Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit, and the Era of Predatory Lenders

America’s dangerous love affair with easy credit.

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


In 1733, James Oglethorpe established Georgia as a haven for the “worthy poor” to work off their debts. If he’d only known that nearly 275 years later, the entire United States would be a giant debtor’s colony, one nation in the red, subject to compound interest, indentured to Citibank.

This is the bleak financial landscape explored in Maxed Out, an enlightening tour of America’s dangerous love affair with easy credit. James Scurlock, a Wharton grad who blew his inheritance on a Boston Market franchise, is an engaging guide to the corporate numbers games and the personal side of financial ruin. As he tours the country filming a documentary (just released under the same title), he meets collection agents, personal finance gurus, families with kids or moms who killed themselves to avoid credit card bills, and Dee Hock, the aptly named visionary who realized Visa could get away with charging 18 percent interest. He also elicits some frightening admissions from people in the credit business, such as the mortgage broker who explains how he helps clients lie about their incomes so they can “afford” $400,000 homes, knowing that the banks turn a blind eye to such tricks.

This kind of enabling by financial professionals infuriates Scurlock. Back in the day, lenders protected clients from loans they couldn’t handle. Today, they aggressively market debt as a product—not a liability, but a lifestyle choice. The rules of sound finance have become so twisted that the industry has nothing but contempt for its “good” customers: Low credit card balances actually hurt your credit rating, and if you’re one of the lucky few who can pay off your bills each month, you’re what’s known in the biz as a “deadbeat.”

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate