APM's "Marketplace" interviews Louis Hyman on debt

Historians in the News

Kai Ryssdal: ... Debt is, in fact, and has been, an American way of life.

Louis Hyman is the author of a new book called "Borrow: The American Way of Debt." Thanks for being here.

Louis Hyman: Thanks so much for having me on the show.

Ryssdal: So you know, people have been borrowing and lending since basically there were paper, right? I mean it's been thousands and thousands of years. What, though, is different about the way we do it? The way Americans do it?

Hyman: Yes, it's one of those rare things in history where it actually has been done since the dawn of time, as so many undergrad essays say. What's different about debt in the 20th century is that it's profitable. So if you look at debt in the 19th century, it was either unprofitable or it was illegal. So you have instances like the Singer Sewing machine company, which would sell things on the installment plan. But those plans always lost money for the company. They made up those losses by selling sewing machines. On the other end, you have loan sharks. Loan sharks charge exorbitant rates, but they of course were illegal. In the 20th century you see the emergence of profitable, legal lending. And that's what the story of "Borrow" is all about -- how that changed our culture and changed the way we live....

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