For an hour or so on the morning of Thursday 11 March it was one of the lead stories on the news broadcasts. Then, understandably, the unfolding horror of the Madrid train explosions wiped it off the news as surely as the bombers wiped out some 200 commuters.
Yet the story of Stephen Lewis stayed with me. A 37-year-old family man, with a reasonable job and a salary of £22,000 (not unreasonable; around the national average), had killed himself in July 2003 after running up over £65,000 in credit card debt. With his window, Susan, still being harrassed by the credit card companies seeking to recover their money, she and MP John Mann were working the broadcast studios and newspaper offices that fateful morning of 11 March to draw attention to the human cost of Britain’s credit card boom.
Stephen Lewis, it appears, in his desperation, had been running up debts on some of his credit cards to effect demanded minimum payments on others. As a short-term strategy, that was sustainable as long as Lewis could support it by taking on new credit cards. At the time of his death he had a staggering 19 cards! Yet obviously the overall debt would have kept on mounting. Inevitably, the default notices, debt recovery section phone calls and solicitors letters mounted too, finally proving too much for Lewis.
The story had some disturbing parallels with that of Mario Opalka which had emerged earlier in the week.
Opalka, a 44-year old town planner, had hung himself in January after running up £53,000 on internet casinos. He had been subsidising his gambling through credit cards. Again he had 19 of them, with credit limits upto £6,000 each.
Commenting on the Lewis case, Malcolm Hurlston of the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, told The Guardian: “In the past week we have counselled one client with 39 cards and another with 37, so although 19 may be extreme, it is by no means exceptional.” Britain’s credit card companies have been selling their products quite aggressively for some time now. For example, television adverts extol the virtues of certain cards over their rivals, easy-to-complete applications for cards drop through letter boxes on an almost-daily basis and 2-3 cards salespeople from different companies are there to accost travellers on most railway and motorway service station concourses during the daytime.
The availability of ‘easy money’ – high street banks and specialist lending banks such as HFC and The Associates are as much a source as the credit card companies – has been good for the economy, they say, fuelling consumer spending. Yet Britain’s average household debt is the highest in the European Union and increasingly such a cause for concern that the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee is now taking it into consideration in its monthly deliberations on the setting of base interest rates.
So what is going on?
A Psychological Perspective…?
In Spiral Dynamics terms, the ORANGE vMEME is driving the credit card boom. ORANGE quite simply sees that lending money in attractive ‘packages’ (cleverly mixing rates of interest with deferred payment schedules, ‘freebie’ gifts, discount schemes, easy routes to yet more money, etc) will generate greater amounts of money for itself.
Its narrow focus on achieving its own goals and the Big Picture and Move-Towards meta-programmes it tends to run mean it all too easily misses those pitfalls the BLUE vMEME excels in spotting.
Go back 40-50 years and the banks and building societies in the UK – the main sources of money for the man in the street – were very BLUE in their approach to lending. Getting money out of them was not that easy. BLUE’s running of Little Detail, Procedures and Move Away From meta-programmes meant lots of detail in the application, lots of checks and, as often as not, sitting in front of a posturing bank manager and trying to convince him (always a ‘him’ in those days!) personally that a) you wanted the money for a worthwhile reason (a holiday in Spain would have been considered a frivolous waste by most of them!) and that b) you quite clearly had the means to pay it back within the specified period.
As the culture of lending has moved more from BLUE to ORANGE, so the checks have been fewer and in less depth. ORANGE is too focussed on its targets of so much money lent and so much money made to bother with all that BLUE drudgery of checking. Beside which, checking might mean turning more would-be borrowers down and that would make it harder to meet those sales targets!
But what of the people who receive all these wonderful offers of easy money? To examine their thinking in Spiral Dynamics terms…
- ORANGE is likely to take the money and use it for strategic ends, with some thought as to being able to repay, dependent on its goals being achieved.
- BLUE is unlikely to borrow unless it has a certain route to pay it back and it is for a worthwhile cause.
- RED…ah, this is where the problem really comes! Instant gratification is one of the hallmarks of RED thinking – so easy money simply by filling in a form or making a telephone call is very appealing. RED will use that money to fulfull its whims and indulgences – healthy or unhealthy – and since RED doesn’t really think into the future and doesn’t therefore register consequences, the issue of repayment is something to be considered another day. ‘Right now I can do all this with all this money!’ And, when the debt recovery people start getting heavy, why there’s another 2 credit card applications just dropped through the letter box – so the starter debit from credit card 2 can be used to stall the debt recoverers from credit card 1 while the starter debit from credit card 3 can be used to indulge more whims and dreams.
- PURPLE is less likely to borrow. being much more conservative in nature; but much will depend on the family’s traditional attitude towards borrowing. Indebtedness can be an accepted way of life throughout generations where the PURPLE vMEME is dominant. PURPLE’s need for security means it may sometimes borrow today and accept (often rather stoically) the resulting longer-term penury. Like RED, PURPLE has little sense of consequence except where consequences have been played out in the familial past. Even then the consequences are often accepted rather phlegmatically as part of life. (Hence, the historical influence of the pawnbrokers and the loan sharks among the traditional working classes.)
Since a significant percentage of the British population is centred in the PURPLE-RED zones, ORANGE’s offers of easy money will be taken up quite readily, often without any conception of how to manage repayments. Even for people who have accessed higher vMEMES, the lure of such easy money can excite their RED so much it overrides BLUE’s prudence.
It is those whose thinking has migrated to BLUE or who are in the RED-BLUE transition who will suffer at the hands of the debt recovery people. They will suffer from guilt at having failed to do the ‘right thing’ – ie: keep up the repayments. Those with high PURPLE may also suffer as they may feel they have betrayed and left vulnerable their family.
Mario Opalka told his son, Jonathon, of his indebtedness just two weeks before his suicide. Although Jonathon tried to explore potential solutions with his father, he says his father was “ashamed”. (Mario had taken up internet gamling after his wife had died of cancer. So one might assume a pattern of damaged PURPLE compensated for by RED indulgence and then punished by PURPLE-BLUE guilt.)
At one level, the lenders wanting the money back is not only desirable but necessary – perhaps for survival! If the BLUE Procedures and Little Detail meta-programmes of the accountants don’t focus on turning theoretical assets into liquid assets, the paper profits generated by the salespeople will turn into cash liabilities – and then the lenders are in debt! The British financial institutions will long remember the Midland Bank getting into serious difficulties in the late 1980s through over-lending – thus making it vulnerable to takeover by HSBC.
So what to do…?
From what must have been a terribly distressing experience, Susan Lewis has put forward 3 proposals: the number of credit cards one person can be given should be limited; there should be a limit on the amount of credit anyone is given; and proper credit checks should be carried out.
Malcolm Hurlston seems to think the credit card companies should manage borrowers through internal processes. “Rather than focusing on the number of cards, however, we would like to see creditors paying more attention to how the customer is dealing with the debt. Any customer paying no more than the minimum amount each month on a number of cards is already over-indebted, with debts about to spiral out of control. Minimum payment information needs to be shared among creditors so they can make better decisions.” Hurlston’s proposal seems to me better (in terms of management theory) but perhaps idealistic. ORANGE will only allow a form of systematic management where either it is under external threat if it doesn’t or it clearly can see the benefits of that form of management to its strategic goals. And ORANGE will break the rules of the system wherever it sees fit. Think of the way commercial companies tend to treat ISO 9000. Something to be complied with rather than embraced. (ORANGE despises it but uses it as it suits and goes through the motions of compliance for external accreditation. BLUE loves it but will gum up the processes with rigidity if allowed to.)
John Mann seems not to trust the credit card companies to process manage borrowers: “The system isn’t working, and if the industry won’t regulate itself, politicians will have to step in.” The regulatory approach espoused by Mann and Mrs Lewis and the borrower-management processes suggested by Hurlston both offer potential real solutions and both require BLUE. The problem is that BLUE will function efficiently only to the degree allowed by ORANGE which is a much more complex way of thinking. (Which explains how so many ISO 9000 assessors and other kinds of ‘inspector’ get the ‘wool’ pulled over their eyes!) The fact is that the ORANGE ‘genie’ is out of the cultural ‘bottle’ and we can’t go back to the kind of BLUE thinking which dominated lending 40-50 years ago. (Nor should we want to, considering ORANGE’s wealth-generating capabilities!)
BLUE regulations and processes certainly have their place – and perhaps are essential for this industry. However, ORANGE also needs watching from a more complex point of view which understands what ORANGE does, which understands how it will exploit less complex thinking sytems (PURPLE and RED) and how it can outwit BLUE. Yet a point of view which doesn’t want to stop ORANGE generating wealth.
Perhaps would-be borrowers should be psychologically-assessed to determine their capability of handling debt and what amount of debt? The obvious checks are not always the ones we need to make: Stephen Lewis was on a not-unreasonable salary and at the time of his death was still within his given credit limits.
There are not necessarily easy straight-forward answers to what is at heart a multi-vMEME issue. But, until we understand the complex inter-vMEME issues at play here, we are unlikely to be able to propose solutions that will stick. As so often, it’s a case of starting with the right questions!