“There is something in humility which strangely exalts the heart.”
— Saint Augustine
Humility is the word that keeps coming to mind.
This coronavirus has humbled us (more quickly than most could have imagined), but will it give us the precious gift of humility, to God, to nature — to one another?
When we are made low, when we are sequestered in our respective homes with the keys of industry turned to off, it’s easiest to see who has the least. It’s easiest, too, for once, to imagine oneself in their position. What happens when the change jar runs dry, the children cry and the jobs are shuttered indefinitely?
At times like this — unlike any in our lifetimes — it’s simplest, too, to identify the impediments to financial security, as it exists at all, for millions of our neighbors. They are largely of our making, and if we don’t fix them now we never will.
U.S. credit card rates are the penultimate offender. They are immoral. They are enslaving. And they are easily changeable.
The great religions of the world understood the evil of usury. Collecting interest from our fellow man was once strictly outlawed in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Catholic Church refused Holy Communion to those who engaged in it through the Middle Ages.
But with modernity came free markets and the enormous and undeniable good they have engendered. By allowing those with money to loan with interest economies quickly grew. Jobs were created. Inventiveness thrived, nowhere more so than in America where a standard of living unimaginable to our ancestors has come to be seen as unremarkable. Religion and morality took a back seat to profit, to money itself in some cases.
This didn’t happen in a vacuum. There were calls for easy credit and lobbyists ensuring that any extended lending came at a premium. The result is credit cards rates averaging around 25 percent annually. That’s usury any way you cut it.
In a society that preaches personal responsibility, it’s convenient to dismiss crippling debt as a product of poor choices. One isn’t forced to accept a Visa or MasterCard afterall. But what about mercy — mercy for the mother who needs diapers on Monday when payday is Thursday? Is there room in our world for her? That mom will end up paying for those diapers 50 or 60 times over in the course of her lifetime, shelling out all she can afford each month, the minimum payment due. She will never be able to save.
There are millions of her out there. She is our neighbor.
Credit card rates are set by the states, but also through the federal government, thanks to lobbyists who know how to parse language (“fees,” it turns out, are not the express domain of state legislatures). And many attempts to rein in annual percentage rates (APRs) have been made. But credit card rates remain unmercifully high, and in our present state that’s glaring, perhaps even dangerous when one thinks through what could occur if we’re not smart.
There’s a difference between conservatism, as many of us understand it, and pure laissez faire economics. True conservatism exalts in the power of economic freedom, which both enables and ennobles. But deeper still is its commitment to universal humility, to the notion that there, but for the grace of God, go I. The two can go hand-in-hand with reasonable usury laws. Institutions can make a profit without acting immorally. We just have to find the right balance.
If we don’t see that now, with millions of households running out of cash by the day, what will it take? A pandemic with a 30 percent death rate, one that shuts down our utilities and breaks down the social order?
Federal and state governments should dramatically slash APR rates now — not just for this crisis, but for the soul of our nation.
William F.B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.