When I was a child, there was no such thing as a “payday loan.” There were loan sharks, who were always the bad guys in the movies, taking advantage of destitute gamblers and fathers down on their luck. They were shady, immoral, harkening back to our oldest legends and laws making a crime of usury, the financial exploitation of the destitute and desperate.
For average people, up until the 80’s or so, if you had a payday, you didn’t need a payday loan. You didn’t need a credit card. The size of your paycheck determined how modestly or extravagantly you lived, but if you had one, you could live. And that was generally one paycheck per family. You might save up for something like a vacation, or put something on layaway that you really wanted.
But as wages began to stagnate, and regulation of the financial industry was reduced to a mere shadow, “financial products” began to emerge. Credit cards, payday loans, title loans, reverse mortgages — the gaps in household income left by rising prices and persistently low wages were seen as “opportunities” by the financial industry, demand for products that they will provide. And because this demand was driven by desperation among the consumer, well, the profits speak for themselves. It is treasure extorted from misery, blood squeezed from turnips. It is Citibank as company store, with people using credit cards for food to eat, gas to get to work, medicine and visits to for-profit medical clinics. The interest rates ensure that social mobility is next to impossible, and survival a constant struggle. And that suits some people just fine. People in the financial industry.
Why do we accept this? I think Matt Taibbi said it very well on Bill Moyers. We are demoralized, to be sure. Along with the rise of financial products comes a narrative that paints people as “irresponsible” for amassing credit card debt, deserving of harassment and shame. As Herman Cain said,
“Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself! … It is not a person’s fault if they succeeded, it is a person’s fault if they failed.”
Success is not your fault! Well, that’s odd. But more importantly, all you unfortunate souls out there, working for wages take note: if you haven’t gotten rich, it is through your own failure. You could all be rich, rich as Herman Cain, if only you didn’t just really suck. As Mitt Romney said, if you don’t make enough money to pay income taxes, you are irresponsible. This is class war. The working people who make this country run, who educate our children, who generate the profits for the corporations, and who haven’t had a raise since forever are the irresponsible ones. Meanwhile the bankers who stole their pensions and blew themselves big housing bubbles that they popped in our faces slander us to our faces, call us scum, write us off.
In a world where a minimum wage employee only makes enough in an hour to buy their choice of a gallon of gas or a gallon of milk, it is hard to envision a way of fighting back. But there is an important first step that we must take, and that is to refuse to see this as an individual problem and recognize that we are not the irresponsible ones. And we didn’t start the class war, they did. It is a slow, steady war of attrition and demoralization, sowing mistrust among us, and self doubt within us.
We have to stand up for each other, and reject their narrative of “it’s your own fault.” They exploit and degrade the diligence and dignity of our work, and then profit from our misery. Then they tell us they are heroes for it and we are losers. We deserve better, but we’ll have to stand together to get it.