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Desperation as business model

A few days ago, Amanda Marcotte wrote an astute entry regarding this BusinessWeek story about subprime lending and other poverty exploiting rackets. The general gist of the article is that the poor are often in tenuous and desperate situations that make them easy to exploit with usurious interest rates, rent-to-own ripoffs, exorbitant mark-ups and other opportunistic schemes. Just go into a ghetto "grocery store" or check the storefronts in a rundown shopping center on the wrong side of town and you'll get the picture. Paycheck loans, rent-to-own outfits, dollar stores, Chinese takeout, etc -- businesses that set high margins on small-ticket transactions. As Marcotte points out, desperation is an opportunity, as long as you lack the requisite scruples. You can take advantage of the lack of social capital in poor neighborhoods and present your exploitative behavior as a service. Without social capital, without the education to understand complex financial transactions, without legal protections being enforced for them or the political clout to see their interests protected, without the potentially powerful word-of-mouth networks or plain old money to smooth over life's frictions, the poor have no leverage over the businesses that deign to serve them, and the result is they are served only on vulturous terms. (One of the many ways disparate power among participants distorts the workings of the market, one of the heterodox views of the economists Chris Hayes considers in this Nation story.)

Insecurity in general is the basis of a lot of retail business, which is why so many ads are designed to generate feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. The poor, of course, don't need ads to make them feel insecure, which makes them a cost-effective target -- though ads are part of the discourse that establishes what is culturally normal, defining what it means to be impoverished. The bogus premise of equal opportunity is widely enough held in America that the poor must keep up appearances lest it seem that their poverty is their own personal fault. Of course, to keep up, they must take on risks and terms that sink them in debt traps and assure their continued failure to achieve the bourgeoisdom the signals normalcy -- that allows you to feel that you are the target of so much of the media's messages. The added bonus is that the working poor assume responsibility for their poverty as a kind of personal, moral failure -- this is what The Hidden Injuries of Class, by Sennett and Cobb, is all about.

We can fault business for following their incentives to profit at the expense of those with little defense and no social safety net, but it seems the counterveiling power of government is more likely to correct the problem then a sudden and complete change of heart among competitive firms. But politicians rely on business contributions to finance their campaigns, which leads to legislation that rewards business (the recent bankruptcy bill exemplifies this). So without any institutional power, the working poor has no reason not to seize the only form of power left to them. From Marcotte's entry:

Charles H. Green points out that this untenable exploitation of the working poor has become such a morally troubling issue that up-and-coming capitalists are beginning to turn on the system.

"One healthy sign: my 30th reunion at Harvard Business School last fall. The most heavily attended lecture was by Professor Bruce Scott, who spoke about the global trend toward concentration of wealth. We’re moving toward looking like Rio de Janeiro—armed gated communities surrounded by violent gangs. Scott’s lecture got a standing ovation—both in his lecture room, and in the audio-connected overflow room, hastily put together to accommodate the crowd. This from the old school crowd at HBS—the West Point of capitalism. There is hope."

It’s an interesting dilemma, from the capitalist point of view. Keeping the poor living from paycheck to paycheck and in constant debt serves two purposes. From the article, you can see that it’s actually quite profitable, especially in a deregulated era like ours. Second of all, desperation breeds complacency, to a degree. Workers who are constantly treading water and robbing Peter to pay Paul are likely to suffer all sorts of indignities to keep their jobs, including taking lower pay than they’re really worth if it means securing the jobs that much more quickly. But it has to be controlled desperation—there’s a tipping point where the poor are so much in debt to the rich that they simply can’t pay it all back and the system could collapse on itself. It’s happened before in history, many times, and it can happen again. Opposition to usury isn’t just about morals, but protecting a system that ultimately benefits the rich by keeping a check on the excesses that threaten the entire situation.

Very depressing, that, and the classic dilemma of all ameliorating, incrementalist approaches to social change: You end up perpetuating systems of oppression, making them more tolerable for the oppressed. But then you consider how much misery, chaos, and evil the typical revolution unleashes, and it's hard to think of any course of action worth advocating.

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