The cult classic film “Repo Man” turns 25 this year, and I’d like to mark the occasion by quoting this exchange between two of the lead characters. The context here is the moral justification for taking away people’s cars by stealth and subterfuge–an activity that looks very much like simple auto theft–when those people fail to make their contractual payments. According to Bud, the wizened Yoda to Otto’s Luke, repo work not only isn’t “stealing,” it’s a blow for justice and the American Way:
Bud: Credit is a sacred trust, it’s what our free society is founded on. Do you think they give a damn about their bills in Russia? I said, do you think they give a damn about their bills in Russia?
Otto: They don’t pay bills in Russia, it’s all free.
There’s something poignant now, even charmingly retro in the post-apocalyptic financescape of 2009, about the phrase “Credit is a sacred trust.” It seems to belong to another world.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan might have been thinking of Bud when he said in a 1990 commencement address at Harvard College,
Trust is at the root of any economic system based on mutually beneficial exchange. In virtually all transactions, we rely on the word of those with whom we do business…If a significant number of business people violated the trust upon which our interactions are based, our court system and our economy would be swamped into immobility.
Prophecy, or just a gloss of the Gospel According to “Repo Man?” You decide.
As for Otto’s utopian vision of the Russian socio-economic complex, credit cards and cowboy capitalism put an end to all that. For an excellent account (no pun intended), see Prof. Alya Guseva’s recent book, Into the Red (Stanford University Press, 2008).
Meanwhile, Happy Birthday “Repo Man!”