The big problem with legalized usury

March 20, 2009 | By | 5 Replies More

In his recent article called “Infinite Debt” (in the April 2009 issue of Harper’s Magazine), Thomas Geoghegan connects the dots to point out the terrible consequences of having a nation devoid of interest caps. First of all, this situation is something extraordinarily new. The law against usury had “existed in some form and every civilization from the time of the Babylonian empire to the end of Jimmy Carter’s term.” In many ways, however, it no longer exists in the United States.

Here’s what happened: the financial sector bloats up. With no law capping interest, the evil is not only that banks prey on the poor (they have always done so) but that Capitol rushes out of manufacturing and into banking. When banks get 25% to 30% on credit cards, and 500 or more percent on payday loans, capital flees from the honest pursuits, like auto manufacturing. Sure, GM is awful. Sure, it doesn’t innovate. But the people who could have saved GM and Ford went off to work at AIG, or Merrill Lynch, or even Goldman Sachs. All of this used to be so obvious as not to merit comment. What is history, really, but a turf war between manufacturing, labor and the banks? In the United States, we got rid of manufacturing. We got rid of labor. Now it’s just the banks.

Geoghegan explains that this is why the middle-class is shrinking. In 2003, financial firms accounted for 40% of the profits that accrue to US corporations. Geoghegan points out that this is more than double the share of the financial industry (18%) when Ronald Reagan left office.

As Geoghegan explains, “we use our credit cards to help liquidate our own jobs, the kind we used to have in Michigan and Ohio. By little teaspoons, the people who go into debt for kitty litter pull a bit more capital out of one sector and pour it into another.”

Geoghegan correctly explains that the dam broke when the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Marquette National Bank v. First of Omaha Service Corporation, a decision issued in 1978. In that case, the Court held that Minnesota could not cap the credit card of a Nebraska bank because that bank was subject to the National Banking Act of 1864. Therefore, only the state where the bank is located (headquartered) can set the interest rates charged by that bank. In other words, all you need is a few disreputable states (such as Nebraska) for there to be effectively no interest cap on any bank in the United States willing to set up its headquarters in that state. Given that banks can now charge all kinds of hidden fees and penalties, in addition to interest rates at 25 to 50% (or even 500% for payday lenders), they no longer really want us to pay off those loans. Rather, “they want us to be irresponsible, or at least to have a certain amount of bad character.”

To put this on perspective, think of the terrible old banker, Mr. Potter, featured in the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. Mr. Potter drove a very hard bargain. He wanted everyone to actually ay off their loans. What’s fascinating is that Mr. Potter was lending out money at the exorbitant rate of 2%.

But now Mr. Potter would have more choices. If you could charge 35%, he might not necessarily think, “the law must be repaid”-at least not right away. And if he can charge 200%, he actually may not want the loan ever to be repaid.

Therefore, we have a terribly bloated financial sector that employs immense numbers of people to do… what do they do? I do remember only about 1/3 as many people working in the financial sector 30 years ago (or so it seemed). It didn’t seem like we needed these kinds of folks back then, certainly not so many of them. I really wonder whether most of these people are adding any value to society by doing what they do, or whether they are simply participating in an insane “arms race,” by which they fight to get ahead of each other in order to suck vast amounts of money out of the lives of regular folks.

Sounds like it’s time to starve the beast by putting a 20% cap on all interest rates. That’s what Geoghegan recommends.

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Category: Economy, Law, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I am reminded of a point made in the documentary "Maxed Out". People in the credit industry use the term "deadbeat" to refer to someone who isn't in debt, because they aren't getting money from someone with no debt.

  2. Karl says:

    Read about some of these matters from history and you'll see our present economic crisis is social, political and theological in nature.

    Nehemiah from the Old Testament dealt with these same issues centuries ago. Only those charging the usery were individuals and officials. Read Nehemiah Chapter 5 for an eye opener.

    Today the real players behind the world monetary scene are hidden bankers and financiers who are not open to public scrutiny and without a sense of concern for anyone other than themselves. Witness the Non-American AIG recepients of huge bonuses.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Karl, what I found really disturbing about the first payouts was that one of the first banks grabbing for the money was the Hongkong-Shanghai Banking Company, which is currently headquartered in London.

  4. dalip says:

    Erich Vieth just described General Electric……

  5. Karl writes:—"our present economic crisis is social, political and theological in nature."

    Theological? What, not enough prayer on Wall Street? Pray, Karl, elucidate.

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