Rochester Business Journal

RIT consumer credit guru heads to the big screen

Will Astor, September 22, 2006

    Robert Manning is not exactly a rock star. But in the somewhat unlikely position of a crusader for responsible borrowing and banking reform, he seems to be coming as close to glitterati status as a business school professor from an Upstate New York university is likely to get.
    A professor of consumer finance at Rochester Institute of Technology's E. Phillip Saunders College of Business, Manning is the author of "Credit Card Nation: The Consequences of America's Addiction to Credit," a book he describes as a discourse on the effects of banking deregulation on consumer credit. 
    As a plotline, that might seem a bit abstract to make for a best seller, let alone for riveting cinema. Yet the book, which is selling briskly, has been turned into a movie-an 88-minute documentary entitled "In Debt We Trust." 
    Manning, who is credited as the film's editorial adviser and who appears in it, has high hopes.
    "We're thinking it could be an 'Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room' or 'Supersize Me,'" he said, naming two widely seen and widely praised recent documentaries.
    "In Debt We Trust" is slated for sold-out screenings at RIT Oct. 6 and 7. As of press time, Manning was trying to arrange for an additional screening. Also scheduled at RIT is an Oct. 3 panel discussion at which a 30-minute clip of the movie is to be shown.
    Panelists include Manning; Stephen Brobeck, executive director of Consumer Federation of America; and Danny Schechter, director and producer of "In Debt We Trust" and of "WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception," a documentary based on Schechter's book on the media's role in the run-up to the Iraq War. 
    The premise of "Credit Card Nation" is that deregulation has allowed the largest U.S. and global banks to easily securitize loan portfolios by quickly selling off credit card and auto debt as well as mortgages, Manning explains. This has encouraged the big banks to worry less about risk and to more indiscriminately draw in credit card customers.
    While this has meant big profits for big national and international banks, Manning said, regional banks and consumers have suffered. Inured to high debt loads by easy credit approvals and lulled by low minimum monthly payments, consumers have amassed piles of high-interest debt on which many have defaulted. Midsize banks, meanwhile, no longer can risk loaning money to much of their traditional, but now debt-burdened middle-class base.
    Bankruptcy reform, backed by the banking industry and passed by Congress last year, has not worked as intended, Manning said. Two million bankruptcies nationwide have been filed since the law passed some 12 months ago, while consumer debt continues to rise. He predicted as much when he testified before Congress urging defeat of the reform proposals last year, Manning said.
    While "Credit Card Nation" has made no apparent dent in the country's credit card habits, it has made Manning into something of a celebrity.
    Since its publication in 2001, Manning has been in steady demand on network and cable news shows. He has been featured on "60 Minutes" and "60 Minutes II." ABC's and CBS's evening news shows and MSNBC News have run multiple segments featuring him. He has been tapped as credit expert by the BBC.
    In the past six months, Manning has appeared twice on the Cable News Network's "In the Money" and has been a guest on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." His appeal is non-partisan.
    Manning describes the movie as a collaborative effort between himself and Schechter. The film was completed some two months ago. Manning and Schechter since have shown it on the festival circuit, a learning experience for him in the ways of "the industry."
    "We were in the Denver Film Festival and we're hoping for Sundance," Manning said, naming two of the higher-profile venues at which filmmakers hope to snag a deal for distribution to theaters.
    Those efforts apparently have yielded some fruit.
    "We're negotiating with a distributor now," Manning said. 
    After one festival screening of "In Debt We Trust," Manning said, he was buttonholed by former "West Wing" and "L.A. Law" star Jimmy Smits. Smits said he had been on the fence about accepting an offer to appear in a MasterCard commercial, but as the father of a 20-year-old daughter, the film had convinced him to turn the credit card company's lucrative offer down, Manning said. 
    "In Debt We Trust" brings the abstract arguments of "Credit Card Nation" to earth by connecting them to real-life effects. The opening sequence, for example, deals with an African-American church that has endured a bankruptcy.
    The film was done on a shoestring budget, Manning said. It helped that people were willing to donate efforts, among them Lorraine Bracco, portrayer of Jennifer Melfi, psychiatrist to Tony Soprano on the HBO series, "The Sopranos," and a former bankruptcy declarer.
    Despite his initiation as a player in "the industry," Manning seems not to have gone Hollywood and has stayed on track as a crusader for credit and banking reform. He was slated Thursday to screen "In Debt We Trust" for Congressional staffers in Washington, D.C., and has met recently with officials of several large banks, whom he is trying to interest in adopting alternative consumer credit policies. 
    Meanwhile, Manning is awaiting publication of his next book, expected to come out in some two months. "Give Yourself Credit" outlines what Manning considers to be responsible but creative use of credit. It should disabuse all of any notion that he is merely an anti-credit scold.
    "I talk about creative but responsible use of credit," Manning said, "using credit cards to make no-money-down real estate purchases, for example."
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This story ran on Rochester Business Journal on September 22, 2006.