Fixed and variable

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(HOST) This morning, commentator Philip Baruth explores the hitherto unknown connection between credit card offers and real-estate mag- azines.

(BARUTH) Every night, when I get home from a day at work, there are envelopes lying on my kitchen table. Two, three, sometimes four envelopes, all of them containing letters offering me thousands and thousands of dollars in credit. All share the same attractive feature: a one percent fixed interest rate on any money I borrow.

But there’s a glitch. Next to the word “fixed”, there is a very small asterisk pointing to a series of foot-notes in eight-point type. These miniscule sentences are disturbing because they confirm, on the face of them, that we live in a corporate state of twilight legality. Here are the sentences, and remember, they describe, not a variable rate, but a fixed rate:

“You understand that the terms of your account, including the annual percentage rate or APR, are subject to change. This means that the APRs for this offer are not guaranteed; APRs may change to higher APRs, fixed APRs may change to variable APRs, or variable APRs may change to fixed APRs. We reserve the right to change the terms (including APRs) at any time for any reason.”

In biblical terms, this is the poetry of usury: fixed is variable and variable is fixed; day is night; hot is cold, how dark and how cold depending on our corporate needs of the moment. It’s breathtaking, especially when you realize that failing to live up to any of these terms, even once, for a single day, leads immediately to the default rate of interest, which is 29.49 percent. Once you hit this default rate, of course, it is fixed, and fixed suddenly means fixed again. These companies are not breaking the law, but they are thieves just the same.

So why do I open these envelopes? Because I am addicted to real estate magazines, the kind they give away free at the grocery store. I love my house, but I have a deep and abiding weakness for Picket Fence Preview, its sumptuous pictures and its own sort of poetry: the brick Tudor homes don’t have trees in the backyard, they have “treed backyards”, and grand master bedrooms. I have a bedroom now, and I aspire, I guess, to a master bedroom, but there’s also this harsh inner voice that’s always driving me to acquire a grand master bedroom. Or an alpine haven chalet, or a horsefarm, with fieldstone fireplace, leaded glass and hand-hewn beams.

These houses cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more than we could ever afford, but this doesn’t matter. Because, every night, my table is piled high with letters offering me those same hundreds of thousands of dollars, and if I’m diligent, I’ll find the one honest offer in that mass of deception, the one somehow free of the asterisk, and I’ll be able to connect this unlimited stream of cash to my unending desire for more and better houses and outbuildings.

And then, I will fulfill my destiny. I will become, not merely a 21st- century American man, but an American man in a soaring contemporary with a walk-in pantry and to-die-for views.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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