They've dubbed it the Great Credit Crunch as if it were a new breakfast cereal. Like polished admen, they even insist that it will be good for our health, though a bit hard to digest.

Well, I suppose, the comparison isn't a bad one. After all, the same cereal companies that got our kids hooked on some sugar-coated floating bits of empty calories now market high-fiber health cereals. The same people who got us used to the squishy white bread you could roll into a one-inch ball are now guilt-tripping us back to bran.

So, too, the people who gave us the credit munchies are now bringing us the Crunchies.

A decade ago, the banks started sending out credit cards that we never asked for and extending credit lines that we never applied for. Stores stopped asking for money, except monthly. And the money people started hard-selling credit. They not only offered "life-style loans" for such essentials as vacations; they promoted debt to consolidate your debts. f

By 1974, the revolving credit of Americans was up to $13.4 billion; by 1980 it had peaked at $55 billion. And by now, the majority of us are into high-water finance.

Of course, nobody tortured us until we bought on time. Nobody forced us to use our credit cards. But what they did was put us through a mass experiment in behavior modification that worked.

For more than a decade, we were reinforced for borrowing. They not only made it easy and attractive to use credit; they made it virtually essential.

The one way to get a bad name in financial circles was to pay cash. We had to owe money to be a good credit risk. Everytime we reached a credit ceiling, someone was sure to offer us a raise.

There was even something patriotic about borrowing since lending kept the economy flowing.

Today, for every person who charges imported champagne, there are two who charge tuition. For everyone who puts a stereo and an electric popcorn popper on the card, there are six who put sneakers and T-shirts for the kids.

It is no surprise that we turned into a nation of credit junkies. We did what we were supposed to do: get hooked.

Now the people who made a profit pushing the addiction are protecting their margins by marketing the cure. We are learning the true meaning of the American motto: Fly Now, Pay Later.

Credit cards are being repossessed, credit lines are being redrawn, and applications are being denied. Just when the demand for credit is highest, the supply is lowest.

This is no surprise. When money-lending is profitable, they giveth; when it is not, they taketh away. That's money biz. But what is remarkable is the ease with which the same people who once extended credit are now extending lectures.

We are being told, with a slightly paternalistic nod, that we never should have overindulged. We are being sermonized on the evils of becoming borrowers by our former lenders, as well as leaders.

The friendly folk at the First and the Second and Chase and the rest make us feel guilty for doing what they wanted. They remind me of their peers who are trying to make us feel equally guilty for not putting money into savings accounts, so our neighbors can get mortgages. They offer to pay us 5-1/4 percent, so they can lend at 13 percent.

It turns out that credit cards were the Frankenberries of our financial world, and now we are breaking our teeth on the crunch. We are left paying for the dental work while the sugar dealer huffs that we should have known better.

The whole atmosphere reminds me suspiciously of my favorite line from my niece's school play last week: "We live by the Golden Rule. The one who has the gold, makes the rule."

The word "almost" was missing in a sentence of Ellen Goodman's column on Tuesday. It should have read: "Three weeks ago, the Georgia state legislature almost passed a law requiring that Genesis be taught side by side with evolution."