For those suffering creeping concerns that the model love and romance in our culture has become increasingly one of commodification, a Christmas Day New York Times article about the relationship of credit scores and dating will turn up the volume on your anxieties. Credit scores, which are generated by private companies and often misrepresent a person’s financial responsibility, were created to help banks decide how to lend money, but, in recent years, are increasingly used to determine if someone can get a job or rent an apartment. And now, according to this trend piece, more people are pushing dates to reveal the number, presumably so they can decide to continue the process toward creating a merged household economic unit that some of still quaintly refer to as marriage.
The story starts off with a handy villain, a man who asks women for their credit scores on a first date to determine if he should bother calling them for a second one. As the story wears on, however, it becomes harder to sit in judgment of people who fear hooking up with someone with a low credit score, as having one increasingly means being permanently relegated to a lower caste, denied housing and employment opportunities that someone who managed never to pay a cable bill late does not have to endure. Just as we can’t blame a Jane Austen character for worrying more about marrying well than marrying for love, it’s hard to blame people for acting like the economic units our capitalist society has reduced us to instead of acting like people.
After all, we live in an era when presidential candidate Mitt Romney frames marriage not as a union of people in love, but an anti-poverty program that only requires “getting married to someone” in order to complete the economic task of raising the next generation of laborers and consumers. The big holiday comedy out now is Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, which presents marriage much like the workplace is portrayed in the early years of NBC’s sitcom The Office: As an institution you’re shoved into with people you don’t like very much but have to endure to fulfill your economic and social responsibilities. The movie inspired Alexis Coe to write a piece for the Atlantic looking at whether or not it’s common for people to fantasize about their spouses dying, instead of fantasizing about a break-up that leaves both parties physically intact. She found that it is, which makes sense in a society where marriage is treated like a job, and getting a divorce reads like getting fired.
This grim, mercenary view of love and marriage may feel appealingly “realistic,” but it’s not. Take, for instance, this silly quote from the New York Times story:
“Credit scores are like the dating equivalent of a sexually transmitted disease test,” said Manisha Thakor, the founder and chief executive of MoneyZen Wealth Management, a financial advisory firm. “It’s a shorthand way to get a sense of someone’s financial past the same way an S.T.D. test gives some information about a person’s sexual past.”
All an STD test can tell you about a person’s sexual past is whether they have one. Having an STD is not a reliable indicator that one is irresponsible, but simply a measure of whether you trusted someone enough to have sex with them without a condom, something that people in socially approved monogamous relationships do every day. In that sense, the analogy is correct. A low credit score doesn’t tell you much about a person other than they’ve had difficulties in the past. It doesn’t tell you if those difficulties are a result of irresponsibility or misfortune.
Of course, a trend story that relies heavily on interviews with a mere 50 online daters does not an actual trend make. While there does seem to be an uptick in Americans piously telling each other to focus on the pragmatic and financial when dating, most people—including Mitt Romney—reserve the right to priortize love when it comes to their own living rooms and bedrooms. Even if the credit industry manages to get your credit score tattooed on your chest, I imagine that won’t do much to change people’s stubborn insistence on picking their mates for love instead of money.