Eat the Bankers, The Case against Usury: The Root Cause of the Economic Crisis and the Fix
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Bankruptcy law entailed criminal and commercial procedures, depending on suspicions of fraud, and was regularly reformed. It has always been difficult to balance the idea of attracting creditors thanks to a law that promises punishment to insolvent debtors and the fact that many creditors favor informal arrangements that allow them to recover more money and avoid chain bankruptcies. In this context, Vause insists on a French peculiarity: the fundamental legal distinction between commercial and civil law, setting merchants apart — something that other continental European countries abolished during the nineteenth century.
The legal concept of merchant included all financial, commercial, industrial, and artisanal businesses. Kessler explained how the distinction was maintained in the eighteenth century, despite new, more impersonal commercial practices and the abolition of privileges and guilds after In Chapter 1, she insists on the fact that revolutionaries of all stripes embraced an ideal of free contractual relations, but embedded it in discourses on commercial honor or virtue; many likened commerce to a public service, implying specific rights and duties.
Free contracting was paramount, but public order was at stake and virtue required incentives.
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The ensuing reforms — the abolition of usury laws; the conservation of commercial courts, with a more solid jurisdiction on bankruptcies; the abolition and restoration of debt imprisonment — therefore do not fall clearly on a of pro-debtor vs. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss new bankruptcy laws in the context of Napoleonic codification in the early s, and their application before The laws appear as compromises, and each court interpreted them differently.
Even though the criminal procedure was rarely used, bankrupt merchants were stigmatized. Vause focuses on the complications created by the fact of setting merchants apart from other persons. Studying the bankruptcy of the Demiannay Bank p. Judgments were based on holistic assessments of personal morality rather than on discussions of strictly economic risk-taking or of accounting skills.
A particularly strong cultural trope associated blameworthy bankruptcy with ambitions of social mobility. Chapter 4 documents debt imprisonment from an astonishing source: journals and petitions published by prisoners, who were surprisingly able to self-organize. In a context of penal reform, they strove to distinguish themselves from other convicts. Chapter 5 addresses debates on debt imprisonment by focusing on an exceptionally thorough statistical study, published in Vause compares it with her own numbers, based on records of a Lyonese prison.
Political and legal debates focused on non-merchants — prodigal sons of wealthy families — allegedly imprisoned in large numbers because they had signed bills of exchange. Vause shows that those were a minority; most prisoners were individual merchants, with higher-status merchants as creditors. She argues that debt imprisonment began to appear less legitimate because it was seen as a consequence of too emotional not reasonable enough views on credit. Chapter 6 addresses the practice of bankruptcy in the s based on more than 1, Parisian files and the reform of Vause clearly presents the complicated procedures and the conflicts of interests among creditors, and between them and trustees.
She then focuses on companies, from partnerships to corporations: their bankruptcies challenged a law that had been meant to focus on the body and morality of individual merchants. Chapter 7 followed by a too brief epilogue about the major reforms of the late s shows that credit was once again vigorously discussed during the revolution of , with a new focus on access to credit for the owners of small shops and workshops.
However, changes in bankruptcy law, according to Vause, opened an era of segmented procedures for small and large, personal and impersonal businesses that made risk-taking easier for the latter, not the former. I would not, however, recommend it to all colleagues interested in the intersections of legal and economic history. Non-specialists of France might sometimes find it difficult to read. The inordinate quantity of typos does not help. The second half of the book, from the end of Chapter 3 onward, is clearly written and nicely weaves together legal and political debates, cultural history, and case studies, which is no small feat.
Many historians would have been content to focus on the cultural or political side, with ten times less archival research and an easier to write book. I cannot say the same about the first chapters, however; I would almost recommend reading the chapters in reverse order. Economists and social science historians might regret the lack of quantitative evidence. Vause does make the important point that there were extremely few prisoners for debts and bankrupts convicted of fraud, but that the two mechanisms were still deemed important as threats.
Other numbers could have made her thesis more compelling, especially as to the differentiation between bankruptcies small and large. Finally, I would have liked the author to engage more explicitly in comparisons between countries or periods. I can only hope that the author, without losing her passion for French archives, will in the future engage in such comparative discussions with historians and economists.
Net June New York: Oxford University Press, The apostle Paul wrote that diverse church members are all incorporated into the body of Christ. This involves: 1 members, playing different roles, yet unified and equal in the church; and 2 accountability for behaviors incompatible with the corporate spirit.
Porterfield heavily emphasizes accountability in her history. Quickly, by historical standards, churchly structures, practices, and internal cohesion, became models for other organizations, even those whose core identities were not religious in nature.
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The opening three chapters cover developments up to the English settlement of North America. The early Christian church is portrayed as a well-organized counter-cultural force in the Roman Empire — modeling humility, respect for others, and charity over typical Roman values. After the fall of Rome, churchly systems of penance imposed accountability based on legalistic and a transactional thinking — well-suited for commercial thought.
Other corporate organizations blossomed, including monasteries, guilds, independent cities and civic organizations. These religious and secular organizations conferred personal dignity, duties, rights and obligations on members.
Porterfield describes Anglican Protestantism with a measure of Dutch input as a key influence on commerce right before English colonization of North America. I think Porterfield underplayed the contribution of the European Reformers. Nevertheless, she accurately portrays the religious individualism loosed by the Protestant Reformation as interpreted by the Anglican Puritans.
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This individualism was to promote fundamental changes from the medieval corporate model. This religious anti-regulatory tendency was aided and abetted by the rise of a generally non-Christian, Enlightenment individualism. A decisive turn came after American independence when U.
How this legalism differed from the older church model is mainly addressed indirectly by the historical narrative. In any event, Christian corporatism did not simply disappear; but the moral fabric of American society was thereafter pulled in different directions. This is the main theme of chapter 5, which spans from the early Federalist period to the Civil War. Porterfield illustrates the meaning of these claims from a narrative of corporate developments. Starting with the post-Civil War era, the last three chapters 6, 7, and 8 seem to demonstrate the increasingly problematic nature of any remaining relationship between business and religious corporatism.
The actual meaning of such a claim — at least for me — seems elusive.
The last two chapters continue to illustrate various outcroppings of religion in mid-twentieth to early twenty-first century business, often in self-serving advertising, or for political purposes. And, conversely, Porterfield lists the adoption by particular religious actors of business tactics that could well be questionable from a religious perspective.
The end-point of this trend seems, to me, to be summed up in the Enron scandal, in which a business embodied the worst cultural values — rationalized and endorsed by a highly acculturated brand of fundamentalist religion. This is an example of how far corporations had moved from early Christian, counter-cultural corporatism. One element of Pauline corporatism that Porterfield tries hard to find in such an era is the notion of accountability. In my reading, accountability seems to be presented as an inherent characteristic of early corporatism. By the last chapters of the book, business or churchly corporations act badly, without much internal restraint at all.
In recent times, an outside party, government and secular courts, generally must impose accountability and reforms. A much sharper point could be put on this: reform generally seems to be imposed by the laws of states, not from some inherent corporate tendency toward self-correction. This remains unclear. To sum up, Porterfield leaves a lot implicit, relying on large doses of church and secular history, often illustrating contrary tendencies, from which readers need to infer the possible meanings.
This historical goldmine is interesting and significant in its own right; but as a way of making a case, it also invites multiple interpretations. This creates considerable ambiguity — at least for me. That said, I note that Porterfield is pointing readers to new scholarly territory.
As a religion scholar, she brings a fresh perspective to the historical study of economics and religion. Consider the many economists who narrowly or solely focus on usury when writing on the intersection of religion and economics. Porterfield points in important new directions to which scholars coming from other disciplines may be blind.
This is a refreshing development.
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Donald E. Net March Dennis C. Dennis Rasmussen Professor of Political Science at Tufts University begins his acknowledgements by mentioning the joy found writing The Infidel and the Professor , and I believe him to be earnest.
His narrative effectively transmits to the reader the personal warmth he surely felt exploring the friendship and humor shared between Smith and Hume, and the sense that we should count ourselves fortunate if we had but one friend like they had in each other. To this purpose, the volume is an unqualified success. The pattern of the chapters is to recount the biographies of Smith and Hume, severally at first, and cover broad lengths of time. Rasmussen accounts for their educations, their comings and goings, employments and intellectual pursuits, and their social circles.
Vignettes illustrating their personalities are drawn from correspondence, mostly third party as the pair infrequently wrote each other, though few of these moments will be novel to readers of their biographies. The book spends roughly half its length on each type of chapter, slightly favoring biographical narrative. The choices of formatting and reliance on correspondence suggest that the first best use of The Infidel and the Professor is for the non-academic reader, or as a supplementary undergraduate text in the history of thought: scholars are rarely mentioned by name in the text; endnotes make reference-checking tedious while improving the flow for readers taking claims for granted; longer quotes remain embedded in the text rather than separated in a block; Rasmussen avoids technical digressions, instead referencing the relevant scholarship for those interested and providing a summary in accessible language.
These same choices make the volume less useful to the academic reader. Hume seems to spring forth more or less ex nihilo; and Smith is utterly dependent on Hume. Aristotle and Plato are mentioned only in passing. Neither Hugo Grotius nor Epictetus are mentioned at all. It is to complain a tool is ineffective for a purpose for which it had not been designed.
Even so, not a few times did I mark in the margins a thread of inquiry I should like to pull on in the future, using The Infidel and the Professor as a starting point. I do not doubt but it will be likewise stimulating for you. Tyler Beck Goodspeed. In a banking crisis started in Scotland. It is known as the Ayr Bank Crisis after the bank failure that precipitated the crisis. But it quickly turned into an international crisis. London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, even the American colonies, were affected.