new insights? What were they?
• Which stories proved most compelling in the film? Why?
• What potential solutions did individuals offer in the film? How did these solutions differ from those offered in the text?
2. Encourage each member of your book club to bring to your book club meeting a copy of a credit card statement. Encourage members to bring a range of credit card statements to facilitate comparison. Additionally, ask members to bring a stack of 3x5 cards or small sticky notes on which to write.
• Assess how many members have read the fine print on the backs of credit card statements. Why did some members read this fine print? Why did others neglect to read the fine print?
• Ask a few members to read various sections of the fine print on their statements. Try to read a range of statements. As members read their statement aloud, jot down on the 3x5 card or small stick notes any term that you do not understand and discuss the following:
• How similar or different are the statements from each other?
• Lay all 3x5 cards or small stick notes on a table for the group to peruse. What are the various terms that members find confusing? Is their a general consensus on confusing terms? How does the group feel about unmasking these terms?
• What new information did this reading reveal?
3. Visit the website:, Americans for Fairness in Lending
• Print out: Six Principles of Fairness in Lending
• Make enough copies for each member of your book club.
• Evaluate and discuss the efficacy of the principles with your club:
• Do you agree with these principles?
• If you had to eliminate one principle, which one would you sacrifice? Why?
• Which, if any, of the principles alter your understanding of your personal relationship to credit? How so?
• After evaluating the principles and determining if you agree them, visit and endorse the principles by submitting your name and contact information.
• If you have a story, share it on the website with others as well.
4. Explore America's relationship with credit cards
• Visit, The Secret History of the Credit Card.
• Watch the full program online either individually or as a group and discuss the following questions:
• What is the portrait of the credit card industry that emerges from this program? How is this picture of the credit industry different or similar to the picture Scurlock painted?
• What are the Marquette and the Smiley vs. Citibank decisions and how did they impact the credit industry? Does the program's analysis reflect the lessons learned in your reading of Maxed Out?
• How did Andrew Kahr insights alter the practices of the credit industry? How were these practices discussed in Maxed Out?
5. Read more about Elizabeth Warren's ideas in her book All Your Worth.

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