Extra, extra credit

“The Card Game’’ examines the credit card industry. “The Card Game’’ examines the credit card industry. (Marlena Telvick)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / November 24, 2009

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There are 100,000 credit card transactions per minute in the United States, and Americans carry nearly $1 trillion in credit card debt. Plastic has become as much a part of the American way as Mom, apple pie, and the flag. At least two of those items you can purchase with a credit card.

“The Card Game,’’ tonight’s “Frontline,’’ on Channel 2, looks at the dark - and highly profitable - underbelly of the credit card system. It looks at storefront lenders and debit cards, too. (There are now more transactions in this country with debit cards than credit cards.)

Correspondent Lowell Bergman talks to the famous - Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Senators Christopher Dodd and Richard Shelby, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera - as well as others not so well known.

The latter include people who’ve done very well by credit cards, thank you very much. Twenty years ago Shailesh Mehta came up with the idea of marketing credit cards to “un-banked’’ users - that is, focusing on the customers most likely to fall behind in their payments and thus make the credit companies the biggest profits. As Mehta says, “the pricing was designed [so] that it will require a degree of some sort to understand how many different ways I am paying and what I am paying.’’

There’s Texas consultant Bill Strunk. “I’m not a liberal,’’ he says, explaining his opposition to a federal regulatory agency for credit. “I don’t like the government dictating to bankers.’’ Strunk sold banks on the idea of letting customers overdraw their checking accounts - and then being required to pay stiff fees to the banks for having done so.

Bergman also talks to individuals undone, or nearly so, by debit or credit cards. There’s a high school teacher who, unaware she’d overdrawn her account, ended up having to pay $40 for a small pizza - $7 for the pizza, and $33 in penalties. And the woman who got in trouble because of carrying debt on her Visa card - except it was a Nordstrom Visa, so it’s a bit harder to sympathize.

The populist thrust of “The Card Game’’ is plain (card users good, banks bad). And just when it begins to seem the deck is stacked a bit too much, the banks stack the deck against themselves. Declining to speak to “Frontline,’’ they refer questions to a pair of industry lobbyists, a woman and a man. She’s so odious, and he’s so mealymouthed, it makes the end of capitalism seem like an attractive proposition.

That’s not about to happen anytime soon, of course. Bartenders may shamelessly overcharge and do their best to conceal it, but they aren’t the ones lining up for drinks. “Lending money to people is never a difficult exercise,’’ Mehta says. “People will take money if you’re willing to give [it to] them.’’ If “The Card Game’’ feels a bit superficial and reductive, that may be because politics, economics, and business are its focus. What’s missing is a strong dose of anthropology.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

FRONTLINE: The Card Game

On: WGBH, Channel 2

Time: Tonight 9-10