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I knew I was opening an interesting book when I picked up Lendol Calder’s „Financing the American Dream: A Cultural History of Consumer Credit”. But I had no idea that, in reading the historical chapters, I would stumble onto the microfinance of the early 1900s. Published in 1999, Calder’s book tracks the rise of consumer credit, from Victorian society’s scorn for debt, to credit as a practical life necessity in modern societies. It’s a great read. And against the backdrop of the 2008-2010 credit crisis, this book is as poignant as ever.

However, what astonished me most is that modern microfinance, it turns out, has its almost exact equivalent in North America in the early 20th century. The public of rich countries is currently enthralled by the notion that a supposedly innovative set of morally-driven  credit institutions could create a better society, a world without poverty, more empowered individuals… This is so much an instance of history repeating itself, it’s almost creepy. Calder writes how well-meaning people in America tried lending to the poor to help them escape poverty by building up the licensed small-loan industry – before World War I, before the Model T, before Morgan Stanley – and failed. As Calder explains on pp. 111-112, the licensed small-loan industry was created to help the poor take charge of their lives through small enterprise. But credit did not create more entrepreneurial, freer human beings; instead, as an unintended consequence it created the consumer culture of the USA which we know today.

“The lenders and reformers who organized the licensed small-loan industry did not view themselves as advance agents for debt-based mass consumerism. On the contrary, through the mid-1920s small-loan lenders conscientiously resisted modern consumerism, at least what they could see of it. The business of personal finance was perceived as an exercise in philanthropy and social welfare, as a way of liberating workers from the clutches of poverty and the loan shark. In order to combat the odium attached to their business, small-loan lenders characterized themselves as upholders of the American dream. Read the rest of this entry »

The Book

Governance across borders: transnational fields and transversal themes. Leonhard Dobusch, Philip Mader and Sigrid Quack (eds.), 2013, epubli publishers.
June 2023

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