David Brat's Subprime Logic

Last week, David Brat shocked the political world by unseating Eric Cantor. This week, I'll be reviewing a 2011 article where he sounds off on capitalism, Jesus, Hitler, the financial crisis, usury, and more.

By Nathan Pippenger

As individuals, most politicians are dreadfully dull. Whether pandering to a party base or reciting platitudinal rhetoric designed to offend absolutely nobody, candidates opting for the least-risky path to Election Day try to avoid any impression that they have unpopular thoughts. When public remarks do happen to be interesting, it’s often because they’re a Kinsley Gaffe, and so they are immediately retracted, accompanied by profuse and disheartening apologies. Stupid or offensive remarks are interesting for a short while, but they rarely reward sustained attention. In private, many politicians are probably perfectly interesting people, with lots of unconventional thoughts and opinions. But most of them would never dare to utter many of these in public, and so it’s rare to hear an unusual and provocative thought, even from a smart politician.

David Brat, who just defeated House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary upset that nobody saw coming, is not stupid. That’s an important thing to understand about him. An astonishing number of politicians are stupid, and even the smart ones are often boring. To read a candidate’s actual thoughts is a rare pleasure, and often a fleeting one: Barack Obama—who, when he speaks off the cuff, says very interesting things—is the author of Dreams From My Father, but he’s also the author of a rote campaign book like any other politician. Similarly, the interest in Hillary Clinton’s new memoir is, I have to believe, due entirely to speculation about 2016, not its unexpected and provocative contents. Brat, in contrast, has bequeathed to us a set of writings that share genuinely candid thoughts.

But that’s praise enough. This week, I’ll be digging into Brat’s 2011 article, “God and Advanced Mammon—Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?”, which appeared in the journal Interpretation. I’ll be reviewing the article in at least two parts, the first focusing on Brat’s strange theory—if it’s not too grandiose to call it that—of the financial crisis. This is a revealing section, but it’s not, to put it lightly, Brat’s most intellectually provocative moment.

The article, which discusses the theological treatment of usury in capitalism, is a pretty breezy affair, and it wanders far beyond its putative subject. At times, Brat writes like Newt Gingrich talks: in a meandering, didactic fashion that delights in linking a handful of Top Of The Pops books and thinkers (John Locke! The Wealth of Nations! “A famous economist named Hayek”! The Founding Fathers!) en route to some oversimplified and spuriously-connected moral, usually along the lines of “free markets good, government bad.” Some choice examples of his prose style:

…Houston, we have a problem. Coercion is on the rise. What is the root word for liberalism? (Answer: Liberty).

…However, as Adam Smith explained, an order has emerged as if an invisible hand has
guided us to the answer, and the market mechanism produces prices and goods that match our wants. How? Supply and Demand. If you are lost already, that is okay, but you have some work to do.

… the U.S. founders framed a constitution that guaranteed what today are called “negative rights.” Individuals were to be free to pursue their own goals. They were not allowed to interfere in the goals of others. King George did that, and it did not work out well at all.

You get the idea. I’ll have more to say about the essay later this week, but today I want to highlight just one part: Brat’s take on the financial crisis. His specific policy remarks come after a brief discussion of the ethics and economics of charging high interest to risky borrowers. Is it unjust, Brat asks rhetorically, to charge a poor person with poor credit high interest for a risky loan?

That borrower may not like work and may sleep all day and eat snacks while watching television. Can we in good conscience make the banker, who in this case is a good hard-working person, pay for the faults of the sleeper with bad credit? Is that the knee-jerk Christian position? Let us just force people to be ethical. Let us force an ethical outcome. Let us force justice.

Following this sarcastic conclusion, Brat turns his attention from the hypothetical to the real. “In the news,” he explains, “the recent economic unpleasantness called the ‘Global Financial Crisis’ was set off by weaknesses in the housing market.”

Basically, we wanted to force low-interest loans on the banks so that the poor could magically afford houses. Sounds good. Banks made loans to anyone. Liar loans. They then immediately sold those loans to the government, who then took on the risk as well, and the rest is history. The sub-prime loans are still being sorted out on Wall Street. Well-intentioned policy became a nightmare. Wall Street played its role and is equally to blame, but without the “coercion” in the housing market, there would have been much less crisis. This is my view.

To put it bluntly: As an interpretation of the financial crisis, this is absurdly reductive and one-sided, especially coming from an economics professor. Brat’s remark about “forcing” banks to lend to the poor so they could “magically afford houses” is probably a reference to the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, a law intended to cut down on discriminatory lending practices (which included the denial of loans even to people who were creditworthy). The CRA has been a special target of conservative blame since the 2008 crash, but as the official Financial Crisis Inquiry Report explained, “only 6% of high-cost loans—a proxy for subprime loans—had any connection to the law,” and the CRA-linked subprime loans actually performed better than other subprime loans.

In any case, even if Brat had a point about the CRA, subprime loans to low-income borrowers were just one small part of the overall pre-2008 housing market and broader crisis—and the period of massive deregulation that preceded the meltdown can hardly be described as a nightmarish era of government coercion. Weirdly, Brat seems to unintentionally acknowledge this fact, creating a contradiction in the paragraph. On the one hand, he claims that bankers were “forced” to make loans to risky borrowers, but at the same time he writes that “Wall Street played its role and is equally to blame.” This is strange stuff from the chair of an economics department, but things get far stranger when Brat ventures into other academic fields—as we’ll see later this week. Stay tuned: after all, he could be elected to the U.S. Congress!

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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