Mark Winston Griffith
Michael Lewis Gets a Rise Out of Advocates
Economic justice advocates, community development professionals and others involved in anti-predatory lending work were abuzz this week, reacting to a provocative column written by Michael Lewis on September 5th for Bloomberg News. In his piece, "A Wall Street Trader Draws Some Subprime Lessons", Lewis, a writer whose best selling book, "Liar's Poker" chronicled his stint as a Wall Street trader, assumes, again, the persona of a Wall Street trader. In doing so he speaks intentionally with condescension of lessons learned through his financing of subprime loans to "poor" people:
"Don't get me wrong: I have nothing personally against the poor. To my knowledge, I have nothing personally to do with the poor at all. It's not personal when a guy cuts your grass: that's business. He does what you say, you pay him. But you don't pay him in advance: That would be finance. And finance is one thing you should never engage in with the poor. (By poor, I mean anyone who the SEC wouldn't allow to invest in my hedge fund.)...That's the biggest lesson I've learned from the subprime crisis. Along the way, as these people have torpedoed my portfolio, I had some other thoughts about the poor. "
The column is apparently a piece of satire, much like "Liar's Poker", and it is so over the top and gratuitously obnoxious, that, as one of my colleagues noted, it reads like an Onion article on steroids. But perhaps far more interesting than the article itself, was the reaction to it. Many people took it seriously, reacting to it like radio listeners tuning into an Orson Well's dramatization of "War of the Worlds". Even among those who recognized it as satire, some thought it was funny and insightful, while others considered it a poorly delivered piece of social commentary that was offensive and inappropriate.
Given some of Lewis' other columns, it's hard not to suspect that he actually views borrowers with subprime loans with some level of contempt. In a column he wrote in April of this year, Lewis asks rhetorically, "Am I the only one who wonders how a person who borrows money he can't repay, buys a house he can't afford, and then stiffs his creditors, is allowed to play the victim?"
Who knows what was on Lewis' mind when he wrote his column this past week, but Lewis' argument in this April column is transparent, straight-forwardly delivered, and less than a stone's throw away from the view that subprime borrowers are a subset of the undeserving poor, shifty get-over artists who got caught taking out loans they all knew they couldn't afford.
Never mind the fact that subprime lending is mostly affecting the working and middle class, but those of us who have talked to countless people who have received subprime loans know that, of course, no one single profile fits all. We also have met untold numbers of people who at worse were targets of fraud, and at best agreed to exploitative loan terms that they never fully understood.
And no matter what method you choose to tell this story, there ain't nothing cute nor funny about it.