Dominic Lawson: I am glad everyone has the chance to borrow money even if some fall into terrible debt

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The Independent Online

In common with about 90 per cent of the population I bin all offers of credit or services that arrive in the post. Sometimes, however, the hard sell is so elaborate that it is difficult to resist reading the material, if only to marvel at its ingenuity.

Last week I received a letter from the Finance Director of Reader's Digest, a Mr Tartuga, informing me that I had been shortlisted to win one of its prize-draws. "A large orange Reader's Digest envelope bearing a green 028 tracking label is due to arrive at your address in the next few days. You have 72 hours. Then you must decide whether Dominic Lawson could be the name on our next 250,000 winner's cheque", Mr Tartuga writes. He adds: "A sum has already been placed on deposit with NatWest London EC2, to make this 250,000 payment.

"However, at this critical stage, 50 per cent of potential winners will disqualify themselves from a 250,000 win by their inaction. With 250,000 at stake and only 72 hours to go, please make the right decision. We believe you have the foresight and speed to go on and be a winner. My advice is simple: reply promptly a 250,000 win for you could depend on it. It's not our decision. It's your decision to enter. When a large orange envelope is posted through your letter box, don't ignore it."

Yesterday, the large orange envelope duly arrived, and the Reader's Digest Finance Director had become even more histrionic, this time sending me a very realistic-looking cheque for 250,000, marred only by the words "example only". The latest letter also revealed the true purpose of all the hyperventilation and hyperbole: I was being invited to join the Readers' Digest book club, via an "introductory offer".

As I say, in common with the vast majority of the population, I draw only one conclusion from such letters: the insidious mixture of threat and ingratiation is telling me that this is an offer I should ignore. Does the fact that 10 per cent of people might fall for this sort of sales pitch mean that it should be banned?

I don't think so, and not just because of an ingrained prejudice in favour of freedom of speech: some who take up the offer might actually enjoy being a member of the Reader's Digest book club. Others might later regret it, but still think it had been worth entering the 250,000 prize draw. Those who decide that it had been a thorough waste of time and effort in every respect will, for the most part, join the 90 per cent who bin such mail immediately. This is called learning from experience. It's why the vast majority of children put their hand in a candle's flame only once.

The same principles of learning should indeed, must apply to the potentially more dangerous invitations from credit card companies. The first three pages of Wednesday's edition of this newspaper were devoted to the theme of "Broke Britain", based on the fact that "debt experts are predicting a record number of personal insolvencies this year". That's the sort of event which must make "debt experts" feel very involved and necessary, but even so, they may well be right to make such a forecast, given the extent of personal borrowing, and the risk of a recession.

The Independent also declared Liverpool to be "Britain's capital of debt". That would not be a surprise. In his book, Liverpool: Gateway of Empire, the ex-merchant seaman Gary Lane writes that his fellow Liverpudlians "have a cavalier disregard for money; this is a city with the habit of the seafarer ashore after a voyage spend it while you can, because the world might end tomorrow". Gary Lane went on to point out that there are about 50 per cent more black cabs per person in Liverpool than in much more affluent London: "such an elementary statistic encodes the peculiarity of Liverpool".

Indeed it does: and why shouldn't Liverpudlians be the way they are? There is something attractive in their resolutely optimistic Micawberism, unwise as it might be. Twenty years ago I was given an insight into this, when, as part of a journalistic investigation, I pretended to be a debt-collector, and accompanied a real one on his rounds in some of Liverpool's council estates. Two things struck me. The first was the great friendliness (possibly born of familiarity) that the debtors showed to us. The second was that when the debt collector offered them a rescheduling of payments, none of them asked what they would now be paying out over the length of the loan: they simply wanted to make sure that the weekly payments were affordable. I wanted to urge them to tell the debt collector he could keep the stereo/leather sofa/illuminated flashing whatsit; but that wasn't in the deal.

In any case, people from the rest of the country have no particular reason, collectively, to sneer at the improvidence of Liverpudlians. Britain, as a whole, has and has had for decades a much greater propensity to spend, and a much smaller propensity to save, than the inhabitants of such countries as Germany and Japan. In this respect, we are much closer to the Americans. It's impossible to know exactly why this should be so perhaps these two English-speaking nations are, in general, more optimistic by nature (and therefore less cautious) than Germans and Japanese.

Some would argue that the reason lies in the greater availability of credit in the US and the UK. That might be part of the story, but I do not share the fashionable view which declares this to have been nothing but a disaster. Before this liberalisation of financial services, the poor were effectively excluded from the main lending markets, and were victims of really vicious underground credit sharks. The big lending institutions imposed so-called "red lines", in which entire sections of the inner cities were deemed to be beyond the credit pale, regardless of the good character of individuals in those areas.

After all, did not Muhammad Yunus win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his Grameen Bank's willingness to lend without collateral to the poorest people in rural Bangladesh? It is true that the Bangladeshis borrowed to pay for the most basic things in life, while much of Britain's credit card debt is accumulated in the purchase of inessentials; but we should resist legislating against the pursuit of pleasure, however crass its manifestations.

This is not an argument in favour of the complete deregulation of all lending, but one against treating adults as if they are children incapable of judgement or learning from experience. In the elegant words of the late Professor Jim Gower: "Regulation should not be at a level set to achieve the impossible task of protecting fools from their own folly it should be no greater than that required to protect reasonable people from being made fools of."

As for the Reader's Digest, we should definitely let its finance director make a fool of himself.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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