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CHARGE IT! INSTALLMENT DEBT SOARS

Consumers are putting to the test one of the oldest maxims in economic policy, that if you impose or raise taxes on consumers you'll force a change in their behavior.

Maybe not. It isn't happening with consumer installment debt, which used to get you a tax deduction for interest paid. That tax benefit has been phased out in recent years, but installment debt is rising.And how. In the 12 months through June, the total soared $98 billion, or about $1,000 per household, surpassing the old 12-month record by $20 billion and bringing the total now to about $850 billion.

Speculation about the reasons is one of the great guessing games in consumer economics at the moment, ranging from the absurd (people don't care about taxes) to the plausible (they are confident about the future).

That isn't the only surprise. With car leasing rather than buying becoming almost a rage, automobile installment credit, which doesn't include leasing, is still up by $35 billion in the 12 months through June.

The shocker, however, is in credit card usage, which leaped by $43 billion during the period, nearly 50 percent higher than the previous 12-month record set in 1990. More records are certain if the pace continues.

How do you explain it?

Well, the economy is expanding, not just cyclically but in the numbers of people. The country is growing larger, but not at the rate indicated by the consumer credit figures.

Yes, it might be because people are more confident about the future and their ability to finance it. But again, consumer confidence hasn't soared to the same levels as the credit numbers. There must be other reasons.

Not to be ignored are the marketing efforts of credit-card issuers, who tie credit into an assort-ment of incentives, including frequent-flier miles, discounts on household merchandise and lower prices on car purchases.

Those marketing efforts also include convenience - at the gasoline pump, the pay telephone and the catalog. And speed: Merchandisers ship immediately when you give them your credit card number; with checks, they wait a week.

Also to be considered, although it is impossible to say to what degree, is the computer-age mania for perfect records. Credit-card purchases give you that record month-by-month, a sort of consumption activity diary.

But none of these explanations, if that is what they are, seems adequate to explain why people ignore the tax consequences of installment credit - that is, the non-deductibility of interest charges that add to a product's price.

Could it be economic stress? Are people using credit cards because they can avoid using their cash? Are they using credit cards as a temporary method of maintaining a lifestyle they expect to be able to support in the future?

That possibility can't be dismissed. Some consumer researchers say heads of households are under much stress today because of hard-to-get pay raises, local taxes, and increases in items not reflected in the consumer price index.

The ratio of installment credit to income has risen in the past year and is now near 15 percent, but it has been higher. The savings rate is very weak.