Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

With Credit Problems, Hard To See A Bigger Picture

Last month, The New York Times reported that credit rating bureaus have a two-tiered system for fixing credit errors — with celebrities and other high-profile individuals receiving priority.

Last month, The New York Times reported that credit rating bureaus have a two-tiered system for fixing credit errors — with celebrities and other high-profile individuals receiving priority. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com

Sometimes people ask me if I miss being in television. The truthful answer is: sometimes. I do not miss worrying about whether my hair and clothes and makeup are just so at the same time that I am trying to think of a smart question. I do sometimes miss the power of the camera ... being able to show people what they do not want to face.

Around here we like to say that words make the best pictures. But — I am sorry, radio — sometimes people really need to see things for themselves before they can believe it. And sometimes even then they don't believe it — but at least you've given it your best shot.

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath was an example of that. Could anybody really have imagined that their government, their nation — the richest on Earth — would allow its citizens to suffer that kind of degradation and negligence if they had not been able to see it with their own eyes? Even now I find it hard to believe some of the things I saw — and I was in Houston as the first evacuees arrived from New Orleans, many of them exhausted, dehydrated and traumatized.

Can I just tell you? Here's the bigger problem: Many of our most pressing problems are ones we cannot see, at least right now, no matter how many cameras we have, no matter how hard we try. Or we cannot see it unless and until the problem smacks us in our faces — and then it is too late.

The federal deficit is that kind of problem. How do you really explain what it will mean if we do not get this problem under control? What do you take a picture of? And it doesn't help that the people who are most vocal about this are people who don't give you the impression they've ever been cold or hungry or frightened in their entire lives. So why, if you think the government should help you with heat or health care or a job, should you listen to them?

It also doesn't help that the people complaining the loudest about that abstract — but very real — problem don't seem to have very much to say about the other cancers eating away at our financial viability, which are the corruption and chaos that have become routine in some of the most important financial institutions.

The New York Times had a story last month that was an example of that. The paper reported that the credit rating bureaus have a two-tiered system for fixing credit errors. Celebrities, politicians and other influentials get special help in resolving errors on their credit reports, while everyone else is shunted into an automated system where — and you'll really love this — complaints are shoveled to a contractor overseas, who then spends an average of two minutes thinking about it and then most times applies a computer code that a creditor may or may not address.

Now, it's one thing to get the velvet rope treatment when you're trying to get into a nightclub you don't need to go to, for the privilege of paying too much for a cocktail you don't need, so you can be ignored by people you shouldn't be going out with anyway. It is quite another matter to be treated like garbage by a group of companies that influence everything from the price you pay for your mortgage or what credit card you get — if you get one — to the job offers you may or may not receive if your credit is bad. The New York Times recounted horror stories of innocent people whose files had been confused with deadbeats or convicted felons, and there was nothing they could do short of the courts to fix it — if they could get somebody to take their case.

But here's the obvious issue the Times did not mention: The very fact that such a two-tiered system exists is a powerful indicator that the system doesn't work at all. Because if it did, why would rich and famous people need special advocates? Do famous people get their own traffic lights? No, because when traffic lights work, they work for everybody, and when they don't work, they don't work for anybody.

Increasingly, it seems, our capital and financial services industries aren't run like traffic lights. They're run like nightclubs, for the profit of a few and the convenience of a few, while everybody else stands outside in the cold, looking foolish. But somehow we can't see ourselves. Not yet.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues