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Popes and Bankers: A Cultural History of…

Popes and Bankers: A Cultural History of Credit and Debt, from Aristotle…

by Jack Cashill

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As with any social invention, the creation and use of money is rooted in culture and cultural conventions. Money, particularly the loaning and repayment of loans, is so deeply ingrained in most societies that it can often strike us as something that arises not within society, but as a separate entity. Nothing could be further from the truth. As complicated as lending, interest, and usury get, social beings still set the rules. What has changed in the last few thousand years is not money; the change was within and amongst us as borrowers and lenders.

Lending money at interest, what used to be referred to usury, has a long history. Ancient Romans began fixing interest rate levels around 450 BC, three hundred years into its existence. Almost as old as the concept of usury is the social and religious connotations connected with the practice. The significance of Judaism cannot be over-stated. While Jews were allowed to practice usury on "strangers," the definition of a stranger was hotly debated. With the rise of Christianity, usury to friend or foe was looked upon harshly, as were the money-lending practices of Jews. The cultural wars between Jews and Christians had just begun, and the political and religious ties to bankers were maturing.

Cashill's depth on the subject of money is commendable, particularly when one considers that he crammed so much in less than 300 pages. In addition, his point of view is illuminating, even if it is somewhat slanted. He gives both prodigals and loan sharks stern treatment, blaming both for unscrupulous practices. He provides a short cultural-historical synopsis when discussing interest rates in the mid-2000s: "Greenspan was Jewish. Mozilo was of Italian descent. His butcher father, in fact, had been an immigrant. That the two New Yorkers would play so crucial a role in stimulating America's economy seems somehow fitting. Jews and Italians had been responsible for much, if not most, of the world's credit innovations. The Medici conceived international investment banking. The Rothschilds perfected it. Salomon Brothers first securitized mortgages. Ranieri godfathered the phenomenon for Salomon and branded it. Ponzi put his name on the pyramid scheme. Madoff put his signature on the Ponzi scheme. Moses, with a little help from above, originated the ban on usury. The Italian popes enforced it." (p. 201)

Cashill sees the changes in society's view of usury as ultimately detrimental to the health of the economy and to individuals. Thanks in large part to the push for home ownership, culture, especially American culture, shifted to view usury and borrowers less negatively. Banks and governments worked more and more closely until both twisted together and lines between them blurred more and more. When speaking of the recent crisis in the American economy, Cashill remains true to the mission of his book and admonishes: "Not a single one of the economists who weighed in on the subprime crisis mentioned the moral/cultural factors that contributed to it. Neither did Greenspan for that matter. There was nary a word about the erosion of religious restraints, the cultural embrace of credit, the breakdown in the family, the media support for profligates, the government imposition of race and gender quotas on lenders, the consequences of land restrictions, the political pressures to put people in homes, the overrepresentation of single women in housing defaults, the sanctioned waiving of documentation, and the easy purchase of Congressional support by financial institutions, especially the government-sponsored enterprises." (p. 230)

This was a fascinating take on the topic that opens up the forest so you can see the trees. For something many of us spend a lot of time thinking about, it is remarkable how little we actually know about money. Surely he must have had to have left a great deal out, yet the author offers a look at much in the way of the history and the culture behind how we use money.
  Carlie | Aug 5, 2010 |
This review may also be found at www.thispilgrimland.com

“Is it possible that monks and other Judeo-Christian moralists were useful, maybe even essential to the creation of this [the thriving Western] economy? If so, then is it possible that their dismissal from the marketplace has condemned us to our current economic purgatory?” That is the thesis that Jack Cashill lays out and attempts to answer in his latest book Popes & Bankers: A Cultrual History of Credit & Debt, From Aristotle to AIG. Taking the reader through the history of what was once known as usury but is now called credit, Cashill lays out for the reader a concise story of the development of the credit system that leads to today’s conversation about predatory lenders. Measuring the historical evidence and documents at the time and often measuring that against the churches response to banking trends in history Cashille presents the reader with a very educational and at times entertaining, stroll through the history of usury.

I enjoyed this book much more that I thought I would. I had thoughts that this book would read like an IRS tax-form but was pleasantly surprised to find that Cashill had expertly crafted a book that allows history to talk for the reader. The book is an easy read and provides more of an insight into cultural response to rules and trends in banking than the actual rules and trends themselves. Perhaps my favorite aspect of this book was the fact that Cashill drew so much of his thought not from “experts” on the time period but, especially in the earlier parts of the book, from the actual literature and poetry from the time. Cashill presents the reader with the reaction of culture to the trends and the trend setters from the works written at that time. This, for this reader, added credence to Cashill’s work.

I believe that people should read this book. Cashill presents thoughts and history on a subject, usury, that has baffled mankind since currency was invented. Is it alright in the eyes of God to lend money expecting repayment with interest? I can’t say that this book necessarily answers that question but it will make the reader more prepared to develop his or her own answer. ( )
  dvdbrumley | May 5, 2010 |
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