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40

The Shark and the Hound

America's long history of predatory lending

by Meagan Day

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3
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traces the origins to the California gold rush

Day, M. (2017). The Shark and the Hound. The Baffler, 37, pp. 40-47

44

For his part, Franklin D. Roosevelt blamed usurers, among other financial malefactors, for the crash and relentless depression; he quoted the Bible to condemn the high-interest practices that flourished in and out of sanctioned institutions throughout the nation. But a decidedly moral view of American finance, where it had existed before, was losing its influence among observers of the American economy. In a collective effort to dodge blame, various banks, lenders, and other moneyed interests began to identify the nebulous “market” as the source of the nation’s ongoing financial ills. This insistence on self-regulating markets was the culmination of a great transformation in economic mentalities that political economist Karl Polanyi called the emergence of a “market society,” where markets are imagined to possess their own intrinsic logics, mechanisms, and moods—to which humans must adjust, not the other way around. The term “market,” which before would have been a cursory reference to supply and demand, now became a self-evident defense against populist reason, one that demanded no interrogation. When asked in 1929 why he lent so much at such high rates, one executive answered simply, “I can tell you why we loaned so much money. Because there was a demand for it at excessively high rates, over and above what we could get from what we would normally invest in.” Translation: the market made me do it. Next question.

—p.44 by Meagan Day 1 year, 5 months ago

For his part, Franklin D. Roosevelt blamed usurers, among other financial malefactors, for the crash and relentless depression; he quoted the Bible to condemn the high-interest practices that flourished in and out of sanctioned institutions throughout the nation. But a decidedly moral view of American finance, where it had existed before, was losing its influence among observers of the American economy. In a collective effort to dodge blame, various banks, lenders, and other moneyed interests began to identify the nebulous “market” as the source of the nation’s ongoing financial ills. This insistence on self-regulating markets was the culmination of a great transformation in economic mentalities that political economist Karl Polanyi called the emergence of a “market society,” where markets are imagined to possess their own intrinsic logics, mechanisms, and moods—to which humans must adjust, not the other way around. The term “market,” which before would have been a cursory reference to supply and demand, now became a self-evident defense against populist reason, one that demanded no interrogation. When asked in 1929 why he lent so much at such high rates, one executive answered simply, “I can tell you why we loaned so much money. Because there was a demand for it at excessively high rates, over and above what we could get from what we would normally invest in.” Translation: the market made me do it. Next question.

—p.44 by Meagan Day 1 year, 5 months ago
45

But capitalism is abuse by design, and there can be no lasting truce between lenders and borrowers until the lenders are no longer motivated by profit. This is because capitalism doesn’t just permit exploitation of the working class by the owning class; it requires it. Abuse will manifest itself in every sphere dominated by capital, whether in compliance with or in violation of the law. [...]

The financial industry—its every hedge fund, every savings and loan association, every brokerage firm, and every mortgage company—is dedicated to one thing only: capital accumulation. Capital accumulation is the process by which capitalists turn large sums of money into even larger sums money. And where does that money come from to begin with? To take a cue from Marx, all value under capitalism is determined by labor, and all profit is generated by the exploitation of that labor. To compete in the market, businesses must pay obeisance to the profit motive—and since suppressing wages is the surest way to gain an advantage and outperform competitors, this inevitably results in a race to the bottom. Working people’s bodies and time are exhausted, and the fruits of their labor are extracted by their employers, who set about multiplying all of this through investment. All capital in the accumulation phase bears the mark of abuse.

Yet the cycle of abuse doesn’t stop with material production. Where there is capital accumulation there is always what Marxist geographer David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession,” the process of separating people from the basic resources they need to get by, like houses to live in, transportation to work, and even money itself—and then duplicitously offering to grant access to those resources . . . for a fee. Predatory lending is a prime example of accumulation by dispossession, designed to target and extract wealth from the bottom and siphon it to the top. It makes the rich richer and keeps the poor under their heel—which makes them more acquiescent workers and more desperate, reckless borrowers

—p.45 by Meagan Day 1 year, 5 months ago

But capitalism is abuse by design, and there can be no lasting truce between lenders and borrowers until the lenders are no longer motivated by profit. This is because capitalism doesn’t just permit exploitation of the working class by the owning class; it requires it. Abuse will manifest itself in every sphere dominated by capital, whether in compliance with or in violation of the law. [...]

The financial industry—its every hedge fund, every savings and loan association, every brokerage firm, and every mortgage company—is dedicated to one thing only: capital accumulation. Capital accumulation is the process by which capitalists turn large sums of money into even larger sums money. And where does that money come from to begin with? To take a cue from Marx, all value under capitalism is determined by labor, and all profit is generated by the exploitation of that labor. To compete in the market, businesses must pay obeisance to the profit motive—and since suppressing wages is the surest way to gain an advantage and outperform competitors, this inevitably results in a race to the bottom. Working people’s bodies and time are exhausted, and the fruits of their labor are extracted by their employers, who set about multiplying all of this through investment. All capital in the accumulation phase bears the mark of abuse.

Yet the cycle of abuse doesn’t stop with material production. Where there is capital accumulation there is always what Marxist geographer David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession,” the process of separating people from the basic resources they need to get by, like houses to live in, transportation to work, and even money itself—and then duplicitously offering to grant access to those resources . . . for a fee. Predatory lending is a prime example of accumulation by dispossession, designed to target and extract wealth from the bottom and siphon it to the top. It makes the rich richer and keeps the poor under their heel—which makes them more acquiescent workers and more desperate, reckless borrowers

—p.45 by Meagan Day 1 year, 5 months ago
47

[...] In public banking, as in health care, the state is guided by more than the profit motive—namely, it risks self-damage if it forces borrowers into debt, for those suffering people will either become more eligible for public-funded programs or will otherwise drain the resources of the state. Right now, there is a contradiction in banking—it’s a hugely consequential feature of public life, and yet it rests in private hands and is thoroughly oriented to maximize private gain. Because the state is at least partially incentivized by the prospect of improving the financial health of its citizenry, and thus its overall economy, a public bank can help resolve that tension—especially if paired with an array of other universal social programs which can supplement the financial services offered through the state.

—p.47 by Meagan Day 1 year, 5 months ago

[...] In public banking, as in health care, the state is guided by more than the profit motive—namely, it risks self-damage if it forces borrowers into debt, for those suffering people will either become more eligible for public-funded programs or will otherwise drain the resources of the state. Right now, there is a contradiction in banking—it’s a hugely consequential feature of public life, and yet it rests in private hands and is thoroughly oriented to maximize private gain. Because the state is at least partially incentivized by the prospect of improving the financial health of its citizenry, and thus its overall economy, a public bank can help resolve that tension—especially if paired with an array of other universal social programs which can supplement the financial services offered through the state.

—p.47 by Meagan Day 1 year, 5 months ago