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Good Luck to You, David Brooks « The Washington Independent

So, David Brooks, thank you so much for your New York Times column today, pondering the country’s turn from its traditional sense of frugality to a new financial decadence. How eye-opening of you to notice that, as you point out, institutions that encourage debt in America have been strengthened. How responsible of you to urge the importance of reading the new report from The Institute for American Values, the one that talks about confronting the debt culture in America. Lotteries are bad, David, I agree, and poor people should not spend their money on them, as you say. And you put it so eloquently, as usual:

The most rampant decadence today is financial decadence, the trampling of decent norms about how to use and harness money.

The only thing is, David, I kept thinking as I read your column that eventually you might expound a bit more on this. You do throw in a line or two noting that well, OK, maybe payday lenders might have played a role, and well, sure, usury laws could be better enforced. You avoid blaming Hollywood for all this, David, and I give you full credit. But the way I see it, David, is that if you and other conservatives are going to try, finally, to address a problem you’ve ignored for years, you’re going to have to go a little further than just framing it as another example of the coarsening of the culture.

Now that you’ve opened the door here, David, you’re going to need to walk the whole way through it. You’ll have to address the conservative free market ideology that led to three decades of a relentless push to deregulate financial services. You’ll need to explain how that ideology helped make it perfectly acceptable to look the other way as respectable banks and institutions regularly crossed the line that separates profit from exploitation. You’ll be obliged to wade in here, David, to talk about how the financial services industry showered Congress with money and worked to defeat state laws aimed at curbing the worst predatory lending abuses – the ones that allowed for high rates and misleading terms – leading to the foreclosure crisis at hand.

Maybe, David, you can talk about the fact that as mortgage lenders, credit card companies and the rest of the credit industry used new-found regulatory freedoms to target the working poor and minority neighborhoods with high-rate products carrying excessive fees, the Republican-led Congress’ only bold action was to pass a lender-written bill that made it harder to file for bankruptcy.

But your work still won’t be done, David. You’ll need to take the time also to outline how Republican legislatures across the nation lifted caps on state usury laws and paved the way for payday lenders to charge 400 percent interest on short-term loans. You’ll have to explain, David, why some of the right’s most vocal military supporters did nothing to stop those lenders as they clustered around military bases and preyed on military families, until the Pentagon itself finally shamed Congress into capping rates at 36 percent, just last year.

It’s a tall order, David, I know. And you’re right to try to stake out this territory as some sort of morality issue, because on the political side, things aren’t looking so good. All that deregulation led to excesses that aren’t acceptable anymore, and charging people loan-shark rates for credit doesn’t seem as smart these days. In Ohio, last month, even the Republicans joined in to crack down on payday lenders. With the subprime meltdown dragging down the economy, David, I can see why you’d like to change the character of the debate from the dangers of deregulating the markets to a discussion of values.

Good luck to you, David, on that one. Because – and I think you know this all too well – the trampling of decent norms about money came straight out of the Republican belief in reducing any government role in regulating the markets or strengthening consumer protections. And, David, you can channel the Founding Fathers and cite all the think tank reports you want, but it’s a debate you can’t avoid.

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