Saturday, February 26, 2005

Wilmington Diary, Day Seven: Enough Already

Now that I've completed the first full calendar week on this assignment, I think I'm ready to drop the Wilmington-specific references from my daily blog entries. That's not to say that I won't be writing about the things I observe at my employer or in Wilmington in the future; just that I won't be doing this every single day. I'd like to throw in observations on other things, including what I read in the papers and see going on elsewhere, and I can't really do that in a "Wilmington Diary."

Besides, how much can I say about a city that isn't all that different from hundreds of other small- to medium-sized US cities that are trying to revive their downtowns? Wilmington is fortunate only in that it is in a state where one company and one family--both of which share a common name--wield enormous power and influence and have the cash to back that up. Wilmington's banking-based downtown building boom is the direct result of a law promoted by then-Gov. Pierre S. DuPont IV. The family's hotel is one of the main buildings on the city's central square. And even though it is now outstripped by one of those banks as the city's largest employer, DuPont still employs many Wilmingtonians who take an active interest in civic affairs.

None of this has prevented Market Street from fading as a shoppers' magnet. Even the splendid transformation of an old Masonic temple on Market into the Grand Opera House--bankrolled by MBNA--hasn't brought true nightlife to downtown, whose streets still are mostly quiet after 6 p.m. But amidst the decay, there are still plenty of signs of life, and at least for now, we can cling on to these and hope for better days to come.

On the job: I know this much--I'm fast. But it appears I need to take some more time to study the documents I review to make sure they are communicating clearly with their intended audience. Accuracy and clarity are as important as speed in this job.

I'm also going to have to adjust my dining habits in the company café. I've heard from co-workers that it's very easy to put on weight on the fare served there. (There's also a fitness center, one floor down from the café, but I'm not eligible to use it. However, there are several walking/jogging routes posted on a bulletin board just inside its entrance, and I can use those any time I want.)

Today's observation: How is a credit card like a bottle of wine? When used properly, both offer great benefits. Use them too much, though, and you'll get into trouble.

I'm reading stories in the papers about a pending bankruptcy-reform bill working its way through Congress. Its intent is to make it more difficult for individuals, especially affluent ones, to get out from under all their debts through a Chapter 7 filing. The bill's backers--mainly the big credit-card banks--want these people to file Chapter 13 instead, which requires the filer to at least pay back some of what is owed.

Oddly enough, I'm sympathetic to the card companies' argument--but only up to a point. Yes, if people can afford to pay back some of their debts, they should, and the bankruptcy law shouldn't just be an easy way out from under a spending bender. But people really do fall on hard times they didn't prepare for--and part of the blame for this lies with the card companies.

Our modern lifestyle is not geared towards saving; it's geared towards spending. Almost every advertising message we see, and every unsolicited credit-card offer that lands in our mailboxes, is an invitation to spend. And not just spend--spend as much as possible as soon as possible. We will even make it easy for you by fronting you your future income; when you get it, just give it back to us along with a modest fee.

For the overwhelming majority of us, this isn't a problem. But it might well become one should we lose our jobs or come down with a serious illness or injury. Too many of us spend all our paychecks as they come in, despite what the personal-finance columnists and advisors say, and the difference between success and disaster is one missed paycheck. At that point, a downward spiral begins that can only be halted through filing bankruptcy.

Should that be avoided? Certainly. But we shouldn't close it off as an option just because some people use it not as a lifeline but as a hangover cure.

Postscript: After publishing this, I took a look at the most recently published blogs on Blogger. One of them is called "Payday Loans." That blog is nothing but a series of come-ons for these short-term cash advances at usurious interest rates. It might have been more interesting if it were a cry for help from someone who has become hooked on them.

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