Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers, the born-again hedge fund moneybags, don't mention ancient Babylonia in addressing the financial crisis. But Chicago attorney Thomas Geoghegan sure does in the April Harper's Magazine's "Infinite Debt," a rhetorical jihad on behalf of usury laws.
Assessing our current mess, the brainy Chicago labor lawyer-author-recently-failed congressional candidate (for Rahm Emanuel's seat) asserts that we erred when 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, and which had been so taken for granted that no one ever even mentioned it to us in law school [Geoghegan went to Harvard]. That's when we found out what happens when an advanced industrial economy tries to function with no cap at all on interest rates."
"Here's what happens: 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 capital gushes out of manufacturing and 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. 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 shrank manufacturing. We got rid of labor. Now it's just the banks."
"Which is why the middle class is shrinking...."
Perhaps. At minimum, this free suggestion to MSNBC, new home of prairie populist Ed Schultz, a North Dakota radio host: have Ivy Leaguer Geoghegan and Schultz take out their respective credit cards and passionately discuss and deride uncapped rates. If you can get Geithner to debate them, all the better!
Oh, after you've done with this piece, check April 13 New Yorker's "I.O.U.," Jill Lepore's broad review of the history of debt, bankruptcy, our free-spending ways and seeming refusal to understand our own financial history.
---March 26 London Review of Books includes Boston University's Andrew Bacevich's dandy "The Long War," an essay-review of Thomas Ricks' book, The Gamble, about the Bush administration "surge" in Iraq. Is it true that, as some very smart people believe, we really cannot leave and must slog onward with a "Long War," in part because we've unintentionally destabilized the region even more than did Saddam Hussein and have needlessly empower and emboldened Iran?
"In Washington, nationalists, neoconservatives and many right-wingers will insist that Obama must prosecute the Long War to the fullest extent possible and for as long as necessary. They will settle for nothing less than complete victory. Members of the officer corps know that victory is an illusion. But because they can't conceive of an alternative to the Long war, they too many insist that it continue. If Obama follows this advice, his presidency will fail. Making good on his promise of change requires that he extricate the United States. Should he continue the policy of perpetual war, he will follow the Bush administration in doing incalculable damage to the American economy, the American political system and U.S. national security. He will also fail in his obligations to the soldiers for whose well-being he bears direct responsibility."
Elsewhere in this issue one finds "Taking the Bosses Hostage," a dandy look at growing social unrest in China by Joshua Kurlantzick, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. China's economic growth is stalling, with protests by the downtrodden and exploited growing. "The downturn could prove the first real threat to the regime since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. It challenges the wisdom of Beijing's economic model, and threatens to break the implicit bargain between China's middle classes and its rulers, whereby the regime will deliver high growth rates, and in return, the middle class, who benefit most from growth, will tolerate authoritarian government." But it bought off the middle class at the expense of the seemingly powerless masses in the countryside who are now, albeit belatedly, showing distinct signs of rebellion as they get shafted in the downturn.
---The spring issue of Outside's Go, a decidedly champagne and caviar spin-off from kayak-and-camembert Outside, has "I've Been Everywhere," procuring ravel suggestions from five folks who've racked up serious frequent flier points around the globe. Tips include going to Amorgos, a largely desolate Greek island; gorilla habitats in western Rwanda (good luck); a private island resort in French Polynesia called Le Taha'a; and the supposed "new Nantucket," Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
---If Obama, Emanuel and David Axelrod don't know the legislative agenda important to readers of Trout, they can check the spring issue for "The Changing of the Guard: A Conservation Agenda for the New Congress and President." The wish list includes establishing limits for outdoor recreational vehicles on public lands; saving and rebuilding Pacific salmon stocks; reforming the 1872 Mining Law (you do know the 1872 Mining Law, right?); and reforming the Bush Administration's Water for America Initiative, which generally seeks to secure water resources for the future.
Speaking of water, "The River Drains Through It" is veteran journalist Tom Kenworthy's look at how more than a half million acre feet of water is yearly diverted from river basins on Colorado's western slope to the other side of the Rocky Mountains, but how environmental concerns now ensnarl plans to build similar diversions to satisfy the demands of growth in the West. He notes how, "Even amid increased conservation efforts, more than half of urban residential water use is for law and garden watering."
---Photographer Tim Llewellyn's "best seat in the house" consisted of being presidential candidate Barack Obama's personal photographer, traveling with him around New Hampshire. His recounts his role in "History in the Making" in March-April Yankee ("New England's Magazine"). His most vivid recollection is one very close to home and came a few months into his service when his father's brother did of liver cancer. After the funeral, a phone call came from Obama as the family was around the dinner table. Llewellyn let it go right into voice mail, later realizing it was a message from Obama, with condolences and the reassurance that he could take off as much time as needed.
"It was unexpected and perhaps unnecessary, but it was heartfelt and spoke to the core of my time with him. And my father, who had voted Republican in an uninterrupted streak that ran for 50 years, voted for a Democrat last November."
---Nicholas Schmidle, a journalist who's reported from Pakistan and is now a fellow at Washington's New American Foundation, admits that understanding Pakistan ain't easy. "I lived in Pakistan throughout all of 2006 and 2007 and only came to understand, say, the tribal breakdown in South Waziristan during my final days. So to save you the trouble of having to live in Pakistan for two years to differentiate between the Wazirs and the Mehsuds, the Frontier Corps and the Rangers, I've written an 'idiot's guide' that will hopefully clear some things up." Good for him. And even though the complexity is, well, substantial, it's all a very good reason to check "The Idiot's Guide to Pakistan" on the website of Foreign Policy.
---"Why Did New York Stop Growing Basketball Stars?" by Jason Zengerle is an intriguing opus in The New Republic, even if one is still left scratching one's head as to why there's been a steep decline. There are several theories presented, including too much hype about New York players, too much pampering and dilution of talent via too many high school and other teams. Did you know Michael Jordan was born in Brooklyn? Fine, but Zengerle says it's no surprise that he became, well, Michael Jordan after the family moved to North Carolina. Hmmmm.
---This week's Journey to the Obscure brings us to the winter issue of Representations 105 and "Sacrifice Before the Secular" by Jonathan Sheehan. It's inspired by issues intertwined with the 1987 decision by the city council of Hialeah, Fla., to ban animal sacrifice, prompted by a proposed church and school run by devotes of Santeria, whose worship of their orishas at times took sacrificial form. This was ultimately overturned but, all these years later, prompts an essay summarized thusly:
"Early modern secularism--and early modern religion--are plagued by tales of demystification, where each is made into the other's mutual secret, token of bad faith and self-alienation. This essay hopes to chart an alternative story, by looking at an early modern moment when the practices of legal and theological reason worked in tandem on the problem of sacrifice. Before the secular, it argues, sacrifice did not mark sacrality as such, but was rather the material that helped rethink both the functions of authority and the transactions between contingent humanity and the universal demands of law and God."