Good legislative history but a muddled and unconvincing argument about a cause of middle-class financial woes.

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LAND OF THE FEE

HIDDEN COSTS AND THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN MIDDLE CLASS

An inquiry into expenses associated with consumer borrowing.

"Consumer financial fees have helped to choke off dreams of the middle class and middle class aspirants alike," argues Fergus (History and Black Studies/Univ. of Missouri; Liberalism, Black Power, and the Making of American Politics, 1965-1980, 2009, etc.). In particular, the author investigates several common financial transactions that he contends involve hidden or excessive fees so egregious that they are damaging the economic well-being of Americans, including subprime mortgages, student loans, and payday lending. The damage these forms of borrowing have done to American households during and after the Great Recession is already well-known. Fergus traces in detail the discouraging story of congressional inaction by both political parties that has permitted lenders to sidestep usury laws as they burden unsophisticated borrowers with excessive interest and charges like origination fees and prepayment penalties. His discussion of payday lending is particularly incisive, showing how conventional banks have colluded with predatory lenders to fleece desperate borrowers, though Fergus’ failure to differentiate fees from outrageous interest rates weakens his case. Throughout, a difficulty is that Fergus never clearly defines what he means by a fee. The word may or may not include interest, tuition, or payment for actual services such as title searches; obfuscatory rulings by federal agencies add to the confusion. While he provides a valuable history of legislation that enabled these new forms of consumer lending, the author fails to refute the intuitive conclusion that it is the loans themselves and their interest rates—not associated fees—that create the real burden on borrowers. Nor does he look closely at such fundamental issues as why so many qualified borrowers were steered into subprime mortgages or why college costs have skyrocketed, thus necessitating student loans, in the first place.

Good legislative history but a muddled and unconvincing argument about a cause of middle-class financial woes.

Pub Date: July 2, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-19-997016-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 1, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2018

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A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.

ECONOMIC DIGNITY

Noted number cruncher Sperling delivers an economist’s rejoinder to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Former director of the National Economic Council in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the author has long taken a view of the dismal science that takes economic justice fully into account. Alongside all the metrics and estimates and reckonings of GDP, inflation, and the supply curve, he holds the great goal of economic policy to be the advancement of human dignity, a concept intangible enough to chase the econometricians away. Growth, the sacred mantra of most economic policy, “should never be considered an appropriate ultimate end goal” for it, he counsels. Though 4% is the magic number for annual growth to be considered healthy, it is healthy only if everyone is getting the benefits and not just the ultrawealthy who are making away with the spoils today. Defining dignity, admits Sperling, can be a kind of “I know it when I see it” problem, but it does not exist where people are a paycheck away from homelessness; the fact, however, that people widely share a view of indignity suggests the “intuitive universality” of its opposite. That said, the author identifies three qualifications, one of them the “ability to meaningfully participate in the economy with respect, not domination and humiliation.” Though these latter terms are also essentially unquantifiable, Sperling holds that this respect—lack of abuse, in another phrasing—can be obtained through a tight labor market and monetary and fiscal policy that pushes for full employment. In other words, where management needs to come looking for workers, workers are likely to be better treated than when the opposite holds. In still other words, writes the author, dignity is in part a function of “ ‘take this job and shove it’ power,” which is a power worth fighting for.

A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7987-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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No one’s mind will be changed by Karl’s book, but it’s a valuable report from the scene of an ongoing train wreck.

FRONT ROW AT THE TRUMP SHOW

The chief White House and Washington correspondent for ABC provides a ringside seat to a disaster-ridden Oval Office.

It is Karl to whom we owe the current popularity of a learned Latin term. Questioning chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, he followed up a perhaps inadvertently honest response on the matter of Ukrainian intervention in the electoral campaign by saying, “What you just described is a quid pro quo.” Mulvaney’s reply: “Get over it.” Karl, who has been covering Trump for decades and knows which buttons to push and which to avoid, is not inclined to get over it: He rightly points out that a reporter today “faces a president who seems to have no appreciation or understanding of the First Amendment and the role of a free press in American democracy.” Yet even against a bellicose, untruthful leader, he adds, the press “is not the opposition party.” The author, who keeps his eye on the subject and not in the mirror, writes of Trump’s ability to stage situations, as when he once called Trump out, at an event, for misrepresenting poll results and Trump waited until the camera was off before exploding, “Fucking nasty guy!”—then finished up the interview as if nothing had happened. Trump and his inner circle are also, by Karl’s account, masters of timing, matching negative news such as the revelation that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election with distractions away from Trump—in this case, by pushing hard on the WikiLeaks emails from the Democratic campaign, news of which arrived at the same time. That isn’t to say that they manage people or the nation well; one of the more damning stories in a book full of them concerns former Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen, cut off at the knees even while trying to do Trump’s bidding.

No one’s mind will be changed by Karl’s book, but it’s a valuable report from the scene of an ongoing train wreck.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4562-2

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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