Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

People unclear on the concept

The Boston Globe (may ask for a relatively painless registration) offers a crash course for us dummies on the financial crisis and why we have to pony up the $700 billion. They offer three case studies of people who can't get credit and why that is bad.

First there is Don Castle, a probation officer:

Since buying his Lynn bungalow with no money down three years ago, Castle has used his first home like an ATM. He's refinanced twice to help pay for more than $35,000 in home improvements, including installing 24 new windows, renovating the kitchen, building a deck, and replacing the roof.

Castle had big plans to turn his second-floor attic into a huge living space by adding new wiring and insulation. But the well of cash has run dry. Several local banks and online lenders recently rejected his applications for a $20,000 home equity loan. So instead of spending his days designing a master suite, Castle, 41, took a "Get out of Debt" class at Salem State and is now looking for a part-time job.

Now that is truly sad. The bank won't loan the poor guy any more money that he can't afford to pay back, and now he can't remodel his attic. If that's not enough to convince you to spend the $700 billion, there's this:

Roberta O'Connor knew it was a tough time to start a business when in May she opened the doors to Cabin Fever, a vintage Brazilian furniture store in downtown Salem. Shortly before the shop's debut, Washington Mutual, which was seized by federal regulators on Thursday, cut a home equity line she planned to use for inventory and daily business operations, despite her high credit score.

So the 35-year-old mother of two tapped into her savings and ran up $40,000 in credit card charges to cover the gap. But nothing could have prepared her for the recent financial meltdown on Wall Street and Main Street, when sales at her business dropped 40 percent over the past two weeks alone. "Everyone's in panic mode and people aren't spending," said O'Connor, a former marketer.

With her inventory starting to run low, O'Connor is considering applying for a small business loan to finance a $50,000 buying trip to Brazil. Watching the collapse of major financial institutions over the past two weeks has only made O'Connor more nervous about getting access to capital.

So, unless the taxpayers do something about it, Ms. O'Connor won't be able to borrow $50,000 to go to Brazil and acquire inventory that nobody wants to buy. Economic catastrophe!

Finally, there's this:

For once, [Don] Chiofaro is not rushing to break ground on a bold new development in downtown Boston. That's because he knows the timing for a large project could not be worse. Construction costs are sky high. Commercial banks and other lenders are in turmoil. And accessing a loan is more difficult than it's been in two decades.

"It's impossible to break ground right now," said Chiofaro, who is waiting out the financial tumult before proceeding with a planned development at the site of the Harbor Garage along the city's waterfront.

So Don Chiofaro can't borrow $100 million dollars to build a new housing at a time when unsold houses and condominiums are blighting neighborhoods from Long Island to Lompoc. We've got to fix that problem! We've got to loan Don the money!

Or maybe, just maybe, the time has come for Americans to stop borrowing more and more money to fuel consumption that they can't afford. And maybe the banks have figured that out -- too late for them, but that's not my problem -- and that's why they aren't making loans any more to people who can't pay them back. And maybe, just maybe, we should finally come to our senses. This is a feature, not a bug. It's not a problem to be solved, but rather one to be endured. Under the circumstances, we can make much better use of the $700 billion.

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