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In 1956_ science fiction writer Paul


									                                                                                                        CONSUMER CREDIT

The excesses of Christmas bring home the need to                                            Should festive celebrations
                                                                                                     leave you in debt?
re-evaluate the impact of society on consumer spending
                                                                                                  Online debt collection
and the need for better financial education                                               Reality check for government
By Philip Evans


    n 1956, science fiction writer Paul      century saw it flourish into the season    money to ends up on a rubbish tip.
    Anderson wrote a short story about       of extravagance. But now, fuelled by       And we do it best at Christmas.
    a consumer society where the             credit, it has grown into a monster of         Last year, charity Credit Action
Christmas rush was well under way by         conspicuous consumption.                   estimated that we each spent an average
8 September. I first read the story in the      Retailers know the razzle-dazzle        of £378 on presents, £163 on food
mid-1980s but it was not until last year     confuses our minds as well as our eyes     and drink, £64 on decorations and
that I saw a shop stuffed with Christmas     and that spending is as intoxicating as    £121 on socialising. When I discussed
goodies before August Bank Holiday.          alcohol. Once some people start, they      these figures with a group of teenagers,
   I remember a time when one                do not stop until they are face down in    they thought £64 for decorations very
consumer event would be exhausted            the gutter. We now spend on ourselves      low. Most of them claimed their families
before another assaulted our senses:         far more than we spend on others and       bought all their Christmas decorations
when Hallowe’en had not been exploited       the hangover comes with the first credit   new each year.
and, on the whole, fireworks had been        card statement of the New Year.                I feared I was being had and during
cleared from the shelves before the                                                     a break asked the staff. They explained
Christmas stuff was displayed. But now       Ash-heap lives                             that the teenagers came from rich
horror nasties, fireworks and sparkling      The navigation lights that guided          families and were not at all surprised
decorations jostle for my money.             previous generations towards rational      by what they had said.
   Christmas may be a fudge of Christian     borrowing decisions have finally been          The pressure to spend is relentless.
and Pagan festivals but it started as a      extinguished. Credit enables us to         Advertising creates an illusion of a
time of generosity. It soon evolved into     indulge what Francis Schaeffer called      lifestyle that suspends our lucidity
the season of self-indulgence, and the       ‘ash-heap lives’: by that, he meant that   and magnetises us to purchase
consumer revolution of the twentieth         most of what we devote our time and        whatever we need to make it real. >>

December 2007                                                                                21

>>     But as generations of philosophers     think how little of it we spend preparing    the selfishness, greed, frustration, rage,
       have testified, satisfaction rarely    them to use well what they earn.             disrespect of authority and petty
comes by way of unremitting gratification.                                                 dishonesty has roots in money abuse.
The philosopher Maimonides even went          The needs of a community                        Without a compelling incentive for
so far as to say that our most grievous       But this is just one facet of our greater    change, our consumer society and
suffering is brought about by our desire      failure to adjust our attitudes towards      sophisticated credit market will continue
for what is unnecessary.                      money in line with the changes in the        to advance on a wave of recklessness –
                                              ways we use it. Every civilisation that      like a surfer who does not believe in
Social marketing                              ‘invented’ money did so to pay taxes:        beaches!
But much more goes into creating the          without it complex, interdependent
illusions than advertising. I often discuss   communities could not be maintained.         The need to find a better way
with teenagers the impact that soap              Now money is a major trading              Some years ago, I was naive enough to
operas like Eastenders and Coronation         commodity and the ‘bottom line’ for          be surprised to learn that state benefits
Street have on our beliefs and attitudes.     personal life as well as business. It is     and the minimum wage are not set by
    Although fiction, these programmes
portray a way of life that seems              Without a compelling incentive for change,
‘normal’ for the UK at the start of the
twenty-first century. The scriptwriters       our consumer society will continue to
do not have budgets for the characters,       advance on a wave of recklessness
and so they get into debt only when the
plot calls for it, not when they breakfast    our primary means of motivation through      any evaluation of people’s needs.
at the café too often or buy too many         salaries, bonuses, tips, commissions and     When we then punish these people
drinks in the pub. And they never get a       the rest; it is the most important           for poverty-related crime, we only
bill for Christmas!                           method by which the State controls us        hasten their spiral. We need to link
    Many debt management companies            – through fines for serious crimes and       provision to need and find better ways
market their services in ways that create     penalties for a diverse range of bad         of punishing people for crime and
a false sense of security. I have come        behaviour that includes criminal damage,     antisocial behaviour.
across teenagers who owe £2,000 to            late tax returns, smoking in public              The Tribunals, Courts & Enforcement
£3,000 but think they have not got a          places and failing to clear up dog mess.     Act 2007 brought home to me how
problem because television promises              In the course of this development, we     little the government is willing to invest
to banish debts of £15,000 without            have forgotten just how indispensable        in tackling overindebtedness issues.
difficulty.                                   money is to community life. It is the            We needed something more
                                              ‘natural’ resource – as essential as air,    constructive than indiscriminate bailiff
Holistic approach to education                water and food are to individual life.       law to increase the amount of central
Why do we spend so very much each                For a human body to function well,        and local government revenue; we
Christmas? Our emotions about money           it must have adequate amounts of these       needed something more imaginative
are formed very early and run deep –          basic resources. For a human community       than a few incentives bolted on to the
so deep we are rarely conscious of            to function well, sufficient money must      existing tangle of debt management
them.                                         flow through it and people must have         and debt relief measures.
   Most of us fail to think objectively       access to what they need and                     What we need is a comprehensive
about what it can achieve for us and          understand how to use it properly.           review that reaches the far ends of the
we have become convinced, to an                  To neglect something so important in      credit-debt spectrum. One that considers
improbable degree, that our self-worth        education, and to use financial penalties    the provisions of goods, services and
is bound up with the excess.                  so recklessly as we have done in recent      credit, the plethora of fines and penalties
   This is why I take an holistic approach    years, is as self-destructive as a           – and the difficult end of enforcement.
to personal financial education: character    relentlessly poor diet and substance         A review that is pragmatic about how
is as essential as technical skill for        abuse.                                       we use money today.
effective money management. Financial            I am not against financial penalties as       At a personal level, Christmas is
capability is as crucial to successful        a matter of principle, but their use is as   the ideal time to start a grass roots
living today as literacy and numeracy,        problematic as withholding the basics of     revolution! At risk of sending a shiver
but it does not come close to those           human life. I would go so far as to say      down the spines of retailers and
subjects as a priority in schools. In my      that many of the ills in our society are     lenders, it would be a good time to lock
experience, far more people talk about        a consequence of the way we have             up our credit cards, bin the loan offers
the importance of personal financial          abused money.                                and get real about the satisfaction that
education than actually attach any               I think that Jesus of Nazareth was        money can buy.
importance to it.                             correct when he observed that avarice            Happy Christmas! CCR
   Given how much of young lives we           (not simply ‘a love of money’ but an
devote to preparing them to become            unnatural desire for money and material      Philip Evans is a personal finance tutor
productive wage earners, it is absurd to      wealth) is the root of all evil. Much of     E-mail:

22                                                                               December 2007

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