Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Credit Card Craziness

Brother Bill passes along a link to this site which lists the following fascinating facts about the debt incurred by individual Americans:

It is estimated that, on average, 20% of Americans have "maxed out" their credit cards.

About 25% of adults in the United States have a history of credit problems.

Americans' average credit card debt is $8400 per household.

Roughly 24% of personal expenditures in the United States are made using bank credit cards, retail cards, and debit cards.

In the first quarter of 2002, total credit debt was $660 billion. Total credit card debt was approximately $60 billion.

Approximately 185 million American consumers have at least one credit card.

Of those 185 million consumers with credit cards, 1.3 million credit card holders declared bankruptcy in 2002.

Americans pay, on average, an 18.9% interest rate on credit cards.

The average household pays $83.33 in credit card interest per month.

On average, the typical credit card purchase is 112% higher than if using cash.

More than 40% of American families spend more than they earn. (Federal Reserve).

As of 1995, 92% of American family disposable income is spent on paying debts, up from 65% in 1975.

An $8,000 debt, at a rate of 18% interest, will take over 25 years to pay off and cost more than $24,000 in the long run.

The first step on the road to recovery from credit card addiction is to hold one's credit cards in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other....

Bull Market

The Christian Science Monitor reports on the recovering stock market and gives several reasons for being bullish on 2005 in this column:

After collapsing and floundering for about three years, the stock market is finishing 2004 with a solid 8 or 9 percent gain, following a gain of more than 25 percent last year. Some commentators are also optimistic that the elements are falling into place to make 2005 a positive year as well.

Since the market hit bottom on Oct. 9, 2002, it's added by some estimates about $3 trillion in value to investors' net worth. For example, an investment of $10,000 in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index on Oct. 10, 2002, would be worth $15,406 today.

1. There has been a new spurt of mergers and acquisitions, including a takeover battle for the wireless company Sprint. And software giant Oracle has swallowed People Soft for $10.3 billion. "The mergers are a favorable sign for stocks," says David Kotok, chief investment officer for Cumberland Advisors Inc. in Vineland, N.J. "It's also a sign that very low interest rates create terrific deals, and financing costs are low."

2. Investors seemed to be enthusiastic about President Bush's reelection. Since the end of October, when it became clearer Mr. Bush would win, the market has perked up. "I think it's because they view him as relatively light-handed as far as regulatory matters are concerned. He'll be retaining the tax cuts and pressing for tort reform and trying to privatize part of Social Security," says Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. "All of that is considered pro-market."

3. There may be some changes in the economy that will benefit the market, including lower oil prices and a weaker US dollar, which permit US companies to compete better with foreign companies.

The article also cautions against excessive optimism, however, and gives several reasons why the rebound is still a little weaker than has historically been the case with recoveries. Nevertheless, the overall prognosis is good.

The Banality of Evil

The Fourth Rail offers an interesting picture of the defendants in the criminal trials of Saddam's henchmen taking place in Iraq:

The men were questioned in front of Iraqi judges, and the months in prison have not been kind to them. Aziz has been described as frail and thin; Chemical Ali "looked haggard and leaned on a cane." Even Saddam has not been immune to the rigors of prison. Saddam has become an ordinary man, with ordinary illnesses and pursuits....Saddam's henchmen, in a futile attempt to gain sympathy for their imprisonment, have gone on a faux hunger strike, and it was rumored that Saddam himself participated.

Prison does interesting things to those fallen from power, as Albert Speer, the Nazi Germany's Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production, expertly describes in his memoirs from Spandau prison. Men used to wielding power and influence in their nations are reduced to petty squabbles amongst themselves over latrine duty and other chores, status in the prison hierarchy, visitation rights, and other concerns. They also bear witness against each other in an attempt to gain the upper hand.

Tareq Aziz has turned on his former masters, and has given testimony on Saddam ordering murders, the payoffs to foreign governments, including France, to vote against Iraq war, and bribes to United Nations officials. Coupled with the audiotapes of Chemical Ali, this should make for an interesting and revealing trial, as former regime members scramble for their lives. Chemical Ali had much to say about his crimes.

"As soon as we complete the deportations we will start attacking them everywhere according to a systematic military plan," he says. "I will not attack them with chemicals just one day but I will continue to attack them with chemicals for 15 days."

Al-Majid even criticises his master for being too lenient when he orders that the families of Kurdish resistance leaders should not be harmed. "A message reaches me from that great man, the father [Saddam], saying 'Take good care of the families of the saboteurs...' Take good care of them? No, I will bury them with bulldozers."

Saddam's regime is compared to the Nazi Third Reich because it mirrored the Nazis in every aspect except for scale: Saddam's cult of personality; Sunni superiority; the Ba'athist party, whose members were above the law; a brutal police state; the mass murder of peoples via gassings, mass shootings and other means; ethnic cleansing; wars of conquests.

These are truly evil men, and their utter banality in their present condition, as Hannah Arendt reminded us about the Nazis, should not diminish our assessment of their evil. They deserve far worse than they are likely to get, a fact for which they should be exceedingly grateful.

More On the Christmas Wars

Here's a contrarian take on the cultural Christmas wars by Jeff Jarvis. He makes several interesting points, but he's stirred up a bit of reaction in the blogosphere. He writes, for instance, that:

Here in America, some people think a fight over a creche in the town square is a fight over religion. No, it's a fight for the sake of a fight. On the one hand, we do enforce separation of church and state -- to guarantee freedom of religion from government -- and so there is no divine right to put a creche in front of the city hall; I want to tell those folks, put it anywhere else. On the other hand, the bureaucrats who stop it as if they are standing between America and jihad are being just as ridiculous; a creche or a Christmas tree next to a menorah is harmless and is part of the diverse culture of America. Similarly, it's right for a school to prohibit proselytizing but it's silly to disallow an instrumental version of a Christmas ditty, as recently occurred in New Jersey. You want to slap both sides in these annual squabbles and just tell them to grow up and count their blessings.

Then there are those in the so-called Parents Television Council who argue that any joke that mentions God is an attack on religion. That's just crap. Freedom of speech goes hand-in-hand with freedom of religion -- that's why they are both protected in the First Amendment -- and there's nothing with a joke about God. It's not a sign of a war on God.

And then there are those who say that America has been taken over by a red-state religious jihad because the other side won the election and because a bogus made the insulting presumption that some of us don't have moral values and because the afore-dismissed PTC manufactured complaints about pop culture the way Tootsie makes Rolls. The truth, as I proved, it that it is a phantom army of the few on the fringe.

I want to slap them all back to their senses. But I also want to slap the media who act as if all these alleged religious wars are real news, worthwhile stories, true trends. No, the truth is that once a year, we get the fake stories about wars over Christmas carols; whenever the PTC puts out another press release or the FCC another fine, we get the fake stories about religious outrage at indecency; whenever the right wins an election, we get the fake stories about the revolt of the religious conservatives. All these stories act as if America -- you, me, and your neighbors -- changed overnight into suburban Sunnis vs. Shiites.

There is no religious war in America. That ended more than two centuries ago. And now we enjoy the benefits of that struggle. We should be grateful for that and stop squandering it with squabbles.

If Jarvis is correct we wonder why it is that in many schools students get in more trouble for wearing a shirt with the words Jesus Loves You emblazoned across it than they do for using Jesus Christ as a profane exclamation.

For a much different point of view from Jarvis' see this column by Ralph Hallow in the Washington Times. Hallow starts off talking about how a Republican candidate for governor of New Jersey is going to lead a hymn sing at a New Jersey public school which has scrubbed all sacred music from its "Holiday" concert.

Mr. Lonegan has asked local residents of all religions to join him at 5 p.m. tomorrow "to sing and listen to" songs such as George Frederick Handel's "Messiah" and "Silent Night," which have been banned from schools, even in instrumental form, by the South Orange/Maplewood School District.

In a Dec. 6 statement, school board President Brian O'Leary said the ban [against sacred music] is intended "to balance the important roles that religion and music can and do play in our curriculum with a desire to avoid celebrating or appearing to celebrate a religious holiday."

Indeed. So the religious content of the music isn't the problem. It is joining the music to the holiday that we must be vigilant against. We may assume, then, that it would be alright with Mr. O'Leary for the orchestra to perform Handel's Messiah or Silent Night for the student body as long as it was at, say, the Homecoming dance.

The rest of the article discusses some other attempts to bleach any genuine significance out of the season. It's very much worth reading in toto.

Here in our little corner of the world our district superintendent has decreed that there will be no Santa Claus at the Christmas (oops, holiday) assembly nor any music which celebrates anything other than winter (Jingle Bells, Let it Snow). Hanukah music, we're told, is permitted, but nothing even faintly redolent of Christianity will be allowed. If this is true it certainly smacks of religious bigotry, but that is only bad, we are left to suppose, when bigotry is directed by a majority against a minority. Otherwise it's perfectly acceptable.