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

America’s dangerous love affair with easy credit.

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


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.”

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

THE BIG PICTURE

You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight 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

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.