Robo-signers. Moratoriums. Botched documents. In the midst of a complicated and crooked mess, New Deal 2.0 asked leading thinkers and activists to help navigate the maze of the foreclosure crisis. Our “Foreclosure 411” series focuses on the values inherent in explaining why we should care and what the crisis means to all of us. In the third part, Matt Stoller explains how we are in danger of becoming slaves to the banks — just like the sharecroppers of yore.
A lot of people forget that having debt you can’t pay back really sucks. Debt is not just a credit instrument, it is an instrument of political and economic control.
It’s actually baked into our culture. The phrase ‘the man’, as in ‘fight the man’, referred originally to creditors. ‘The man’ in the 19th century stood for ‘furnishing man’, the merchant that sold 19th century sharecroppers and Southern farmers their supplies for the year, usually on credit. Farmers, often illiterate and certainly unable to understand the arrangements into which they were entering, were charged interest rates of 80-100 percent a year, with a lien placed on their crops. When approaching a furnishing agent, who could grant them credit for seeds, equipment, even food itself, a farmer would meekly look down nervously as his debts were marked down in a notebook. At the end of a year, due to deflation and usury, farmers usually owed more than they started the year owing. Their land was often forfeit, and eventually most of them became tenant farmers.
They were in hock to the man, and eventually became slaves to him. This structure, of sharecropping and usury, held together by political violence, continued into the 1960s in some areas of the South. As late as the 1960s, Kennedy would see rural poverty in Arkansas and pronounce it ‘shocking’. These were the fruits of usury, a society built on unsustainable debt peonage.
Today, we are in the midst of creating a second sharecropper society. I first heard the term “slaves to the bank” from a constituent fighting a fraudulent foreclosure. The details aren’t so important — this couple had been illegally placed in a predatory loan — but at one point, the wife explained that she and her husband were so scared they would have “given their first born to the bank to keep their home”. That was fear speaking, total unadulterated panic. And as we watch debt-holders use the ornaments of fear, such a loan sharking company that set up fake courts to convince debtors they were losing cases, we should recognize that what the creditor class wants is what they’ve always wanted: total dominance of our culture.
Today, the debts do not involve liens against crops. People in modern America carry student loans, credit card debt, and mortgages. All of these are hard to pay back, often bringing with them impenetrable contracts and illegal fees. Credit card debt is difficult to discharge in bankruptcy and a default on a home loan can leave you homeless. A student loan debt is literally a claim against a life — you cannot discharge it in bankruptcy, and if you die, your parents are obligated to pay it. If the banks have their way, mortgages and deficiency judgments will follow you around forever, as they do in Spain.
Young people and what only cynics might call ‘homeowners’ have no choice but to jump on the treadmill of debt, as debtcroppers. The goal is not to have them pay off their debts, but to owe forever. Whatever a debtcropper owes, a wealthy creditor owns. And as a bonus, the heavier the debt burden of American citizenry, the less able we are able to organize and claim our democratic rights as citizens. Debtcroppers don’t start companies and innovate, they don’t take chances, and they don’t claim their political rights. Think about this when you hear the calls from ex-Morgan Stanley banker and current World Bank President Robert Zoellick and his nebulous mutterings pining for the gold standard. Or when you hear Warren Buffett partner Charlie Munger talk about how the bailouts of the wealthy were patriotic, but we mustn’t bail out homeowners for fear of ‘moral hazard’. Or when you hear Pete Peterson Foundation President and former Comptroller General David Walker yearn nostalgically for debtor’s prisons.
Unclogging our constipated economy is not a complex problem — we must simply wipe out the bad debt that cannot be paid back. The complexity of the problem lies in the politics. Debtcroppers have no power, except to stop paying their debts. The constituents I worked with on a fraudulent foreclosure eventually did just that. She and her husband, unshackled by panic, began rebuilding their lives, throwing away their indentured servitude to the bank that abused them. They found their dignity, and used the court system to claim their rights as citizens. They fought the man, successfully, and wiped out their debt. And that is a very scary threat to the creditor class, perhaps the only thing they are really scared of.
Matt Stoller is the former Senior Policy Advisor to Congressman Alan Grayson. Stoller specialized in legislation on auditing the Federal Reserve and on the problem of foreclosure fraud.