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Thomas Geoghegan on "Infinite Debt: How Unlimited Interest Rates Destroyed the Economy"

StoryMarch 24, 2009
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Thomas Geoghegan

a Chicago-based lawyer, recent congressional candidate and author of many books. His most recent is See You in Court: How the Right Made America a Lawsuit Nation. His latest cover story for Harper’s Magazine is called "Infinite Debt: How Unlimited Interest Rates Destroyed the Economy."

The Obama administration unveils its $1 trillion plan to buy toxic assets from banks and restore the financial system. But should we return to the way it was? We speak with Chicago lawyer Thomas Geoghegan about his new Harper’s Magazine cover story, "Infinite Debt: How Unlimited Interest Rates Destroyed the Economy." Geoghegan writes, "We dismantled the most ancient of human laws, the law against usury, which had existed in some form in every civilization from the time of the Babylonian Empire to the end of Jimmy Carter’s term." [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Obama administration has unveiled its plan to stabilize the banking industry. On Monday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced the government plan to buy up as much as $1 trillion in troubled mortgages and other risky assets from banks. Wall Street was certainly happy with the plan with all the major stock indexes soaring as soon as the market opened. The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended the day up nearly 500 points. Investors saw the plan as a way to rescue the US financial system, clearing a path to recovery from what many have described as the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The crisis has been largely blamed on deregulation of the financial industry and lax government oversight. But a new article in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine argues otherwise. It reads, quote, "no amount of New Deal regulation or SEC-watching could have stopped what happened...The problem was not that we ‘deregulated the New Deal’ but that we deregulated a much older, even ancient, set of laws." The article goes on to say, quote, "We dismantled the most ancient of human laws, the law against usury, which had existed in some form in every civilization from the time of the Babylonian Empire to the end of Jimmy Carter’s term."

The article in Harper’s Magazine is written by Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago-based labor lawyer, recent congressional candidate and author of many books. His most recent is See You in Court: How the Right Made America a Lawsuit Nation. His Harper’s article is called "Infinite Debt: How Unlimited Interest Rates Destroyed the Economy." Thomas Geoghegan joins us from Chicago.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. OK, how did we get here? Or how did they get us in this mess?

THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: In the article, I talk — that appeared in Harper’s, I’ve talked about the fact that we’ve not focused enough on the big deregulation that precedes all other deregulations, and that’s the ceiling that has existed on the financial sector since time immemorial on the amount of interest that banks can get from their clients, their customers, their depositors. Historically, and even up through movies like It’s a Wonderful Life with Frank Capra and Mr. Potter and George Bailey, the interest rates in this country were capped at eight percent, nine percent. In the 1970s, we began to deregulate this, and then we had a massive big bang with a Supreme Court case that effectively knocked out all the interest rate caps. And we have today, taken as common, that banks can charge 17, 18, 19, 30, 35 percent, not to mention payday lenders charging 200, 300, 400 percent in states like Illinois, California [inaudible] —-

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Geoghegan, let’s go back to that 1978 case, Marquette National Bank v. First of Omaha Service Corp. Explain the significance of it. What was it?

THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: Sure, that’s the Brown versus Board of Deregulation for the financial sector. The case -— Justice Brennan, of all people, opinion said that banks that operate — out-of-state banks that were subject to the National Banking Act of 1864, signed by President Lincoln in the middle of the Wilderness Campaign, effectively preempted any state regulation capping the interest rates of those banks when they sent their credit cards in from out of state. Now, back in 1864, banks in Delaware weren’t operating out in Nebraska or handing out credit cards across the country, and there was no such thing as Visa or MasterCard.

The effect of this was that the big national banks were not subject to any state usury law, because the Banking Act of 1864 had no interest rate cap on it, not contemplating the kind of situation that we’re in today. And in effect, this sealed what had been a trend throughout the country, which is lifting these interest rate caps for banks and giving consumers easy credit on the premise that they would just pay tons and tons of interest so that the banks were protected if the loan weren’t repaid. In fact, the banks had incentive to hand out credit cards and hope that the loans would not be repaid, because the interest rates on these credit cards were so high.

You know, if you are Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life and can only get six percent, seven percent on your loan, you want the loan to be repaid. Moral character is important. You want to scrutinize everybody very carefully. But if you’re able to charge 30 percent or, in a payday lender case, 200 or 300 percent, you don’t care so much if the loan — in fact, you actually want the loan not to be repaid. You want people to go into debt. You want to accumulate this interest. And this addicted the financial sector to very, very, very high rates of return compared to what investors were used to getting in the real economy, the manufacturing sector, General Motors, which would give piddling five, six, seven percent returns.

So the capital in this country began to shift in the financial sector. That’s why the financial sector began to bloat up. That’s why we ended up, by 2006, having a third of all profits going into the banks and the financial firms and not into the real economy.

AMY GOODMAN: Thomas Geoghegan is our guest. His piece in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Infinite Debt: How Unlimited Interest Rates Destroyed the Economy." We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Thomas Geoghegan. He has a very interesting piece in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine. It’s called "Infinite Debt: How Unlimited Interest Rates Destroyed the Economy."

Tom Geoghegan, you talk about how, with no law capping interest, the evil is not only that banks prey on the poor — they’ve always done so — but that capital gushes out of manufacturing into banking. When banks get 25 percent to 30 percent on credit cards and 500 or more percent on payday loans, capital flees from honest pursuits like auto manufacturing. Now, I’ve just come back from Grand Rapids this weekend, and going through Detroit, they’re in a dire situation —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- talking about money fleeing from the auto industry.

THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: Sure. I feel one of the reasons I am in favor of the bailout of the auto industry is, aside from all the other reasons, a sense of guilt that we set up all the returns in this economy in favor of financial firms and really disinvested from industry. And even worse, we began to turn industry into a banking itself. General Motors, General Electric began to operate banks, because that’s where they made the big profit, in the loans to consumers, uncapped interest. It’s a very destructive situation.

And this isn’t some left-wing progressive critique circa 2009. Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, warned how important it is to have interest rate caps on the financial sector, or all the money will gush into there and out of productive uses. Keynes, in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, the great classic, 1936, has a little chapter at the end saying, “Yes, we have deficit spending. I’ve got this way of getting out of the Depression. By the way, we’ve got to keep the interest rate caps on the banks.”

Well, we took that stuff off, the thing that was kind of an instinct in human and legal civilization, from the time of the Code of Hammurabi up to the present, and we created all these incentives for money to go into speculation, derivatives, because we addicted the economy to very, very high rates of return by squeezing money out of people. And the way in which we disinvested from the economy was, in my view, not so much globalization or trade as the fact that we had preteens in shopping malls who were running up, you know, debts where they were paying 25, 30 percent interest, when investors could only get five, four, three percent from our globally competitive industry.

AMY GOODMAN: In your history of usury, basically, from ancient times to today, you’re also giving a labor history, a labor history of this country.



THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: Well, history — historians like Niall Ferguson, conservative historians and progressive historians, many economic historians, see history as nothing but a turf war between three groups: the manufacturers, workers and the bondholders, or the financial sector.

So where does labor fit in in all of this? People lost the ability to get wage increases and got the ability, an incredible ability, really unknown in previous times, to get credit cards with which they had high rates of interest. So, unable to get wage increases, people — or unable to get union cards, really, people got credit cards and began running up these great debts, which addicted the country to high rates of return in the financial sector, so that people were kind of spending their way out of the real economy, pushing more and more money, by the fact that they were going into debt, into this virtual financial sector economy. So, really, the inability of people to raise their own wages and the incredible ease with which they could get credit instead helped create this flow of capital out of manufacturing and into finance. You know, we, the little people in this country, helped finance the bloating up of this financial sector and really the downsizing of our own jobs in the real economy. We sent the signals, you know, to investors to put money into the financial sector and not into the manufacturing sector.

AMY GOODMAN: You say US workers increased their productivity over the past thirty-five years, but real wages actually decreased.

THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: Yes. Well, certainly if you look at the amount of money that went into actual wage, as opposed to non-wage labor costs. You know, one of the tragedies of working people in this country is that we don’t have single payer. So, what some of the additional increment —-

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by that.

THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: If private employers were not paying healthcare costs to the private sector, the private insurance industry, a lot of that money could go for wage increases. It also could make the country much more globally competitive. You know, in this congressional campaign that I just finished, I argued for an increase in Social Security, single payer, basically for the government taking over non-wage labor costs so that the globally competitive parts of the economy could lower their labor costs, hire more employees, people could actually get pay raises, and the government would be assuming these non-wage labor costs, which are so, so important to making the country globally competitive. It’s what many of our high-wage rivals are able to do. And they run trade surpluses; we run trade deficits.

AMY GOODMAN: You were running for Rahm Emanuel’s open seat. So why didn’t this idea fly?

THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: Well, I only had two months to argue it, and it took me about one month to raise enough money to get the message out to voters. And also, Amy, it’s very hard to go door to door and explain things to people, which is the key, when it’s 30 below wind chill. But next time I’m going to start in the summer and -— if I attempt any run for any office again.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as the economy grew and Wall Street was just blooming, individual workers were —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- as you write it, individual people were actually becoming worse off.

THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: Sure. Well, they went from being creditors to debtors. That’s what is so insidious about this whole process. Not only were people being denied wage increases, but they were losing their, quote, “savings,” at least in the sense losing the kind of security that they used to have. I saw that as a labor lawyer in Chapter 11 reorganizations, seeing all these companies, now taken over by financiers and squeezed for as much profit as they can, go belly up after outsourcing occurred. And then, people would be brought into court as creditors, not named as parties, but because they had claims to retiree health insurance and so forth, and would just be stripped of these rights.

So, you know, in addition to people not having the wage increases that they needed, because of lack of unionization, because of really the fact that the healthcare system was devouring up the money that would have been there to pay for them, they were also losing their savings and, worse than that, losing the sense that if they entered contracts with their employers, the money would be there at the end of the day. So you had this destruction of future-oriented thinking just at the time that the credit cards were being handed out to them, and it was kind of “live for the moment.” We really —-

AMY GOODMAN: Explain this issue of people who are getting their healthcare from the company, a pension, retirement, and today we hear, on the issue bonuses, you can’t break contracts. But what happens to all of this, for example, when a company decides to, well, just declare bankruptcy?

THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: Well, they aren’t really bankrupt. That’s the first thing. It’s just that these firms set up subsidiary corporations that go into Chapter 11 and get, quote, "reorganized." It’s very easy to shed unsecured obligations. And virtually all uninsured, non-insured PBGC pension obligations and all healthcare obligations and other supplemental benefits that people earn over a lifetime are completely unsecured and are the first thing to go in a reorganization.

So, over the 1980s, 1990s and, if any were left, by the early twenty-first century, the early twenty-first century, the ’01s, people would be dragged into court as creditors and emerge as debtors. And the debtors -— that is, the big companies — would walk away with enormous savings. And these companies were really just subsidiaries often of firms that were really quite well off. But they used the device of subsidiary and corporation, they used the ease of going in and then out of Chapter 11, or just liquidating these subsidiary corporations and starting over with a different framework, to shed all these obligations. Or they just went out of business altogether and put the money into speculative financial sector type things, which were supposedly going to bring huge returns.

AMY GOODMAN: When, Thomas Geoghegan —-

THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: The kind of returns they were used to.

AMY GOODMAN: When did usury become legal?

THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: I would say that it happened slowly through the late 1960s and early 1970s. You know, there were, at first, very limited deregulations with lots of bells and whistles to make sure it wouldn’t go too far. So if you look at the first state laws that deregulated usury, they usually say, “We are only going” -— like in Illinois, for example, which I’m most familiar with, but which is typical — “We’re only going to let you do this if you pass a test of having good moral character. We’re going to investigate your reputation in the community. We’re going — we at the Department of Financial Regulation will make findings that your reputation for honesty and fairness is such that we can let you get out of these interest rate caps to lend money more freely to consumers.”

But then that all went by the by, and then it was anything goes. And soon you had the most predatory behavior going on without any kind of check into moral character or otherwise, which was the fig leaf to allow this deregulation to occur at the state level. And then came Marquette Bank, where it became pointless to try to regulate it at all, because all the states were effectively preempted when they’re dealing with the big Chase and Citibanks and out-of-state credit card issuers. So that’s how it happened.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what is your recommendation? You make four major points, what you think has to happen now.

THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: Well, my major points change from month to month, and that was some time ago, but I still stick with those that are in the article.

First of all, we ought to have an interest rate cap in this country. Senator Durbin proposed 35 percent, but it should be much lower than that, especially for the banks that we’re bailing out. I’d slash it at least by half.

Second, I think that there should be something in the country like what Europeans, the Germans, in particular, have, the Sparkasse — and I’m probably mispronouncing the German word. Somebody taught me the correct pronunciation of it, but I’ve bungled it. These are state-run banks that make low-interest rate loans to consumers and are a wonderful alternative to the payday lending system that is being put up in most states, soon will be in New York, too, I assure you, but are certainly in California and Illinois.

And third, I think that as long as we’re in the process of bailing out the banks, we’ve got to restructure them. That’s one of several grievances I have against the administration plan. And in particular, at the very least, let’s put aside the issue of nationalization. I think that there should at least be these public guardians on the board of directors who will, from inside the bank — from inside the bank, there has to be a restructuring of these banks to ensure that these banks are much more in the nature of fiduciaries and guardians and do what banks ought to be doing in this country: pushing money into the globally competitive parts of the economy, accepting lower rates of return, not squeezing money from consumers. It’s not enough to have external outside regulation. You have to change the internal corporate structure of the banks. And I think some kind of codetermination with the public at the board level is the way to go.

And finally, I think that we have to inject equity not only into the banks, but to the people who the banks are lending to. We’ve got to make people — we not just have to force the banks to extend credit, we have to make people more creditworthy. And one of the ways of doing that and encouraging future-oriented thinking is, I believe, for the President and the administration right now to make a big point about promising people that if they work for a living in this country, they will get a decent public pension to live on when they retire. So, instead of cutting back on entitlements — and all the veiled sounds coming out of Washington are to that extent — I would increase the replacement rate of Social Security from our very low level now, which is something like 40 percent on average, to the amount that other developed countries pay on average, according to the OECD, which is closer to two-thirds of working income.

AMY GOODMAN: And where do you see the labor movement today under an Obama administration and the Employee Free Choice Act, which I think the large corporations this week, Starbucks and Costco and Wal-Mart, are joining together to launch a massive advertising campaign against?

THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: Yes. Well, EFCA, or the Employee Free Choice Act, or whatever you want to call it, is crucial for labor. Some sort of labor law reform is important. But I would urge people in labor and all friends of labor throughout this country that if we’re really serious about bringing back the labor movement through changes in laws, which are absolutely crucial — not just Employee Free Choice, but bankruptcy laws, all sorts of laws that allow us to hold corporations liable for their wage obligations — we have to do something about the filibuster in the Senate. It has to be removed. It has to be taken away. It’s destroyed the labor movement over and over. Labor laws have gone down the drain because of the filibuster. As long as that’s in place, we’re going to have a country that is on warp speed —-


THOMAS GEOGHEGAN: Well, under Carter, we could have had labor law reform, but for the filibuster. You know, it passed the House, got majority in the Senate, went down the drain because of the filibuster. Under Clinton, we could have had labor law reform, but for the filibuster -— passed the House, got a majority in the Senate, went down the drain because of the filibuster.

The stimulus plan that Barack Obama just proposed could have been great. It went down the drain because of the filibuster. We had to negotiate — it got through, but it got negotiated away. The same is going to happen with the Employee Free Choice Act.

Until you move to a Senate that is more majoritarian, you know, the reality is that you’re going to be in a situation where you have a very unequal, unfair, often unethical and oppressive economy, because you can’t get the changes that you need, you can’t get the New Deal reenacted with the kind of filibuster that is in place today. FDR couldn’t have had the New Deal if he had had the filibuster that we have now, you know, where any senator can just raise his hand and say, “Well, I would like to filibuster this. I don’t actually have to get up there and argue. I would just like to do it and require two-thirds — sixty votes of the Senate to get measures through.” The New Deal wouldn’t have happened.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Thomas Geoghegan, Chicago-based lawyer. His piece is called "Infinite Debt" in the latest issue of Harper’s. And when I talked about the Employee Free Choice Act, the groups that are joining together in a joint advertising campaign are Costco, Whole Foods and Starbucks, though Wal-Mart is also opposed to EFCA.

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