I remember the term usury being used growing up, yet I hardly every hear it discussed anymore. Unfair enrichment is how some would define it. It is spoken of in almost every world religion on the practice of lending money at high rates. In its simplest form, it is taking advantage of people for monetary gain.
I am thinking about this lately as I get ready to change banks. The bank I’ve been with for twenty years changed from a credit union to a bank, and now it has been sold to a bigger bank not based in Florida. The only results I have seen are friends lose jobs, hidden fees popping up for the first time, a clunky bill pay system, and a few local shareholders that profited. In my work, I assist young adults who are, in many cases, just experiencing the meaning of financial literacy. Most of them have had no adult to guide their purchasing power. The whole concept of having a savings or planning for the future, even having a bank account, doesn’t exist. One young man I work with bought a car at an interest rate that would make you scream. He has so far been able to make the payments and keep it insured, but the private business world failed him. His youth and lack of knowledge were taken advantage of.
The United States is unique among advanced countries for the level at which it will allow young Americans to go into debt. Two of five students are at risk of college loan default. ATM’s crowd universities for the convenience of the student, and the fees it creates. The cost of college and tech programs have risen while the number of good paying jobs have dropped. Some of my interns end up in the emergency room from lack of health insurance, and several have not seen a dentist for years.
The quickest way to assess the health of our culture is to review how profit is made. Is there an acceptable rate? Does it matter how it is made? There is a buyer beware aspect to our economy right now. We have come to expect that people will be taken advantage of, that items we buy will break or not last beyond the warranty, and that cheaper and faster always makes sense. We’ve accepted that the highest per capita of lawyers in an advanced country is the norm and the way to fix anything is to sue. Almost every community, regardless of the presence of good paying jobs, have payday loan businesses.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that usury is alive and well in the United States, with no qualms about putting our next generation of Americans into individual debt. While we spend like Monopoly to fuel never-ending war and a too big to fail economy, we have every intention of passing that debt onto young Americans as well. We may be safe against foreign threats at home, but the real enemy is more likely an erosion of the common good inside America. One cannot expect moral behavior while we engage in purposeful impoverishment. The business world has a responsibility to treat staff and customers in an ethical manner. Basic fairness can’t just depend upon laws to be passed, or their would be no reason to go church. We can do better.
Daniel Parker is an author, educator, and public servant. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org