THE CREDIT card companies are making eyes at me again. Bank One whispers seductive interest rates in my ear. Wachovia Securities offers to show me the world. Union Plus shows up, flowers in hand, to make its own sweet pitch. Their mailings have all arrived this week. Around my house, we have a name for three credit card offers in one week. We call it a Slow Week.
Human nature being what it is, we Americans have always loved the notion of buying now and paying later. The credit card companies know this, and therefore pitch us continually. It is our national sport to buy goods we do not need with money we do not have, and pretend that the end of the month will never arrive.
Wachovia's new mailing offers photographs of faraway places. Use our credit card to see the whole world, the photos imply. One picture looks like the south of France, another some balmy Caribbean isle. I have never been to the south of France. I glance at my checkbook. According to my latest balance, I can barely afford a trip to South Baltimore, much less the south of France. As for beautiful isles, I will have to settle for Hart-Miller during the balmy sludge-dumping season.
But the credit card companies offer us the world, if only we will pay heed to their siren calls. So we listen - and we pay. The end of the month arrives sooner than we hoped. The government says Americans owe credit card companies more than $730 billion. This is quadruple what we owed just 15 years ago. This week, the American Bankers Association reported that the percentage of credit card payments that were past due shot up to record heights in the final quarter of last year.
I thought about this two days ago, when Joe Curran and Wayne Gilchrest showed up in Annapolis to talk about their own version of a worrisome siren call - not credit cards, but slot machines, which Gov. Robert Ehrlich offers as our passport out of the grim Maryland financial troubles to a brighter, balmier economic world.
Curran told a House committee: Don't believe it. He pointed to Atlantic City, where the number of pawn shops has multiplied since the arrival of gambling there - from two, said Curran, to about 100. This is not what Maryland wants, said the attorney general. Everybody on the committee listened quite respectfully, because you can cross the length and breadth of this state, and you will not find a man with a higher sense of morality than Curran.
But, as it happens, I disagree with him.
Then there was Gilchrest. Bucking party loyalty, the Republican congressman echoed Curran. "If gambling constitutes an economic strategy," he asked, "why wasn't it used in the Great Depression?" Again, everybody listened respectfully - because Gilchrest is regarded as a man of impeccable honesty and great empathy with working people.
But, as it happens, I disagree with him, too.
Then there is the governor of Maryland, who watched last evening as the House of Delegates battled over a final vote on a plan to raise the sales tax, temporarily raise income taxes on wealthy families - and reduce property taxes paid by homeowners.
Not to be overlooked, the plan might push aside Ehrlich's attempts to bring slot machines to Maryland. Over two legislative sessions, those attempts have thus far gone up in flames. Partly, because Ehrlich tried last year to slip some phony dollar figures past everybody, and imagined they wouldn't notice. They did. And partly because House Speaker Michael Busch has made this governor look like a callow schoolboy who didn't do his homework.
Which I find pathetic because, frankly, I take Ehrlich's side on this issue.
It's not that I like slot machines - they're a sucker's game. But, if played with discretion, just a game. And it's not that I don't appreciate the dangers: Some people will blow the rent money on a dream. It's what some of us do - the same way some of us get brochures from credit card companies every week with photographs of the south of France, when we can barely afford the joys of South Baltimore.
As adults, we make choices. What bothers me is the patronizing tone to the anti-slots argument. It says that people who want to gamble are throwing away their dissolute lives on an afternoon's frolic when they should be investing their spare cash in municipal bonds. And what bothers me is the hypocrisy: A state that incessantly sings the siren call of lottery and racetrack commercials is going to claim purity on some other gambling variation?
As it happens, I also think the House tax package makes sense: Why, for instance, shouldn't wealthy families pay more taxes? As the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a Washington tax-reform group, has pointed out, Maryland's middle class and poor pay a higher percentage of their incomes than the rich.
What's too bad is that, apparently, there's not much heart for a legislative combination - of tax reform, and slots, too.