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Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink (Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America) Hardcover – January 23, 2011

4.8 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2011: Top 25 Books

"[I]ncredibly timely."--Diane Coyle, The Enlightened Economist blog

"[Debtor Nation] does a splendid job unpacking the origins and evolution of credit and debt in the US, an effort that should give news consumers a new and useful perspective on the American consumer. . . . Hyman tells the story of America's debt obsession engagingly and without an overabundance of jargon."--Asa Fitch, The National

"As an elegantly crafted historical analysis of how consumer credit grew to a colossus, Debtor Nation is compelling reading. As a well-documented financial analysis, Debtor Nation exposes the weak underside of lenders' balance sheets. Legislators should read it. Lobbyists for banks and other lenders may not be able to ignore it."--Andrew Allentuck, Financial Post

"Beautifully written, painstakingly documented, and altogether persuasive, the book provides a comprehensive look at the history of consumer debt in the U.S. . . . [Debtor Nation] is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the modern credit system in the U.S. It manages to weave together a long history of developments within America's credit markets in a narrative that is both fascinating and frightening."--Choice

"Hyman has written an insightful book about the evolution of U.S. credit markets. Debtor Nation is particularly relevant given the recent financial crisis and after reading it, it is clear that a complete story of the crisis must begin decades earlier. I recommend this book to anyone wanting to know more about U.S. credit markets, or about how the U.S. became so dependent on debt."--Katharine L. Shester, EH.net

"Debtor Nation offers several possibilities for use by family and consumer sciences professionals. For pre-professionals or college students interested in debt access and use in the U. S., this book is a concise source of events and key laws passed to regulate credit and credit access. . . . For educators who cover consumer choice and responsibility, this book is packed with examples of how ignorance is costly and has been used by those in business to profit from the uninformed."--Cathy F. Bowen, Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences

From the Back Cover

"Debtor Nation explains how in recent decades American consumers and households got more and more access to credit at the very time they became less and less able to handle the resulting debts. The recent financial crisis and the anemic recovery from the resulting Great Recession have exposed this Achilles heel of modern finance. Louis Hyman's illuminating history shows how financial innovations sponsored by government, banks, and Wall Street induced Americans to shoot themselves in the foot by trying to live beyond their means. Sadly, now the party's over."--Richard Sylla, New York University

"This revelatory book explores the hidden history of the complex web of personal credit and debt that unraveled in the recent financial crisis. Louis Hyman persuasively shows that the infrastructure of debt has been decades in the making and been driven by a perverse and often unforeseen combination of market forces and government policies. This should be required reading for students of consumer culture, the history of capitalism, and anyone who wants to know why Americans are now drowning in debt. A pathbreaking, important book."--Stephen A. Mihm, University of Georgia

"How did debt--and the interlaced institutions of finance, government, and business it inspired--become a defining feature, perhaps the defining feature, of American economic life? In this imaginatively conceived, meticulously researched, and vigorously argued book, Louis Hyman explains how modern finance reshaped American capitalism and how that prodigious, but volatile system reshaped American life from the 1920s to the present."--Bruce Schulman, Boston University

"Timely and important, Debtor Nation argues that the present American patterns of debt are the result of long-term developments since the 1920s. The author does a masterful job of placing the explosion of consumer credit since 1980 in historical perspective. The book is a must-read for U.S. historians as well as anyone interested in how Americans became addicted to borrowing."--Sheldon Garon, Princeton University

"A solid account of credit institutions in the twentieth-century United States, this book makes a useful contribution to our understanding of modern business by exploring the intersection of credit markets and government policies. Stretching from the 1910s to the 1970s, the book examines how Americans came to rely on credit to finance the good life and shows how public policies and business practices evolved to shape the operations of credit."--Meg Jacobs, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Product Details

  • Series: Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America
  • Hardcover: 392 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (January 23, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691140685
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691140681
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.1 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #321,934 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
The cover of the book is far flashier than the book's contents, which are fairly wonky and delivered in a relatively dry tone. The back cover, with blurbs from 5 academics is a better indicator of the contents, as the book is the functional equivalent of a Ph.D. dissertation on its subject.

The book is a very solid and detailed history of the development of consumer credit in the US dating back to the 1920s with an emphasis but not exclusive focus on the lending institutions and their incentives and disincentives which vary over time. Much of the book is based on original contemporaneous sources such as news and magazine articles of the day, testimony before and reports of legislative bodies, brochures, industry conference materials and surveys, and personal memoranda of bankers and credit managers. I applaud that, which is real scholarship and real hard work, too. The author's thesis is that the consumer credit industry has been shaped in large part by government action. He shows for example, how commercial banks were first induced to make consumer loans in the 1930s by Title 1 of the Federal Housing Act of 1934, and how revolving credit accounts sprang up in response to the Fed's onerous suppression of prior forms of consumer credit during WWII . The author has a generally center-left perspective (government should work with private capital to make it do what government thinks best and this will usually succeed), which is disclosed from time to time but does not overbear. He also tries to incorporate more leftist perspectives such as feminist, critical race and cultural history but these are very minor in context and I can imagine that, in today's academic world, a dissertation would need to genuflect at those altars.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Superbly detailed, this explanation of the rise of an economy that depends on debtors offers numerous surprises. Of particular note is the limited role of bankers. They were reluctant lenders. The government had to offer guarantees before bankers would extend mortgage debt. Retailers were obliged to extend credit, despite the non-cooperation of banks, when other marketing strategies failed to produce a steady supply of consumers. The snowball of finance grew into an economy larger and more central than the real economy, and the details of how this emerged should concern all readers in this debtor nation. The only improvement would be more discussion of the theoretical questions behind the history. Ethical concerns are not allowed to divert the discussion, which is understandable, but is this a robust or sustainable variety of economic management?
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This was a wonderfully eye-opening book that does a superb job of explaining the history of Credit in America and how the US Government, especially Johnson's Great Society, started us on the path to ruin. It's the best history lesson you will ever get on how credit became King in America. And Yes, blame the banks and financial institutions, but more so, blame the US Government for its consistency in never thinking things through. I actually read this and Birth of a Salesman simultaneously. Turns out they truly did go hand in hand. It's tragically sad and funny that people believe themselves to be free, while being slaves to their own wants and desires. No self-discipline/No Freedom. It's that simple.
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