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Complete Disclosure On Credit Card Reform

Georgetown law professor Adam Levitin joins Fresh Air to discuss the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act, which President Obama recently signed into law.

21:44

Other segments from the episode on June 4, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 4, 2009: Interview with Adam Levitin; Review of Joyce DiDonato's debut album "Furore;" Interview with David Carradine; Review of Chandler Burr's new novel “You or…

Transcript

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Complete Disclosure On Credit Card Reform

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Last month, President Obama signed into law the Credit Card Accountability,
Responsibility and Disclosure Act. It was designed to curb some of the credit-
card industry’s most controversial, some would say abusive, practices.

The bill prohibits companies from raising interest rates on existing balances
unless a borrower is at least 60 days late, and it requires 45 days notice
before raising any interest rates. It also increases disclosure requirements
and limits the company’s ability to market credit cards to young people.

But our guest, Adam Levitin, believes the traditionally regulatory approach of
banning specific practices and requiring more transparency won’t effectively
rein in companies determined to squeeze customers for more revenue. We invited
him in to explain his ideas for an alternative approach to credit-card
regulation. Adam Levitin is an associate law professor at Georgetown,
specializing in bankruptcy and commercial law. He’s testified before Congress
several times on the credit-card industry.

Adam Levitin, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now a credit card is, in some sense, a way
of transacting a loan. I mean, the bank is loaning you money for a purchase,
and in most traditional loans, the lender wants the principal back, and they
want some interest, and they make money on that. You told Congress in April
that what the credit-card companies really do is fundamentally different. In a
lot of cases, they’re not so interested in getting the principal back.

Mr. ADAM LEVITIN (Law Professor, Georgetown University): That’s right. There
are several different business models that operate within the card industry,
but one of them is what Ronald Mann at Columbia Law School has termed the
sweat-box model. And the sweat-box credit-card lender is not looking to get its
principal back. Instead, it wants to keep the consumer paying, and the way it
does this is that it will loan money to a consumer beyond the consumer’s
ability to repay in the short term, and even if the consumer never is able to
actually repay that principal, the card issuer will still make a profit because
the interest rates and the fees on the balance will be so high that it will
offset the loss of the principal. And this is a very different model than
anything we’ve seen in the credit world before where we have a lender who is
making a loan and really not wanting to get paid back - and that starts to look
very predatory.

If you wanted to go to a sort of a basic definition of predatory lending, it
would be lending with conscious disregard of consumers’ ability to repay, and
that’s exactly what the sweat-box model is. It’s saying we want to keep you
forever locked in as an annuity, that we want you just paying, paying, paying
and never getting out of debt.

DAVIES: Right, so you’re kind of – you get on this treadmill where you’re just
running and running and generating fees, and in the end, the principal, I mean,
doesn’t matter so much.

When you spoke to Congress in April, you talked to them about what effective
reform would be like, and one of the interesting points you made was that all
of this talk about providing more transparency, disclosing information in
clear, readable English in bold type, as opposed to these dense statements,
which are utterly inscrutable, that that kind of disclosure really is not going
to work. Why?

Mr. LEVITIN: Well, disclosure has been the primary model for credit-card
regulations since 1968, since we enacted the Truth in Lending Act, and the idea
behind disclosure has always been that if you put the information out there so
that consumers can see it and understand it, then consumers will make
intelligent, responsible choices, that consumers will know whether to use a
credit card and which credit card to use.

The problem with disclosure as a model for credit-card regulation is that it is
not very good at dealing with complex financial products. So disclosure might
have been a sensible thing when credit cards first appeared because credit
cards used to be pretty simple. They would have a single interest rate and
maybe an annual fee, and that was it.

Today, however, that’s not what credit cards look like. Credit cards have more
price points, different types of fees and interest rates, than any other
consumer financial product. It’s not even close, and the result is that it
makes it very hard to do comparison shopping between credit cards.

I can very easily look at two different credit cards and compare their purchase
interest rate, but that doesn’t tell me what the total cost of revolving a
balance on the card will be.

DAVIES: What are some of those other ways that you can get smacked, those other
price points?

Mr. LEVITIN: Well, some of them are very – are explicit price points, the
things that are actually disclosed up front, things that there is a cash-
advance interest rate. Well, you have to know what qualifies as a cash advance.
So for example, you will often get convenience checks with your credit-card
statement. Those checks are subject to the cash-advance interest rate, and
there may also be an additional fee.

None of those fees are actually disclosed on the convenience checks,
incidentally. So you get the check, you say oh great, I can use this to pay my
rent or my utility bill, put it on my credit card, and you don’t realize that
well, it’s actually at a much higher rate than if you went to the store and
purchased some groceries.

There are also things like, over-limit fees and late fees. There are foreign-
transaction fees now. There are all these very direct-to-consumer fees. Some of
them are up front, like annual fees that you know you have to pay. Others are
contingent upon your use of the card like late fees or over-limit fees.

There are also fees like interchange fees that are charged to the merchant, but
they get passed through to consumers. And then there are a lot of hidden price
points, credit-card billing practices that effectively goose up the cost of
using a credit card without having to have that disclosed.

So for example, a practice called double-cycle billing that - double-cycle
billing means that the balance on which interest accrues is not the balance
solely of this current billing period, but it’s the average balance of this
billing period and the previous one. So if you had a high balance in the
previous billing cycle, that means that you are going to – even if your balance
was very low in this current cycle, you’re going to be paying interest on a
very high notional balance.

There are tricks and traps like the time on which a payment is credited. You
think if my payment was received in the mail by the card issuer on the first of
the month, when it was due, well, the card issuer might say well, your payment
was received after 2 p.m., so that’s actually the next day, and it’s late.
Therefore, you get hit with a late fee, and therefore you’re going to pay
interest.

So credit cards have developed, over - since the Truth in Lending Act, into
very complex financial instruments with lots of different explicit price points
and lots of hidden ones. The result is that disclosure just doesn’t work, that
you cannot look at a credit card and know what it will cost to revolve a
particular balance.

DAVIES: So a typical way of dealing with an abusive practice is to simply ban
specific practices. You can’t change interest without a certain amount of
notice, or you can’t change interest rates on a previous balance. But you told
Congress in April that this practice of prohibiting specific abuses also is, in
the end, not going to work. Why not?

Mr. LEVITIN: There are two problems with it. First of all, you end up playing a
game of regulatory whack-a-mole, where Congress says okay, card issuers, we
don’t like bad practices A, B, C and D. You can’t do them anymore. The card
industry, though, is incredibly innovative and has a tremendous incentive to
innovate around regulation.

So if you say you can’t do practices A, B and C, the card industry will come up
with new practices D, E and F, and those practices may even be worse than the
original practices.

So for example, a couple years ago, consumer groups started making a fuss about
a practice called universal cross-default. Namely, you default with a creditor
other than the credit card, and that triggers a default on your credit card. So
you’re late on your cable bill, and all of a sudden, that’s a default on your
credit-card bill.

DAVIES: So I’m late on my cable bill, so the rate on my credit card goes up
because that’s considered a default?

Mr. LEVITIN: That’s right. So your being late with one creditor, totally
unrelated to your credit card, could lead to higher costs for your credit card,
even if you’ve been paying your credit card on time.

Credit-card issuers respond to this by dropping universal cross-default and
adopting a practice called any time, any reason term changes. So now it’s not
that you were late on your cable bill, it’s well, we just felt like it, and now
your interest rates are higher.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVITIN: This new practice is, you know, broader than universal cross-
default. It’s actually worse, but card issuers were then able to get up in
front of Congress and stand up and say we don’t do a universal cross-default,
of course not. We stopped doing that a year ago.

DAVIES: So if by banning a specific practice you’re simply going to get all of
the really smart MBAs and other people in the companies to work with some new
innovation that will be just as predatory, what’s the solution? How do you
change it?

Mr. LEVITIN: The solution is to flip the regulatory model on its head. Right
now, our regulatory model is do whatever you want except for really bad
practices A, B and C, as long as you disclose, and what we need to do is flip
this upside-down and say you can’t do anything except for A, B and C.

So what this would mean would be standardized credit cards that most of the
terms on credit cards, there’s – consumers don’t know what those terms are, and
they don’t care. The only thing that consumers care about with credit cards is
the cost. That’s what this product is about.

We want there to be price competition, not non-price competition in credit
cards, and the way we can do that is to require standardization of most credit-
card terms and let the market compete its heart out on a few essential price
points, namely an interest rate, a transaction fee and an availability fee, and
if we said the issuers can only have those three price points, and they can
charge whatever they want on those three price points, we would get reasonable
product differentiation for different types of consumers.

So consumers who transact but don’t revolve balances, they would want a card
with a high interest rate, low transaction fee, low availability fee. And
consumers who are planning on revolving balances would want a low interest
rate, but they might be willing to have a high availability fee and transaction
fee. Where you get product differentiation, and we would be able to get pretty
good price competition. This would start making credit cards a lot more like,
you know, the stuff you buy in the grocery store, where you can look at the
unit price and have the apples-to-apples comparison.

DAVIES: So you’re kind of putting the industry, in a way, in a straightjacket,
saying that, you know, forget all this fancy kind of gizmos that you’ve come up
with. You’re going to do a simple product, and it’s going to be identifiable
and disclosed in simple ways. I mean, that kind of sounds to a lot of people
like, you know, socialism. You’re just kind of squelching the innovative power
of markets and capitalism.

Mr. LEVITIN: Well, that’s correct in that it’s squelching some innovative
power, but let’s be clear about innovation. Innovation is not always a good
thing. If you have an innovative product, that’s – it can be very good, but
innovation in the credit-card industry has not been produce innovation, it’s
been pricing innovation. It’s been innovation in how to structure the same
basic credit product so as to make its price less transparent to consumers.

That’s where all the innovation in the credit-card space has been, and that’s
been negative innovation. We don’t want that kind of innovation. We want to
channel the innovation so that it benefits consumers, not that it harms them.
And the current regulatory system encourages innovation in figuring out how to
do end-runs around regulation rather than how to make a cheaper, better
product.

DAVIES: We’re speaking with Adam Levitin. He’s a law professor at Georgetown
University, where he specializes in bankruptcy and commercial law. We’ll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with Adam Levitin. He’s an
associate professor of law at Georgetown University, where he specializes in
bankruptcy and commercial law and has testified numerous times before Congress
on issues involving the credit-card industry.

Well Adam Levitin, Congress didn’t exactly take your advice and adopt the
sweeping models of reform that you would like to see. Congress has enacted a
law, which makes some changes in the credit-card industry. What do you like
about this law?

Mr. LEVITIN: The thing that I think I like the most about it is that it imposes
sort of a basic requirement of contract law on the credit-card industry. For a
while, the credit-card industry operated as if it wasn’t subject to regular
contract law.

Basic contract law principle is that penalty fees have to be reasonable in
light of the actual and anticipated harms, and if you look at credit-card late
fees and penalty fees, you know, they’re just flat, $35 fees. You know, you’re
late one day by one penny, and it’s going to cost you $35. There’s no
reasonableness there. You could be late 30 days with, you know, $10,000, it’s
still $35. So this reasonableness requirement I think is an important
restoration of basic principles of contract law.

Another thing that I like about it is that it really prohibits a lot of
retroactive term changes. So a problem that current exists in the card industry
but this legislation takes care of, is that card issuers can not only change
your interest rate or the terms of your credit card, but they can change them
retroactively and apply them to existing balances.

This law makes – limits card issuers’ ability to do that. They can only do that
in a few narrow circumstances.

DAVIES: What was not accomplished? What concerns you?

Mr. LEVITIN: Well, there are a few things that it doesn’t address. Firstly, it
does not address the interchange fees that are charged to merchants. And well,
it has a little provision saying that the Government Accounting Office is
supposed to study these fees.

DAVIES: And that’s a transaction fee that Home Depot pays when I use my card,
right? To the bank, right? Okay.

Mr. LEVITIN: That’s right, and that fee is pretty significant. Interesting that
you mention Home Depot. Home Depot paid more to credit-card companies in these
transaction fees than it spent on healthcare last year. I mean, that’s pretty
astounding.

For a lot of merchants, this is one of the largest and most rapidly growing
costs of doing business, and merchants are not seeing any additional value from
these fees as they keep going up and up and up.

So it doesn’t do anything to address that, and that’s a problem because, you
know, these fees actually encourage consumer usage of cards, even when it’s not
efficient. These fees are used to fund rewards programs. It’s very explicit,
actually, in card-issuer accounting, that the rewards programs are taken as a
deduction from these transaction fees. And the problem is that if I’m using my
credit because I’m a rewards-points junkie, and I’m desperate to get a few more
frequent-flyer miles so I can get that first-class upgrade, I might use my
credit card more than I otherwise would. And the law of large numbers says,
when you have more people using credit cards more often, you’re going to have
more people falling into the quicksand of interest rates and fees and who are
not able to pay off their balances.

So merchants are funding rewards programs, but merchants aren’t necessarily
seeing any benefit. And people who are not paying with credit cards, people
paying with debit cards or people paying with cash or even with food stamps,
are seeing higher prices in order to subsidize rewards programs, and that’s
pretty regressive.

DAVIES: What does the new law do about marketing to college kids, you know,
people under 21?

Mr. LEVITIN: It has some pretty good restrictions there. If you’re under 21,
and you want to get a credit card now, you’re going to have to either have an
over-21 cosigner, or you’re going to have to be able to show that you have the
financial wherewithal to have a card. So card issuers can’t start sending out
cards, willy-nilly, to every 19-year-old.

They also can’t go to campuses and say hey, you get a free iPod if you open up
a credit card. They’re banned now from distributing inducements to open up
credit cards, and they also cannot start sending out pre-screened offers to
under-21-year-olds. In other words, if you’re under 21, and you want a credit
card, you have to come to the card issuer. They can’t come to you.

DAVIES: You know, credit-card companies, along with a lot of other companies,
have gotten better at mining more of our data, how we actually spend our money
on – you know, whether we buy alcohol or shop at Target. What are they doing
with that information?

Mr. LEVITIN: They’re doing two things with it. First of all, they’re selling
it, data is extremely valuable; and secondly they’re analyzing it. They’re
mining it to figure out consumer behavior patterns, and another way to put that
is they’re looking for consumer behavioral weaknesses.

One example is that the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation brought litigation earlier this year against a company called
CompuCredit and some of its business partners, for various credit-card
practices. And one of the things that was alleged in the litigation was that
CompuCredit was raising rates on people based on where they shopped.

So if they saw that you used your credit card to pay for marriage counseling or
that you used it at a massage parlor or you got your tire retreaded, they’d say
aha, that indicates something to us about this consumer. That indicates that
this is a risky consumer, and so we’re going to raise rates.

And some of that seems kind of reasonable from a card issuer’s perspective,
that if they see a behavioral pattern, you know, why shouldn’t they price for
it? On the other hand, you can imagine this really starting to interfere with
consumer privacy. So imagine you went to the grocery store, and the card issuer
– currently they don’t get SKU-level, the actual item-level data. They only
know the store, but they’re trying actually now to get the item-level data in
the name of fraud prevention.

So they see that you’re purchasing condoms or that you’re purchasing anti-
depressants or something like that. Maybe they say well, that says something
about this type of consumer, and therefore we’re going to raise rates. And
that’s just not something consumer bargain for - that first of all, most
consumers that what they choose to buy is going to determine the cost of credit
for them, and even if they did, I think very few consumers would be comfortable
with that. That you know, the deal with the credit-card company, it’s always
been you charge me your interest rate for my risk, and if I pay it and I pay
off my balance, then you don’t worry about what I’m buying. That’s none of your
business. Your business is simply make a line of credit available to me.

And we’re seeing that card issuers’ use of behavioral data is really starting
to bump up against consumer privacy concerns.

DAVIES: You know, the credit-card companies have warned that now that they are
restricted in their activities in the industry, and particularly on the fees
and charges they can impose on those who are behind on their balances, they say
those of us who pay our cards off every month are going to get dinged. There’s
going to be a higher cost for people with good credit. What about that?

Mr. LEVITIN: There may be some of that. I think what we’re going to see is –
we’re seeing first of all a lot of flux in the industry regardless of this
legislation. So even before the legislation passed, we had card issuers cutting
back on credit limits and raising rates, even on good, creditworthy
cardholders. So it’s going to be hard to just say, you know, it’s the
legislation’s fault. This was happening already.

Secondly, we are going to see a reshuffling of the way credit-card price
structures work. We’re going to start to see lots of new fees and just product
features. So my best guess is we’re going to see something like a high-risk
transaction fee. So maybe that’s saying that you make a purchase over the
Internet, that there’s an additional charge or something like that, and they’re
going to come up with a bunch of new fees. They’re going to start charging fees
for things like getting a paper statement.

We’re probably going to see interest rates go up, but that doesn’t mean that
the cost has actually gone up. And that’s sort of a nice trick the card
industry likes to play, is to say oh look, interest rates are higher - this
legislation has caused the cost of cards to go up. That’s not the case.

My best guess is that the cost of credit cards is going to remain basically
stable and that we’re just going to see card issuers manage to restructure the
cost of cards around the legislation.

We’re going to see some non-creditworthy consumers have a tougher time getting
credit, and that may not be a bad thing, that some of these so-called fee-
harvester cards, where to get a $300 line of credit, you have to pay $150 in
fees, those are going to be substantially restricted, and that’s probably a
very good thing. You know, maybe it’s a little paternalistic, but we’ve seen
the problems that unregulated markets can wreak on society with the mortgage
market.

DAVIES: Well Adam Levitin, we’re out of time. Thanks so much for speaking with
us.

Mr. LEVITIN: My pleasure.

DAVIES: Adam Levitin is an associate professor of law at Georgetown University,
specializing in bankruptcy and commercial law. I’m Dave Davies, and this is
FRESH AIR.
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'Furore': Handel, Causing Quite A Fuss

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.

For some time, our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, has had his eye on
the young American opera singer Joyce DiDonato. She’s just released her first
CD and Lloyd has this review.

(Soundbite of opera music)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: The last time I saw Joyce DiDonato on stage, she was playing
"Cinderella" in Massenet's sweetly lyrical romantic opera. She was touching and
loveable, exactly right for the role. So I was surprised to discover that her
first recording was an album of Handel arias called "Furore," the Italian word
for madness or fury. And she plays a number of characters who couldn't be less
like Cinderella, heroines and heroes who are tormented by jealous rages,
obsessed with personal and political revenge, or suffering insane despair over
the damage they’ve caused.

Even the most gorgeous of these Handel arias have an edge, often created by the
tension Handel exploits between the powerful emotional situations and the
neoclassical formality of his musical structures, which includes a lot of
repetition. During the 19th century and well into the 20th, Handel was ignored
because singers didn't understand the dramatic power of these repetitions. In
these so-called da capo(ph) arias, loosely translated as from the top, there's
a long first section, then a change of mood, and then the entire first section
is repeated. In productions, and on recordings, these arias were often
abbreviated or the repeated section was just eliminated.

But in the 1980s the extraordinary Handel productions of Peter Sellers and the
late Craig Smith taught us the way this music communicated obsession and that
these repetitions embodied some of the opera's most intense states of mind.
Joyce DiDonato is from that new generation of singers who understands the
nature of these repetitions. In Aria Dante's great tragic aria "Scherza
infida", the hero laments his betrayal and warns the woman he believes is
unfaithful that he'll return to haunt her after his death.

(Soundbite of opera music)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: But in the repeat, Joyce DiDonato not only projects Aria Dante's
increased anguish; we can practically hear him turning into a ghost.

(Soundbite of opera music)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Joyce DiDonato is a strong vocal actress. She's as impressive in
her quiet singing as in her brilliant coloratura, and she makes distinctions
between characters who are demented or just plain angry, or sad. In one of
these arias, she seems to be trying too hard. "Dejanira in Hercules" is one of
Handel's great operatic roles. There's a new live recording of arias from
"Hercules" sung by the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson in 1999, conducted by Craig
Smith. Her "Dejanira" is a grand and heartbreaking tragic figure.

But DiDonato, in her effort to show as Dejanira's madness, makes her sound like
a witch than a madwoman. But in an aria from Handel's Julius Cesar, DiDonato is
right on target. She plays Sesto(ph), the son of Pompeii(ph), who has just been
assassinated by one of Cesar's henchmen. In this revenge aria, Sesto was a kind
of younger Hamlet trying to convince himself to take action. Conductor
Christophe(ph) Rouse and his period instrument group understand that Handel's
music is depicting the way Sesto is being strangled by his conflicting
feelings. Even snakes, Sesto sings, are not satisfied until they have injected
venom into their attacker's blood and Handel let's us hear the venom of revenge
that is also trickling into Sesto's own blood.

(Soundbite of opera music)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Joyce DiDonato has made a brave debut by presenting some of the
most difficult music ever written for a singer. I can't wait to hear what she
does next.

DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and
teaches English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed
"Furore," a new album of Handel arias sung by Joyce DiDonato.
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Remembering David Carradine

DAVE DAVIES, host:

We learned this morning that actor David Carradine has died in Bangkok, where
he was shooting a film. Thai police said he was found dead in his hotel room.
He was 72. Carradine appeared in more than a hundred films, including "Bound
for Glory," where he played Woody Guthrie, the Quentin Tarantino films, "Kill
Bill," volumes one and two, and “The Long Riders," where he appeared with his
brothers, Keith and Robert. David Carradine was the son of actor John
Carradine.

He rose to fame in the 1970s, when he starred in the ABC series "Kung Fu." He
played Caine, a half Chinese/half American who was brought up in China in a
Shaolin monastery, where he learned kung fu as part his training. The series
followed Caine's adventures as he wandered through the American West, using
kung fu on the bad guys and passing on ancient wisdom.

Terry spoke to David Carradine in 1991, when he'd written a book called "The
Spirit of Shaolin" about the "King Fu" TV series and the history of the martial
art. She asked him what role "Kung Fu" had played in his life off camera.

Mr. DAVID CARRADINE (Actor): Well, it’s had certainly an affect on me. It's not
always easy to say exactly what. But it's changed my road, for sure, and since
it's not over yet, I can't tell you where the path is going to lead. But it's

made me concentrate on things that maybe I wouldn't have in the first place.
You know, I began as a Shakespearean actor, and the directions I thought I
would go in turn out not to be the directions I am going in. But I think that's
true of anybody's life.

GROSS: You spend part of your new book talking about things that happened
behinds the scenes in the TV series "Kung Fu." Did they do anything to try to
make you look part Chinese?

Mr. CARRADINE: Yeah. They put a little tiny corner at the inside of my eyes. It
made my eyes look slightly more Oriental, and they painted me yellow.

GROSS: Oh really?

Mr. CARRADINE: And also I bent my legs a little bit most of the time so I
didn't look so tall.

GROSS: Huh. How tall are you?

Mr. CARRADINE: I'm 6'2.

GROSS: Uh-huh. When "Kung Fu" was first on, I was taking Taekwondo lessons.
Taekwondo is a Korean form of karate. And in our Monday class our teacher would
always make some comment about the previous episode of "Kung Fu," about how the
fights were just so improbable that you wouldn't be able to stay alive through
one of those fights. You’d have so many broken limbs, you wouldn't be able to
function and come back for more. I'm wondering what you think.

Mr. CARRADINE: Well, you know, right in front of you I wouldn't want to tell
you that your master doesn't necessarily know what he's talking about. But we
were looking for realism. We were looking to more illustrate the possibilities
of the various forms of kung fu than we were actually trying to just simply
show you a fight. I mean you might say on the other hand, you know, this is a
form of entertainment, that the fights were closer to the fights that you see
in, say, "West Side Story" than what you would see in an arena. But I think,
you know, the modern things that you see now with Van Damme and all those
people are even more so in that way, that any one...

GROSS: Oh yeah.

Mr. CARRADINE: ...of those punches would, you know, crack your clavicle or
break your skull or something like that, knock all your teeth out. But I really
think, really, in "Kung Fu" that we stressed the softness more than we stressed
anything else. I think Bruce Lee's version of it, or you know, these modern
guys is much more, much more unbelievable in terms of people getting hurt. You
know, we basically tried to show that Kwai Chang Caine was not trying to hurt
people. He was just trying to stop the violence. A lot of that had to do with
the fact that the FCC said that they didn't want me to kill people, and we had
to make...

GROSS: Yeah, well...

Mr. CARRADINE: ...some kind of adjustment.

GROSS: Yeah. Let me bring up here something I found very interesting, that the
FCC used to limit the number of minutes per show that you could fight. And
they, what, they objected to you killing people on the show too?

Mr. CARRADINE: Yeah. See now, we didn't really have an attitude ourselves. We
just thought we were doing a good show, and we hated the fact that we'd do
these great fights and then the FCC would say, well, you got to cut this out
and cut that out and all that.

And some of the things that are the absolute identifying characteristics of the
show were reduced as a result of these things. For instance, the slow motion
created a softer look and the FCC would be more happy about it. And that's also
why we went to so many training sequences, because that way we could do the
moves and it would not be thought of as violent.

GROSS: You not only did the "Kung Fu" TV series, but you did a lot of films in
which you performed martial arts. I'm wondering if over the years a lot of
people have come up to you on the street and tried to pick a fight with you
just to test themselves against your skills.

Mr. CARRADINE: Well, a few. Yeah, that's happened. I never got in any real
trouble, but there were certainly some people who try to give me some. One of
the convenient things about “Kung Fu Master” is that, real Kung Fu masters are
very unlikely to try to pick a fight with you, it’s usually punks more or less.
But there were a couple of times when the numbers were really kind of large,
you know. If you got nine rednecks walking across the street to pick a fight
with you that does kind of get formidable.

GROSS: So, tell me what happened in that instance and what you did?

Mr. CARRADINE: Well, you get out of it anyway you can. You know, the first rule
when faced with a superior opponent is run away. And I did some of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARRADINE: And sometimes I was able to make a couple of moves that were
impressive enough so that people backed off and some people – sometimes I was
able to – just change it from a confrontation to something like an autograph
session.

GROSS: You write that the reason why you were able to perform the Kung Fu parts
on TV so well was that you love dance and you had the body and the flexibility
to really do this kind of stuff. You loved dance as a child but you say, your
father, the actor John Carradine, wouldn’t let you take dance classes. Why not?
What kind of problem that you have with dance?

Mr. CARRADINE: Well, the way he put it was he said no son of mine will make his
living with his feet. And that just shows you that destiny is inescapable
because what I ended up doing instead of tapping around was kicking people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you sneak in dance lessons behind his back?

Mr. CARRADINE: More or less, yes.

GROSS: What kind?

Mr. CARRADINE: Well, I studied ballet, and I studied tap and I studied a lot of
ethnic forms as well.

GROSS: How close did you get to performing that kind of dance? Any of those
that…

Mr. CARRADINE: I performed it a lot.

GROSS: Musicals or…

Mr. CARRADINE: Yeah. Musicals and ballet and, you know, just – well, I had a
band for a long time where I performed on stage and one of the numbers was I
would tap dance down into the audience and around on tables and stuff like
that.

GROSS: Did seeing the example of your father and his acting career make you
want to act or did that give you reservations about becoming an actor?

Mr. CARRADINE: Both. I had reservations. I saw how much pain is involved and
how much artifice and how much of it – how much of the business part of it, I
would probably never understand because I saw my father going through these
problems. Also part of the reason why I went in to an acting career was to
finish the job he started because he always felt he didn’t go as far as he
could. And as a matter of fact it was kind of a revenge motif that started me
out in it. I wanted to get even with these guys for not giving my father what
he wanted. And to a certain extent I guess I’ve accomplished that and to a
certain extent I haven’t. But then, you know, that’s part of the story we were
always trying to tell was that, you know, revenge doesn’t work. It belongs to
the Lord.

GROSS: I - you know, I read all these things about the people I’m interviewing
and I never know what’s true and what’s not. But I read somewhere that you shot
yourself accidentally with a Colt 45 while shooting a scene…

Mr. CARRADINE: Sure did.

GROSS: …in a film. Was it – did you shoot yourself with a blank or with an
actual bullet?

Mr. CARRADINE: No, you don’t use actual bullets in movies unless you’re
completely insane.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. CARRADINE: Which - by the way certain people are. Henry Hathaway did a
picture once, a war movie, in which he had – he wanted to have tracer bullets.
But by and large you don’t do that. But point blank range a blank can actually
kill you. It didn’t kill me, I have a tough groin.

GROSS: Ooh.

Mr. CARRADINE: I mean, I was shot in the groin but I – it did ruin a perfectly
good tattoo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you have a scar in the middle of the tattoo?

Mr. CARRADINE: The butterfly now has a rather ragged wing, let’s put it that
way.

GROSS: All I can say is if you shot yourself in the groin and the tattoo was
the worse of the problems, you are really lucky.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How did you – how do you do scenes now with guns differently than you
did that time you were hurt? Was there a lesson that you learned about handling
a gun?

Mr. CARRADINE: Well, I’ve always been pretty good at handling a gun. The
problem was we were in a real hurry. And the way I was using the guns – well, I
had to repeat what I’d done in an earlier scene and it was dangerous. We all
knew it was dangerous. You take a lot of chances in movies. Look in these Kung
Fu movies, I have broken or dislocated virtually every finger and every toe
that I have. I’ve crushed my ribs. I’ve smashed my shoulder. I’ve destroyed a
ligament in the knee. I could go on.

Acting is a dangerous profession. And when you consider I’ve made 68 features
plus all the television and everything, you just got to expect that I’m going
to hurt myself now and then. It’s sort of like being a football player or
something.

GROSS: Well, David Carradine, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

Mr. CARRADINE: Well, hey I want to thank you a lot for allowing me to.

DAVIES: David Carradine speaking with Terry Gross in 1991. Carradine has died
in Bangkok where he was making a film. He was 72. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan
on the debut novel of the New York Times scent critic Chandler Burr. This is
Dave – this is FRESH AIR.
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Novelist Explores Book Groups, Hollywood-Style

DAVE DAVIES, host:

On the face of it, Chandler Burr surely has one of journalism’s most curious
jobs. He is the New York Times’ scent critic. He has also written nonfiction
books about the olfactory realm like “The Perfect Scent,” and “The Emperor of
Scent.” But group - book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Burr’s debut novel
called, “You or Someone Like You,” noses down a thornier path. Here’s her
review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Chandler Burr’s debut novel, “You or Someone Like You,” is a
must-read for any book group serious enough to spend more time discussing the
book rather than what wine to serve at their meeting. Burr’s novel is about
just such a serious book group, one that tackles off-road authors like William
Golding, Anthony Trollope, William Blake and Christina Rossetti. The group is
formed in Hollywood of all places, where, as our main character observes,
people talk on the phone all day long and, thus, put an immense value on
language, yet have an utter disdain for the written word.

But the book-group plot constitutes only one of the unfolding stories in this
smart novel, which is, primarily, a very tough reflection on the idea of group-
ness itself — who’s in and who’s out, who’s considered a full person and who’s
not. “You or Someone Like You” is sure to stir up controversy because it
doesn’t just stick to the safe pieties of decrying discrimination in terms of
race or gender. Instead, it confronts what it sees as a more socially
acceptable form of discrimination practiced by organized religion —
specifically here, Judaism. Even raising the issue of whether Jewish solidarity
is a form of self-preservation or exclusivity probably will invite accusations
of anti-Semitism to be tossed at this novel.

But Burr, like his main character, Anne Rosenbaum, clearly subscribes to the
view that one distinguishing mark of a good piece of literature is that it
doesn’t set out to please everybody. The gist of the story is this: Anne and
her husband, Howard, met decades ago at Columbia University. Both were word-
drunk English majors: Anne was a transplanted English Protestant girl, Howard
hailed from an Orthodox family in Brooklyn. Against his parent’s protests, they
married. When the novel opens, they’ve been living in Hollywood for decades,
where Howard is a movie studio wheeler-dealer with ties to the New York
literary world, and the more retiring Anne takes pleasure in books and her
garden.

During a business dinner, a studio exec turns to Anne, who’s renowned for
always carrying a book with her, and proposes that she make up a recommended
reading list. The list circulates, and soon Anne finds herself leading book
groups where the likes of producers and script doctors are going mano-a-mano
about Mansfield Park. Naturally, Burr can’t resist cracking jokes about book
group eating rituals. Anne tells us that: The unwritten rule was that the
participants brought dessert. In typical industry fashion, like emerging
nuclear powers, they rapidly escalated the desserts in intricacy and number and
size and exoticism and, quite predictably, cost.

The Virginia Woolf dessert was appropriate in size, small, but it cost $800 and
came in four cream-colored bamboo boxes lined in silver paper and tied with raw
Andalusian hemp.

While Anne has her head in books, Howard, reacting to a deep family insult,
finds himself drawn back more and more into the world of Orthodox Judaism that
he left when he married Anne. She fiercely tries to hold on to him, and when he
shuts her out, she communicates to him through the literature of her book
clubs. Anne sees herself as a universalist, like her beloved W.H. Auden who
left England to settle in a chaotic New York. Even as Howard engages in a
search for origins, Anne defiantly counters with Auden’s view that home is the
place you choose. Literary as she may be, she also flings unpoetic words like
tribalism, racism and bigotry at the increasingly reclusive Howard.

When does cultural pride transform into cultural arrogance? It’s an uneasy
question we consider daily in this mixed-up democracy of ours, most recently
with the controversy over whether Sonia Sotomayor’s Hispanic pride remarks are
or are not racist. Chandler Burr’s provocative new novel weighs in on the issue
of identity politics and also makes a powerful case for why great books are a
great danger to small minds.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed “You or Someone Like You,” by Chandler Burr. You can download podcasts
of our show at our Web site, freshair.npr.org. Koko Taylor, a blues vocalist
icon died Wednesday in her hometown of Chicago. She sang such hits as “I’m A
Woman,” and “Hey Bartender.” Taylor died from complications of gastrointestinal
surgery. We will close with her 1965 hit “Wang Dang Doodle.” For Terry Gross,
I’m Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of song, “Wang Dang Doodle”)

Ms. KOKO TAYLOR (Singer): (singing) Tell Automatic Slim, Tell Razor Totin' Jim,
Tell Butcher Knife Totin' Annie, Tell Fast Talkin' Fanny, Tonite we're gonna
pitch a ball, Down to that union hall, Gonna romp and tromp 'till midnite,
We're gonna fuss and fight 'till daylight, We're gonna pitch a wang dang doodle
all nite long…
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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