Ten reviews on student loans, credit card debt, and the global economy.

lliott, William, III. Student debt: a reference handbook, by William Elliott III and Melinda K. Lewis. ABC-CLIO, 2017. 303p index ISBN 9781440844874, $60.00; ISBN 9781440844881 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE January 2018

Student debt has become a major crisis, a cause of dissatisfaction for families and young adults, and a topic of political debate. This work contains a thorough analysis of the problem and how it came about. It starts with the background and history of the major student loan programs. There is an extensive examination of the problems that have developed with the student loan system, the controversies that surround it, and the various solutions that have been suggested or tried over the years. Thorough references offer further reading about these topics. There is a chapter of contributions by people with a variety of perspectives on the subject of student debt. A section of profiles briefly describes some of the most influential people and organizations researching and working on policy or debt relief itself. There is also a wide range of accompanying materials, including a variety of charts illustrating student indebtedness and selective government documents about the crisis. The “Resources” section provides an extensive annotated selection of reports, articles, and books on financial aid and student debt. A chronology and glossary are included. This reference work can be read as an analysis on the causes of today’s crisis. It is also a useful compendium for researchers and students. Summing Up: Recommended. All readers. —C. E. King, Iowa State University

Fleming, Anne. City of debtors: a century of fringe finance. Harvard, 2018. 367p index ISBN 9780674976238, $45.00.
Reviewed in CHOICE June 2018

This reviewer’s doctoral dissertation was on credit card debt, yet this well-researched book provides an even deeper understanding of the history of the small-sum loan market. It starts with an early history (starting around 1900) of small-sum lending and progresses to modern tools, such as credit cards and payday loans. Much has been written on the pros and cons of payday lending (and other such industries), but few studies provide the historical context in which to understand how we arrived at modern practices. This book provides valuable insights into the small-loan market today and how it can be improved (for lenders and borrowers). The book neither vilifies nor supports a perspective on small-sum loans; instead, it is objective. More importantly, Fleming (Georgetown) uses the knowledge gained from her historical analysis to look at the current industry with regard to regulations, behavior (borrower and lender), and political feasibility. For anyone interested in better understanding the small-sum lending industry, this book is essential reading. Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —R. H. Scott, Monmouth University

Gambling debt: Iceland’s rise and fall in the global economy, ed. by E. Paul Durrenberger and Gisli Palsson. University Press of Colorado, 2014. 284p bibl index afp ISBN 9781607323341 pbk, $19.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE August 2015

This book of essays edited by Durrenberger (emer., anthropology, Univ. of Iowa) and Palsson (Univ. of Iceland) is an impressive collection that blends the writings of authors from diverse disciplines to address Iceland’s 2008 financial collapse. Historians, anthropologists, economists, poets, and key local participants come together to explore, explain, and—most important—warn readers of the neoliberal policies (mainly the privatization of banks and fishery resources) that helped lead up to the country’s financial collapse. The book is a must read for anyone interested in economics, business, politics, or the worldwide economic stage in general; readers interested in Iceland’s involvement in the crisis and the fallout the country faced as a result will also be intrigued by the book’s contents and approach. Taken as a whole, the book is an honest, entertaining, and informative work that explores the changing distribution of wealth and the impact of privatization as well as the historical identity of Iceland and the numerous factors that came together to help produce such an economic meltdown. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates and above. —A. E. Leykam, College of Staten Island (CUNY)

Halpern, Jake. Bad paper: chasing debt from Wall Street to the underworld. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 240p ISBN 9780374108236, $25.00; ISBN 9780374711245 , $11.99.
Reviewed in CHOICE February 2015

In this book, commentator, NPR producer, and journalist Halpern takes readers on an underground tour of the world of consumer debt collection. In Buffalo, Bangor, and Las Vegas, readers meet shady characters they probably do not want living next door (or certainly not marrying their daughters), as well as organizations and activities never talked about publicly. Readers are also introduced to sketchy practices in which “paper”—an overdue receivable owed to a bank or credit card company—is packaged with other debts and sold at a steep discount to collection agencies who employ a myriad of quasi-illegal tactics to hound debtors in the hope of recouping a handsome return on (their pennies on the dollar) investment. Chapter titles such as “The King of Crap,” “Scoring in Vegas,” and “The White Man’s Dope” are indicative of the fascinating odyssey the author paints of this unregulated, Wild West industry. Although the book is devoid of tables and index and has only modest notes, Halpern nevertheless provides an informative, hard to put down book reminiscent of popular Hollywood tales such as Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street or Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty. This time, however, characters are at the bottom-feeder end of the economic food chain. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates and above; general readers. —A. R. Sanderson, University of Chicago

James, Deborah. Money from nothing: indebtedness and aspiration in South Africa. Stanford, 2015. 282p bibl index afp ISBN 9780804791113, $85.00; ISBN 9780804792677 pbk, $25.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE May 2015

Partly perhaps because of its history, Africa (southern Africa in particular) has been a fertile region for work by social anthropologists on economic topics. This book is an especially good exemplar. James (anthropology, London School of Economics) examines issues of debt and credit in South Africa over the last couple of decades through the lens of ethnography, focusing on those who were mostly excluded from formal credit (other than rent-to-own contracts) under apartheid. The author examines the lived experience—mostly from the viewpoint of individuals and households—and the conflicting forces and motivations under which they act. She also follows government and private sector initiatives to “bank the unbanked” and the consequent successes and failures in the widespread striving for upward economic mobility and improved living standards. The overall result is a highly readable account of the formal and informal institutions of credit and indebtedness—as well as the networks of obligation, reciprocity, and rejection—enlivened throughout by vignettes and analysis derived from her ethnographic fieldwork in peri-urban areas of the province of Gauteng. Included are 16 pages of endnotes, another 16 pages of bibliography, and an excellent index. Strongly recommended for all libraries. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers. —J. H. Cobbe, Florida State University

Kwarteng, Kwasi. War and gold: a 500-year history of empires, adventures, and debt. Perseus Books/PublicAffairs, 2014. 424p bibl index ISBN 9781586487683, $28.99; ISBN 9781610391962 ebook, $28.99.
Reviewed in CHOICE January 2015

This carefully documented, scholarly, well-written work provides an account of the development of international financial institutions over the past five centuries. Kwarteng, an acclaimed author and a member of Parliament, covers the first four centuries succinctly but thoroughly in the first of four parts of the book. Having set the stage for examining the consequences of events from 1914 to the present, the author focuses in part 2 on WW I, the Great Depression, and WW II—all events that irreparably disrupted the international financial system, which had operated under the 19th-century’s discipline of the gold standard. Part 3 deals with the new world order emerging after WW II, the hegemony of the US, the Bretton Woods Agreement, and the gold exchange standard. The consequences of the end of the Bretton Woods Agreement and the gold exchange standard in 1973 are examined in part 4 along with the creation of the European Union and the euro, the rise of China, reliance on debt, and recurring financial crises. In the concluding section, the author explores the possibility of a future link to gold. Overall, the book is a captivating narrative of monetary history that starts and ends with gold. Summing Up: Highly Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates and above; general readers. —E. L. Whalen, Clarke College

Mellor, Mary. Debt or democracy: public money for sustainablity and social justice. Pluto, 2015. 215p bibl index afp ISBN 9780745335551, $60.00; ISBN 9780745335544 pbk, $18.00; ISBN 9781783717187 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE June 2016

Mellor (emer., Northumbria Univ., UK) has written an important book devoid of the jargon that often accompanies works on money and banking. Tightly packed and insightful, it reflects a deep and wide reading of the relevant literature yet is accessible enough that people without much background in economics will find it quite readable. Mellor discusses how money that the banking system creates is not the money that most people think of. Rather, it is “debt-money,” while the use of paper money and coins is fast disappearing now that the economy increasingly depends on debt-money that moves about in computer systems. When a person borrows money from a bank, the bank creates an account with that money. The borrower can call upon this “fictitious” money to make purchases or to pay off past debts or even withdraw cash. However, this debt continues to accumulate throughout the economy, creating pressure for economic growth that threatens the environment. In making this case, Mellor shreds the conventional financial ideology that while consumers are encouraged to take on debt, governments must avoid debt like the plague. The resulting starvation of important government policies leads to slow growth and human suffering. No short review can capture the depth and importance of this valuable book. Summing Up: Essential. All readership levels. —M. Perelman, California State University, Chico

Smail, Daniel Lord. Legal plunder: households and debt collection in late medieval Europe. Harvard, 2016. 326p index afp ISBN 9780674737280, $39.95.
Reviewed in CHOICE October 2016

Smail (Harvard Univ.) has combed through 14th- and 15th-century archives from Lucca, Italy, and Marseille, France, to show how debt was dealt with in the Middle Ages. His book describes the goods people owned and the use of credit at the time. Smail contends that transactions took place via credit because there was little money. He then describes the legal system for dealing with debt in arrears and argues that the state arose (to some extent) as a huge debt-collection agency employing repo men on behalf of creditors. To counter the ability of debtors to hide assets, courts gave creditors the right to plunder first and ask questions later. This led to violence and humiliation for debtors. With functioning pawnshops and good secondhand markets for goods, this was not necessary. However, creditors preferred settling debts themselves to battling in court, turning debt collection into a form of public shaming. Hoping that shame would increase repayments, creditors willingly took less via plunder and sale. Debtors preferred this to using pawnbrokers or selling goods to repay entire debts. A massive historical undertaking that sheds considerable light on wealth and credit in medieval Europe. Recommended for libraries with graduate programs in history or economic history. Summing Up: Essential. Graduate students and faculty. —S. Pressman, Monmouth University (NJ)

Solimano, Andrés. Global capitalism in disarray: inequality, debt, and austerity. Oxford, 2016 (c2017). 240p bibl index ISBN 9780190626273, $34.95; ISBN 9780190626297 ebook, contact publisher for price.
Reviewed in CHOICE June 2017

Solimano’s narrative moves intrepidly through a wide range of interrelated topics, including international trends in income inequality, continued fallout from the 2008 global recession, and rising levels of political instability in domestic and international spheres. Case studies of not only the recent political economy experiences of the US and Europe but also the less commonly studied situations in Chile and South Africa illustrate these relationships in particular country contexts. Nonetheless, it is challenging to understand how the various pieces of the current macroeconomic situation fit together, and Solimano is not entirely successful at elucidating this complex puzzle in a way that nonspecialist readers, or even fellow economists, can fully follow. This book might best be read in tandem with other recent works on global inequality, such as Thomas Piketty’s monumental Capital in the Twenty-First Century (CH, Aug’14, 51-6864) and Joseph Stiglitz’s latest book, The Great Divide (CH, Jan’16, 53-2285). Solimano provides an even more critical view of modern capitalism than those authors and thus gives some counterbalance to their more mainstream views, which aim to preserve the fundamentals of the modern neoliberal order. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. —J. P. Jacobsen, Wesleyan University

Tarter, Brent. A saga of the New South: race, law, and public debt in Virginia. Virginia, 2016. 217p index afp ISBN 9780813938776, $39.50; ISBN 9780813938769 ebook, $39.50.
Reviewed in CHOICE December 2016

In this interesting read, Tarter (Library of Virginia) explores a critical time in the history of Virginia and the South. A saga of the Virginia debt controversy, which started in the antebellum period and lasted into the 20th century, this compelling story required extensive archival research and an understanding of history, law, politics, and finance. Tarter goes far beyond simply explaining how a debt was paid and explores politics in Virginia during and right after Reconstruction, the importance of race in southern politics, a multitude of legal matters related to the debt, and how Virginia and the South fell into one-party rule. He also explores an alternative, more egalitarian political path that was available to Virginia and other southern states. This book is a must read for those interested in southern history and politics, especially anyone studying Virginia history. It is suitable for undergraduate and graduate students. This book will be especially helpful to understanding the transition from Reconstruction to one-party rule and the mass disenfranchisement of the “Solid South.” Summing Up: Essential. General readers through faculty. —C. Kinsella, Ball State University