Though I’m not used to thinking of the Federal Reserve in a DVD context, this week seems especially apt.
The Fed just reported that consumer debt climbed an alarming annual rate of 6.4 percent in May. Lest you fall prey to fuzzy math, let’s put that in perspective: Debt jumped nearly six times April’s rate, according to the Associated Press. And if you narrow it down to credit card spending, May’s increase was almost 10 percent—compared with 0.2 percent the month before.
The result? The biggest credit card debt jump in six months, one that fooled even those scholarly economist types who predicted consumer borrowing would rise a mere $6.5 billion. Instead, it shot up some $13 billion, bringing our debt load to $2.44 trillion—a record.
So if you’re off to tack another charge onto that triple-platinum Visa with the six-digit credit line, consider a step in the right fiscal direction. Two recent DVDs examine our nation’s debt addiction and what can be done to stem it.
James D. Scurlock’s Maxed Out (Magnolia Home Entertainment, $26.98) has earned kudos not only from traditional movie-reviewing outlets but also the Wall Street Journal. A special jury prize winner at the 2006 South by Southwest Film Festival, Maxed Out is a cutting, cautionary tale about the bad borrowing practices Americans fall prey to—such as paying only the minimum amount on a credit card bill while interest charges pile up—and the predatory tactics of a credit industry that targets the destitute, young, uninformed—even the previously bankrupt, who make great customers if you’re trying to make a killing through ultra-high interest loans.
Scurlock finds that fine balance between humor and tragedy, and while his subject matter might sound like the stuff of banking ledgers, Maxed Out comes alive through its colorful subjects. These run the gamut from the pawnbroker who caters to insolvent yuppies to experts such as Harvard Business School economics professor Elizabeth Warren, who warns that “consumer lending is obscenely profitable.” It also can be tragic, as the film examines some borrowers driven to suicide by their debt despair.
If Scurlock’s last name sounds like Spurlock—as in Morgan Spurlock, the brains behind Super Size Me—Maxed Out‘s director has acknowledged the fast-food film’s investigative-comic approach influenced him. The topic of debt also got a little too close for comfort; according to Variety, Scurlock nearly “maxed out” his own credit cards to finance his documentary.
Maxed Out‘s James Scurlock and Elizabeth Warren on NightLine
Danny Schechter’s In Debt We Trust (Disinformation Company, $19.98) covers similar turf: The Orlando Weekly compared it to Super Size Me as well. An Emmy-winning journalist, Schechter draws inspiration from Robert Manning’s book Credit Card Nation, and like him, takes a hard look at how the credit explosion has affected young Americans. (Manning also served as an adviser to the film.)
Debt also points the finger at the Bush administration, claiming that it has colluded with lobbyists and credit card companies to deregulate the lending industry—and encourage a culture of credit dependency where house foreclosures have become shockingly common. One former major bank economist dubs it “modern serfdom.”
Even soldiers in Iraq are not immune, apparently. Debt visits a military base to show how that group has been victimized en masse by payday lenders.
Though separate films, Maxed Out and In Debt We Trust speak with a singular voice concerning our debt crisis. To watch them is to realize how it’s all happening before our eyes, thanks to our complacency, cooperation and hunger for lifestyles and luxuries we simply can’t afford.