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Understanding the history of consumer debt in the twentieth century seems simple enough: market making. Debt has existed as long as civilization, but it was only in the last century that our petty debts became big business, and that was made possible by making markets for consumer debts akin to those of businesses and governments.
Today, in the aftermath of the subprime crisis, there is a foreboding sense that it is too easy for Americans to borrow. Living beyond our means on our cards and our mortgages, Americans borrowed at an unsustainable pace, and what put us here, the logic goes, was the unfortunate collision of lenders' greed and borrower's cupidity. Yet free-for-all borrowing defined another moment's economy as well, but without the ill consequences: the postwar period. After World War II, cheap credit underpinned the suburban prosperity, through government-insured loans, auto financing, and even department store Charga-Plates.
It is difficult to consider debt as having a history, because it seems like debt might be, as one popular historian of money in 1917 described it, a “semi-slavery . . . [which] existed before the dawn of history, and it exists to-day.” People, in a certain sense, have always lent money to one another: to a wayward brother, across a saloon bar, to a coworker. But even by 1917, as that popular history was written in the midst of world war, the ancient personal relationship of personal debt was changing into a modern impersonal one. My dissertation is about how what we call personal debt, that is debt incurred by individuals and not by businesses, went from being owed to other people to being owed to institutions, and what this has meant at the largest level about American capitalism.
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