Popes & Bankers

Popes & Bankers: A Cultural History of Credit and Debt, From Aristotle to AIG, Jack Cashill. Thomas Nelson. 272 pages.

Months ago, I wrote about Jack Cashill, a man whose conservative ideals go beyond mere political opinion into blind paranoia. He is an American historian whose favorite topic of writing, it seems, is finding new angles to historical events and creating new and cohesive narratives in which to fit these “fresh” perspectives. (Another name for this process would be revisionist history, but I digress). In Popes & Bankers, Cashill attempts to look at the history of credit and debt from the ancient Hebrews in the Old Testament to the present financial crisis, focusing on the theme of “usury,” the lending of money at fairly high interest rates. He concludes with some historically-informed ideas on how to move forward fiscally and economically in both our personal and political lives.

On the outset, we are given the expectation that this book is merely a historical survey of events, but slowly, over time, you begin seeing that it’s actually a historical apology for conservative economic policies. The book aims to show us that there really is nothing new under the economic sun. Throughout history there have been bubbles, bailouts, credit default swaps, sub-prime loans, lazy poor people and rich people getting hated on. And whenever these things have been in place, the free market has been able to correct itself unless, of course, the government stepped in and tried to do something as well, upon which times there have only been more problems. The book is written in an engaging, snarky prose that is at once high-brow and Everyman. Cashill is very witty and winsome, using sarcasm as a primary mode of communication.

And here’s the thing that was so shocking to me about this book: it is quite successful in all it sets out to accomplish. Popes is very effective, convincing even an extreme skeptic like me (who still thinks he’s crazy) that he has offered a fair assessment of the grand story of credit and debt; and there indeed seems to be very little new today. Further, there is an even larger theme in this book that Cashill begins focusing on more as the modern era reaches his purview: there is a moral dimension of economics, and government attempts at forcing the invisible hand to be more moral have just pushed it further from the morality it seeks to produce.

Now for a few critiques. First, on sources. The book flows chronologically and is replete with endnotes, but looking at these notes, it appears that Cashill read one book for each of his chapters, thereby making each chapter more like a Sparknotes summary of one book on that particular topic. This may or may not bother the potential reader, but in the end, Popes & Bankers is not, technically speaking, the most well-researched of books on this topic (nor does it necessarily pretend to be). Secondly, on his arguments. Though he was very successful in convincing me that true conservative (not simply “Republican”) economic policies are better in the long-run, for a libertarian like myself who occasionally flirts with a few liberal ideas, I still walked away from the book uneasy. To be sure, I was intellectually convinced, but something in me still felt a bit “played.” I think this is because of three doubts I have about some key points for Cashill.

First, I wonder if treating ancient and historical ideas about usury as the seed of contemporary economic ideas of borrowing and lending is merely an exercise in convenient false equivalencies.  Secondly, several economist have made the case that this economic situation at this time and this place is actually a very unique confluence of many forces in the whole scheme of history, and therefore trying to find historical analogies is pretty futile. Lastly, and most importantly, is there really no more room for economic innovation? Is it possible that new or traditionally “liberal” economic policies that may not have worked in the past may be implemented effectively in new ways today?

In conclusion, if lending has always worked off the same basic principles throughout history, if our current financial struggles are the same as others in the past, and if economics is more science than art and the same ideas that have not worked in the past can never work in any way (no matter how creatively they are attempted), then Cashill’s book is one of the most accurate and accessible of assessments of economic history I know.  But, then again, that’s a lot of ifs to overcome; and is it possible that an economically untrained individual with a penchant for propaganda, revisionist history, and overly-simplistic narratives that seem tie up all the loose ends could overcome them? I suppose, but I’ll let you decide for yourself. As for me, I still can’t shake the feeling that key parts of the context, theory, and results were held back from me in this book and I might just have to read a few more books to get the whole story.

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Paul Burkhart

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