Goddamn if we didn’t have the bejesus freaked out of us after 9/11, but, hey, hallelujah! President Bush knew just what to say to reassure the citizenry. Travel, go shopping, take the kids to Disneyland, he admonished, raising a battle cry like the puppets in Team America: “Hey terrorists — terrorize this!” Our way of life may have been under attack, but our credit rating was strong, and we were called on to fight back not with guns but funds, brandishing our MasterCards in the face of the heathens. Sacrifice is for commies.
According to James Scurlock, it was this memorable moment of late-capitalist dementia that provoked him to film Maxed Out, a documentary concerned with predatory lending and the American debt crisis, and to write a book of the same name. Scurlock is an unlikely candidate for the job. Inspired by Donald Trump, his first muse, he enrolled in business school with the full financial support of his parents. With the help of a large trust fund, he dropped out to run a successful Subway franchise until another fast-food venture ruined him, and he took up business reporting. That’s hardly the resume of a progressive muckraker, and the most revealing fact of his book may be that he continues to do business with Bank of America, precisely the sort of immense, inhuman financial institution whose remorseless profit-mongering he lambastes.
If he hasn’t exactly put his money where his mouth is, at least his heart is in the right place. Surveying the culture of debt, Maxed Out (the movie) goes heavy on the human-interest angle, interviewing such victims of bank harassment as John and Katherine Brown. Residents of Macon, Georgia, both are mentally retarded and survive, barely, in government-subsidized housing. Scurlock illustrates how that makes them the perfect target of companies like CitiFinancial, a sub-prime lender specializing in the exploitation of the very poor, one of the most profitable and sought-after demographics.
The Browns will never be able to afford the high-interest mortgage they were suckered into signing for, nor pay off the “credit insurance” grafted on to it—and that’s the point. So long as CitiFinancial can collect even the smallest amount of the debt, or better yet late fees, they’ll turn a profit. “The credit industry now collects $20 billion per year in fees that didn’t even exist 20 years ago, writes Scurlock. “Big banks realized more than a generation ago that they make far more money teaching us to spend than to save.”
Maxed Out the book provides some interesting historical background, profiling the odd careers of Walter Wriston, founder of Citicorp, and Dee Hock, the idiosyncratic creator of Visa International. Scurlock skims over government deregulation of the banking industry, the proliferation of bottom-feeding debt collectors, and the real-estate industry, illustrating how the latter functions as a “debt-delivery mechanism.” Fine subjects all, though Spurlock undermines his jeremiad through slack writing and a lack of journalistic thoroughness (the book lacks both index and useful footnotes; the latter are largely reserved for bad jokes). Even so, it’s a wiser investment than a ticket bought to the documentary, a slapdash piece of work totally indebted to second-hand rhetorical strategies (the ’50s educational film, glib Bush-bashing) and threadbare indignation.