Viewpoint: Credit where it is due

I was driving into Riga last week listening to an excellent discussion on Latvian Radio's Krustpunkta show of Latvia's bid to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 

Joining the OECD is a minor obsession among ministers, officials and experts, abetted by a media entering the quiet summer season and desperate for a long-running story. All agree that joining the OECD is a Very Important Step.

In contrast, the members of the public calling in to the show had very little idea what all the fuss was about. They did not know what the OECD is, what it does, how it works and most important of all, what difference joining it will actually make to their daily lives.

Just as I prepared to have all this explained to me, my cellphone rang. You should not take cellphone calls while driving, but this is Latvia so I answered and listened to an unfamiliar voice as the car waltzed rhythmically from lane to lane.  

"Congratulations, you are eligible for an exclusive Gold Card!" said the voice in a manner that suggested I should immediately pull over and fall to my knees by the roadside to thank the goddess Abundantia for this bounteous blessing.

"Who is this?" I asked.

"Your bank. We have been running a series of checks and..."

"The money will be there before my mortgage payment is due!" I said, leaping to the wrong conclusion.

"...you are now eligible for a Gold Card. Would you like it mailed or do you prefer to collect it from your nearest branch?"

"There must be some mistake."

"No mistake, Sir. You meet all the eligibility criteria: income, outgoings, years with the bank and above all credit rating. I am authorized to tell you that your credit rating score is outstanding. Outstanding."

"But I can't afford a Gold Card."

"You certainly can, Sir. That is why we are calling. Plus the Gold Card comes with a range of valuable additional benefits."

"Such as?"

"Free travel insurance for loss of limb or death on trips outside the European Union."

I never travel outside the European Union. It is just possible that at some point in the future I will be asked on a press trip to examine Chinese sawmills during which here will be a tragic accident resulting in the loss of a leg, with enough witnesses to make an insurance company pay up. It is not a major incentive.

"Then there's discounts on multiplex cinema tickets, stadium concerts by the biggest pop stars and attractive offers on the latest electronic goods."

I hate multiplex cinemas, I hate stadium concerts and I hate the latest electronic goods.

"I don't want a Gold Card. It won't make any difference to me."

There was a brief pause at the end of the line as he loaded his secret weapon.

"Our analysis shows that many of your friends and colleagues already have Gold Cards. They use Gold Cards on a daily basis as an essential part of their busy, modern lifestyles. The Gold Card provides flexibility, convenience and prestige."

It was this last word, "prestige" that hit home. It awoke a series of unpleasant memories of business lunches and Friday evening drinks at which my "friends and colleagues" would nonchalantly pull their Gold Cards from wallets and purses to settle their share of the bill.

In contrast, I would reach for my cellphone and quickly negotiate one of the short-term, high-interest loans which are the main source of credit for the greater part of the Latvian population. I have taken out dozens of them. No wonder my credit rating is sky-high; just like the repayments if you are a week late. 

Suddenly the Gold Card seemed an attractive prospect. The interest rates would probably be a little better than the instant lenders and if I happened to default they would merely take away my house (which they already own) and all my possessions via the courts without visits from large men in leather jackets on their way to baseball practice.

Even better, I would no longer feel embarrassed among my peers and could wave my gold card around at the bar in just the same vulgar and pretentious manner.

"I'll collect it from my branch."

"I shall inform them to expect you, Sir!" said my anonymous banking benefactor. "Plus as soon as you have collected one hundred thousand points, you will automatically become eligible for our exclusive Platinum Card!"

"How long is that likely to take?" I asked out of curiosity. I heard the sound of keys being rapidly depressed and a mouse clicking as he checked my account.

"According to your current spending patterns, one hundred and fifty-three years, Sir."

Sadly, I missed the end of the OECD discussion as I was then pulled over by the police but the following day I was able to pay the resultant fine using my brand new Gold Card.

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