How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation and the Threat to Democracy (Baradaran)

Although you wouldn’t think that the history of banking would be exciting, much less the stuff of a musical, Baradaran presents a compelling narrative about how and why we got to the place where we are so far from the democratization of credit that our founders envisioned (and pretty much enacting the fears they anticipated). It boils down to mission drift or, better yet, mission abandonment. Initially, banks were conceived as a public service institution, assigned to serve everyone. At some point in the 70s, the mission shifted to profit, and Baradaran demonstrates how this hybrid – a private profit making institution supported by the government is just not sustainable.

Various alternatives have emerged – the credit union, in its original form, seems to have had some success. But it, too, had its mission corrupted. Baradaran sees some possibilities in postal banking, but her endorsement is far from passionate.

And the question of what comes next (there’s that musical again) is essential. J.D. Vance of Hillbilly Elegy fame talks about how his family relied on payday loans. And The Atlantic  also wonders what would replace them.

What Will Come After Payday Lending?

a preview of the book on a podcast

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Vance)

I’ve very much appreciated what I’ve seen as a recent trend of producing and sharing reading lists for issues and questions that, judging by the number of these lists, a decent number of people are having trouble understanding. There are reading lists to accompany Beyonce’s Lemonade, the Syrian refugee crisis, Ferguson, etc.. I will never get through them all, but that won’t stop me from trying.

So it was no surprise to me when reading lists emerged for those of us (myself included) trying to understand the recent Presidential election. Vance’s book was always on these lists, and I resolved to wait for the paperback. Then I learned that Vance was coming to Ohio to lead a program called Our Ohio Renewal. So I decided to splurge for the hardback.

It’s an interesting and pretty quick read. And it is about a community I’ve only experienced a bit – I live in Ohio and have family (that I haven’t seen for a long, long time for reasons that seem to fit the character of the people Vance describes) in West Virginia. Vance interweaves his own story with the story of his two main hometowns (one in Kentucky, one in Ohio) in an effort to explain why the area has turned (like him) Republican. Though he identifies a range of issues, the one that seems to spark the most passion in him is the way he and his family perceive that the welfare system has destroyed the desire of members of his community to work while still allowing them to afford the likes of t-bone steaks and cell phones.

It comes across as a dangerously oversimplified argument. Though he shows that he’s done his homework elsewhere,  in his defense of the ruinous nature of the welfare state, he resorts to a bandwagon argument (“many in the working class saw precisely what I did”) and an inflammatory quotation, one not worth repeating here (140, if you have the book).

Vance does not quite resort to the exceptionalism argument. He knows that “somebody along the line gave [him] some help.” He describes a remarkable, if unconventional, family structure and gives them credit for making sure he didn’t become a statistic. And I could definitely support some of the policy prescriptions he advocates near the end of the book. And I do support the notion of helping individuals learn to make better decisions. For me, it’s a both-and situation, something that seems to elude Vance. He talks about how his beloved Mamaw seemed to be conservative on some issues and liberal on others. His tone is one of gentle chiding for her inconsistency or apparent contradictions. (This seems to be Vance’s most damning comments about everyone – that they don’t recognize their own contradictions. Isn’t this what makes us human?) I think he misses the point here. The grandmother he describes does not seem to care one bit for Democrats or Republicans. She cares for what helps people, particularly her family and especially children.

So, read it? Sure. It’s illuminating, but I am not sure I see enough insight here for him to lead Our Ohio Renewal. We’ll see.

What’s next for me on this particular syllabus? Maybe this? White Trash – Isenberg. Has anyone read it? Other suggestions?