Each breath will cost you a nickel

November 14, 2017 § 49 Comments

The basic principles behind the prohibition of usury are simple.  Financially, usury is any contractual profit for the lender stemming from making a “loan for consumption“: a loan which authorizes the borrower to consume or alienate the actual property lent, while personally guaranteeing that he will restore to the lender the amount lent.  Morally, personally guaranteed loans are only licit as acts of charity or friendship made to a borrower in need: they are never licit under any circumstances as acts of financial self-interest on the part of the lender.

Intuitively, charging rent for the use of collateral property owned by the lender – actual alienable property which is later returned to the lender intact or ultimately bought out by the borrower – is not intrinsically uncharitable.

Intuitively, charging a man rent for the use of his own person, for each breath he takes from his own lungs, is intrinsically uncharitable.  Interest on a personal IOU is a charge of rent against a man for the use of his own person, since his obligation to repay simply is personal.

It is also intrinsically uncharitable to make a mutuum borrower responsible for the lender’s changing circumstances.  In general with a mutuum loan the borrower is not responsible – cannot be made responsible – for all of the circumstantial changes which occur in the universe during the duration of the loan.

People use terms like “inflation” in economic theory to refer to aggregate indexes of relative price changes over time.  An index is just a representative sample of statistically aggregated spot prices of particular goods and services, measured in some particular unit (US dollars, McDonalds Big Macs, etc).  There are as many possible relative price indices as there are discrete combinations of goods, services, transactions, and time periods.  But folks tend to treat “inflation” as if it were a basic feature of reality as opposed to a particular heuristic/statistical guesstimate about certain historical circumstantial changes in relative prices (measures of who in fact bartered what in exchange for what) for certain goods and services (and only those goods and services, etc).

I once bought a house by selling some stock, paying for the house with the proceeds.  When I sold the house it had “lost value” in terms of US dollars but had “gained value” in terms of the stock I sold. Whether the house had inflated or deflated in price over the period I owned it depends on what measure we use for price.  If I had sold the stock, rented a place to live, and made an interest free mutuum loan of the remainder of the proceeds I would have been financially better off still, assuming the mutuum was repaid.  If I had rented and not sold the stock at all I would be worst off of all, in terms of financial outcome.

This all would have been the result of changing circumstances.  In general it is not the responsibility of mutuum borrowers – it cannot be a mutuum borrower’s responsibility in justice – to compensate lenders for changes in the lender’s circumstances.

Inflation is a heuristic measure of aggregated circumstances in the economy, crafted and reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Even if inflation were a measure of the actual concrete and personal changing circumstances of the actual lender, which it isn’t, it remains intrinsically unjust to charge mutuum borrowers rent for the use of their own persons simply because of the changing circumstances of a lender.

§ 49 Responses to Each breath will cost you a nickel

  • djz242013 says:

    I was trying to write a post about why usury was wrong. What makes it immoral, and why is that so hard to see when people can just intuit that things like slavery and theft are wrong? But your offhand paragraph about “charging a man rent for the use of his own person” is clearer than my much longer post. oh well.

  • Zippy says:

    djz242013:

    The biggest challenge in discussing usury with modern folks, even above getting them (us) to grasp what it actually is and is not, is developing an intuition for why usury has always been considered so despicable and heinous. I’m always looking for better ways to provide that intuition pump, and different approaches work for different people. So I would encourage finding other ways to express it, verbose or no. There is plenty of confusion on the issue to go around and my style etc doesn’t work for everyone.

  • Scott W. says:

    So I would encourage finding other ways to express it, verbose or no.

    I sell you a car and let you pay over time for it.
    Turns out you can’t afford the payments.

    Not usury: you give back the car and we both walk away.
    Usury: you give back the car but I decide it’s not enough so I go into your house and take your TV, your stereo, your PlayStation, I get a court order that allows me to garnish your paycheck etc.

  • Alex says:

    Every breath you take
    Every move you make
    Every bond you lend
    Every step you take
    I’ll be charging you

    Every single day
    Every word you say
    Every game you play
    Every night you stay
    I’ll be charging you

    Oh can’t you see
    You belong to me
    My poor ledger aches
    With every wage you take

  • Rhetocrates says:

    Another:

    Not usury: You give me a cow in exchange for money. Through unforseeable means, the cow gives milk only for a couple days, then dries up. I’m stuck with a dry cow.

    Usury: You give me a cow in exchange for money. Through unforseeable means, the cow gives milk only for a couple days, then dries up. I make you work in my fields to make up for the ‘lost milk’ because I thought the cow should give two gallons of milk each day for ten years.

    Usury-by-inflation: You give me a cow in exchange for money. The cow continues to produce milk for as long as I thought it would, but the ratio of exchange between milk and silver goes up. I put you to work in a silver mine to ‘compensate’ me for the ‘lost’ silver.

  • What about arrangements where repayment is neither in kind nor in particular; for instance if you lent me money for a house and wanted to be repaid in gold, would this fall outside the realm of usury as something other than a mutuum or societas?

  • Zippy says:

    TimFinnegan:

    It is still a mutuum, since it is a personal IOU not a non recourse loan or equity stake.

    Relevant posts:

    https://zippycatholic.wordpress.com/2015/09/22/the-just-price-head-fake-and-hidden-usury/

    https://zippycatholic.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/friendship-arbitrage/

  • A Portuguese Man says:

    So, I think I get in terms of mutuums and securitas, like in the FAQ.

    ButI don’t quite grasp it in terms of cows.

    Say someone lends me a cow. I am to pay rent for this cow until I return it.

    Say the cow dies. I can no longer return the cow.

    Is it usury if I’m to pay the rent until I find another cow to return?

  • In the example in the just price post, you gave the example of repayment in oranges. Is it proper to call this a profit producing loan since at the time of the contract the profit has not been actualized, and the contract could actually lead to a loss if when actually given the 100 oranges, apples are worth more than oranges?

    I suppose there is intent to produce a profit from the loan independent of whether a profit is actually made, but in such an agreement that isn’t necessarily the case. It does leave the door open to possible usury which would be imprudent, but it seems like a shrodinger’s contract; both usury and notbusury until the relative price of apples and oranges is known at the termination of the contract.

  • Zippy says:

    The question is, if you are lending apples as an act of charity then why are you insisting on repayment in oranges? See the friendship arbitrage post.

  • orthros says:

    So something hit me on the usury front yesterday and I’d like your thoughts as the resident Usury Expert(TM).

    I had receive an advertisement from Aaron’s Furniture. If you’re not familiar, they sell overpriced junk on a “ONLY $XX PER WEEK!!111” sort of pitch.

    I was explaining to my homeschooled children how stupid this was – an XBox that costs $200 at Costco would cost over $1,000 over a year’s time via Aaron’s – and that this was a particularly egregious example of usury.

    Then I stopped midstream and realized that I was (probably) technically mistaken. And that, at least as commonly practiced, it wasn’t usury at all.

    Aaron’s rents that XBox on weekly payments. The payments are stupidly high, but if the renter stops paying, then Aaron’s…. takes the product back. As far as I can tell, they do not report to credit agencies or try to demand payment for the balance from their customers.

    So, is this technically not usury? Just the sin of… I don’t know… taking financial advantage of people who are bad at math? Or (I can’t imagine this is the case) no sin at all?

  • Craig N. says:

    As a purely psychological datum, when I read the Usury FAQ I found the selling-things-that-do-not-exist material unpersuasive, but the comparison to slavery struck home. Similarly here.

  • TomD says:

    Something I’ve noted about usury is that people who are financially savvy in their domain often haven’t thought deeply about it – or combine things together – and it basically comes down to “prepunishment” for fraud – because a loan may be obtained fraudulently, and fraud is bad, and the lender can recover losses due to fraud, therefore he should be able to charge interest. Combine that with the obfuscation between joint ownership (non-recourse loans) and mutuums and you get what we have today.

    The funny thing is – even they will notice that personal recourse loans are much more sketchy. The main thing to understand is that, yes, a correct understanding of usury will prohibit certain loans but those loans are bad for society; just as correct understandings of adultery and contraception will prohibit certain sex acts.

  • Zippy says:

    TomD:

    There is also a tendency to try to treat justice as something which can be achieved on average, given certain gross statistical assumptions. Everyone must be penalized for the average rate of fraudulent default, a penalty labeled a ‘risk premium’, as opposed to actual individuals being responsible for their own petty-criminal actions.

    A utilitarian view of justice, obviously.

  • Zippy says:

    TomD:

    The funny thing is – even [financially savvy people] will notice that personal recourse loans are much more sketchy.

    Personal guarantees are financially dysfunctional: their presence in any investment red flags that something is wrong with the capital structure and associated incentives: someone is trying to paper over a problem with a personal guarantee. I won’t say “most”, but I think a substantial percentage of financially savvy people grasp that much and view deals involving personal guarantees with a jaundiced eye.

    [Comment re-worded for better clarity — Z]

  • Zippy:
    “But folks tend to treat “inflation” as if it were a basic feature of reality as opposed to a particular heuristic/statistical guesstimate about certain historical circumstantial changes in relative prices…”

    It seems that inflation in itself is a feature of reality, in so far as property tends to break down over time. A mutuum of oranges requires a return of similar quality oranges and a return of rotting oranges would be unjust.

    Inflation qua measure is a relative measure of value. As such, an orange may differ with respect to an apple/apricot/asparagus/avocado in value, but an orange is tautologically worth an orange.

  • Zippy says:

    semioticanimal:

    It seems that inflation in itself is a feature of reality, in so far as property tends to break down over time.

    That isn’t inflation/deflation though (change in relative exchange price of equivalent items over time); it is depreciation (deterioration in the objective value of particular objects over time as they break down or require other maintenance).

    Depreciation (combined with other maintenance costs) is financial recognition of the second law of thermodynamics.

  • buckyinky says:

    You might be living in a usurious society when this is meant as flattery, rather than an insult, for employees.

  • TomD says:

    Honestly it’s amazing how blatant it is – terms like Human Resources are so bad even slavers wouldn’t use them.

  • A Portuguese Man says:

    Thanks Zippy, makes sense.

    Personally, I think the secured/unsecured contract approach worked better for me. And I think it also ties well with the general financial morality around it.

    I find it easy to understand that if no property secures the contract other than people, and there’s interest, then there’s usury.

    I guess you could say usury is like securing a contract with slaves.

  • A Portuguese Man says:

    BTW, I started translating the FAQ to Portuguese. Turns out, it was much harder than I thought. I hadn’t realised the amount of financial and legal jargon in it the first time I read it. I don’t know much about either thing so even though my grasp on English is solid, I need to constantly check what are the right terms in Portuguese.

    I found out that we technically refer to mutuum contracts as… “mútuos” – pretty much the same word – “mutual” in English.

    I found out a few academic works and theses on usury in Portugal, mainly from an historical perspective.

    Interesting. I’ll keep chiping away slowly.

    I can confidently say no one I know has a clue about this stuff (including me, before I found your FAQ), in a country supposedly Catholic to the bone.

  • A Portuguese Man says:

    Although, in fairness, I was raised under the premise that borrowing most kinds of valuable things, but especially money, was, generally speaking, a thing that ought not to be done.

  • TomD says:

    An interesting thing about the old bad sins – common wisdom was to avoid doing them AND avoid being a victim of (or tempting people to) them.

  • Rhetocrates says:

    I guess you could say usury is like securing a contract with slaves.

    You’d be in the company of Popes and Saints (and sainted Popes) if you did.

  • different t says:

    It seems the basic principle is that according to the Church: if a person is genuinely unable to meet some proper obligation, it is morally wrong to replace it with an improper and more burdensome obligation. Note the implicit role of judgement and authority, and therefore all of the implicit presuppositions.

    For example, if a man is unable to provide his family with sustenance (the proper obligation), it is morally wrong to replace this obligation with an obligation to “provide his family with sustenance and deliver x to the lender.” However, this is not the same as if a man provided his family with sustenance and then asked to borrow money for the purchase of a prostitute’s services. And is different still from a man who is unable to provide sustenance for his family as he traded his production for the services of a prostitute.

    This view (which is very illiberal and not about abstract finance) seems foundational from my reading of your posts about usury. However, it is not at all clear that attempting to translate this perspective into the language of finance or force fit it into a liberal framework is a good project (though, this: “An interesting thing about the old bad sins – common wisdom was to avoid doing them AND avoid being a victim of (or tempting people to) them” seems to complicate that).

  • Zippy says:

    different t:

    However, this is not the same as if a man provided his family with sustenance and then asked to borrow money for the purchase of a prostitute’s services. And is different still from a man who is unable to provide sustenance for his family as he traded his production for the services of a prostitute.

    Even if the contract stipulates limits on how the money is spent or the manner in which the lent property may be alienated from the borrower, it remains the case that interest on the loan is illicit unless the loan is secured by (and only by) “a fixed, immobile good” — that is, by some property which the contract specifies may not be alienated, since that property and only that property – specifically not a personal IOU – secures the contract.

    I’d also point out that it is morally wrong even to give a man money for the express and constrained purpose of (e.g.) paying a prostitute, or spending the money on any evil product or service for that matter, since this is formal cooperation with evil. This is entirely independent of the prohibition of usury specifically.

  • Different T says:

    Your response is exactly the translation of this view out of the illiberal framework and into the language of finance and liberalism. I understand what you are saying, it isn’t clear you understand what I am saying.

    The purpose of drawing out those other two examples wasn’t to give you an opportunity to apply your knowledge about usury. It was to highlight the ways they interact with what was identified as the “basic principle” out of which your “knowledge” of usury results. You seem to be claiming that usury results from mutuum loans with interest. OK, sure. The alternative perspective would be that the “basic principle” has become meaningless and attempts to translate it into finance or force fit it into a liberal perspective doesn’t seem to restore the meaning.

  • Zippy says:

    Different T:

    I understand what you are saying, it isn’t clear you understand what I am saying.

    It isn’t really clear to me that you are actually saying anything which is both non-tautological and understandable.

    The purpose of drawing out those other two examples … was to highlight the ways they interact with what was identified as the “basic principle” out of which your “knowledge” of usury results.

    You might want to work on some different examples then, because (as already observed) the example of giving/lending someone money specifically so he can go to a prostitute is already morally wrong on entirely orthogonal grounds.

    Your principle in your own words is as follows:

    … if a person is genuinely unable to meet some proper obligation, it is morally wrong to replace it with an improper and more burdensome obligation.

    But it is morally wrong to place an improper obligation on someone to begin with, for any reason or under any circumstances, without any preceding “if” clause. That is what “improper” means.

    As for accusing me of thinking like a liberal, etc, in my discussions of usury; I’m happy to leave judgment of the veracity of that naked assertion to readers, and posterity.

  • Different T says:

    But it is morally wrong to place an improper obligation on someone to begin with, for any reason or under any circumstances, without any preceding “if” clause. That is what “improper” means.

    Yes, which goes back to the implication of authority and judgement. If you left it at “usury is mutuum loan with interest and the authorities say it is morally wrong so it is wrong” we wouldn’t be having this discussion. You didn’t do that.

    I’ve spent hours reading and considering the perspective you offer on this site. You seem to have spent less than five minutes considering the implications of this “basic principle” and why it leads to very different conclusions about what the ban on usury means.

    As for accusing me of thinking like a liberal, etc, in my discussions of usury; I’m happy to leave judgment of the veracity of that naked assertion to readers, and posterity.

    K.

  • Zippy says:

    Different T:

    If you left it at “usury is mutuum loan with interest and the authorities say it is morally wrong so it is wrong” we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    I’m not a voluntarist at all though, let alone the sort of voluntarist willing to sign up to the idea that intrinsically immoral behaviors are only morally wrong because those in authority say so.

  • Different T says:

    Thanks for correcting the formatting on that comment. Is there somewhere you show how you come to recognize “intrinsically immoral behaviors?”

  • Zippy says:

    Different T:

    Is there somewhere you show how you come to recognize “intrinsically immoral behaviors?”

    See here.

  • Different T says:

    Thanks for the link.

    It isn’t really clear to me that you are actually saying anything which is both non-tautological and understandable.

    Your Church views man in a certain, illiberal way. Specifically, this seems to encapsulate the relevant perspective:

    Our meditation on the dialogue between Jesus and the rich young man has enabled us to bring together the essential elements of Revelation in the Old and New Testament with regard to moral action. These are: the subordination of man and his activity to God, the One who “alone is good”; the relationship clearly indicated in the divine commandments, between the moral good of human acts and eternal life; Christian discipleship, which opens up before man the perspective of perfect love; and finally the gift of the Holy Spirit, source and means of the moral life of the “new creation” (cf. 2 Cor 5:17).

    That is, man isn’t some liberal atom with no obligations. Rather, there do exist obligations that are proper to him, and your Church has a view on what these consist of. Additionally, I assume (if this is incorrect, I would appreciate you telling me) there exists discussion regarding the fulfillment of certain obligations being necessary so as to fulfill “higher” obligations; e.g. providing sustenance to his family is a proper obligation necessary but insufficient to fulfill the obligations of “head of family.” However, the existence of such obligations does not imply their fulfillment.

    From reading this site, your perspective on usury seems best encapsulated by this:

    Usury involves treating people (subjects) as things (objects), because it involves purchasing “Bob owes me principal and interest” as opposed to purchasing shares in that project there or that bundle of assets there, distinct from particular persons. The most extreme form of treating persons as property is chattel slavery. (Some authors beg to differ, seeing usury as worse, and the argument has some merit). Usury is in the same moral genus as slavery.

    Yet; this still begs the question. So how can “usury is like slavery” explain the meaning of the ban?

    What I am attempting to point at is this: you seem to think that saying something like “Usury is like slavery, slavery is bad, and the Church banned this bad thing and it’s a sin, so don’t do it” makes sense. The alternative perspective would be that as the statement: “if a person is genuinely unable to meet some proper obligation, it is morally wrong to replace it with an improper and more burdensome obligation;” has become more meaningless, so has your statement.

    It seems similar to what the Pope has been groping towards saying with regards to how liberalism/capitalism is impacting the family and how these things interact with dogma.

  • Zippy says:

    Different T:

    That is, man isn’t some liberal atom with no obligations. Rather, there do exist obligations that are proper to him, and your Church has a view on what these consist of.

    Correct.

    I assume (if this is incorrect, I would appreciate you telling me) there exists discussion regarding the fulfillment of certain obligations being necessary so as to fulfill “higher” obligations …

    This post may (or may not) provide some perspective.

    So how can “usury is like slavery” explain the [objective moral wrongness of usury]?

    In the first place, “usury is like chattel slavery” isn’t really an explanation as much as it is an analogy and intuition pump — one which is obviously only helpful for folks who already intuit moral wrongness in treating fellow human beings as if those fellow human beings were disposable raw materials or mere pack animals for the enrichment of slaveowners. I’ve used other analogies/explanations/intuition pumps as well, in years of discussion.

    In the second, your dissatisfaction with that particular explanation or intuition pump is likely connected to unstated epistemic assumptions which I do not share (in particular about moral questions, but in my experience these epistemic expectations and errors tend to ‘leak’ into other areas). This post may (or may not) be relevant.

    If I say “an owl is like a cat with wings” that may raise more questions about owls, and the senses in which they are (and are not) like flying cats. I’ve spent years answering those kinds of questions about usury; the Church and theologians have spent millennia doing so, and I’ve provided lots of citations of those in addition to my own.

    More generally I’ve written a lot over the years about consequentialism, objective moral standards of behavior, etc in addition to my work on usury specifically. I’ve referred you to a seminal Catholic magisterial encyclical on the former. And I’ve written a lot about my epistemic perspective, etc. If you want to grasp my understanding of moral reality then attempting to grasp the perspective articulated in the encyclical – and not just at the level of sound bites or proof texting – is a good first step.

    But I have neither the personal capacity nor even the slightest inclination to address every random commenter’s particular issues, nor to develop special analogies that appeal to the intuitions of every different sort of person from every different sort of background, etc.

    If you don’t find my writing on a particular subject satisfactory, well, take a number. If you have a way of articulating that dissatisfaction in a way that makes coherent sense and doesn’t involve ludicrous “Zippy is such a librul” disqualifications, well, have at it — either here or at your own blog.

  • Different T says:

    To be clear, you think I’ve indicated a belief that usury isn’t wrong? And that I’ve called you a liberal?

  • Zippy says:

    To be clear, I’ve said that what you are saying is unclear.

  • Different T says:

    Alright, thanks for the links.

    And also thanks for: “So how can “usury is like slavery” explain the [objective moral wrongness of usury]?”

    If you don’t understand what I am pointing at when I say “Your response is exactly the translation of this view [objective moral wrongness of usury] out of the illiberal framework and into the language of finance [selling time, rent on a body] and liberalism [it’s like slavery]” it seems unlikely to get any clearer for now.

  • Zippy says:

    Different T:

    If you don’t understand what I am pointing … it seems unlikely to get any clearer for now.

    Or perhaps I understand your tautology as clearly as it can be understood, and your claim to represent THE “illiberal framework” is a gibberish non-substantive attempt at disqualification. After all discussing usury in terms of selling time, as compared to slavery, as contrasted to rental of property, etc has been going on for thousands of years. The various distinctions in financial contract types (e.g. mutuum, societas, census, etc) stem from Roman law and custom predating the birth of Christ by centuries. So your claim that understanding usury in those terms is “liberal” is more than a little precious.

    IOW it seems entirely plausible, to me, that you are utterly ignorant about the subject and are just blowing smoke.

  • Different T says:

    So your claim that understanding usury in those terms is “liberal” is more than a little precious.

    Alright, Zippy. Now you’re back to the “you’re calling me a liberal” schtick.

    The alternative perspective would be that the “basic principle” has become meaningless and attempts to translate it into finance or force fit it into a liberal perspective doesn’t seem to restore the meaning.

  • Different T says:

    If you’re going to characterize my statements in such a way, would you at least point to what they’ve obscured?

    I’ve yet to read the encyclical, but if something is found that makes my perspective, I will post it.

  • Different T says:

    *makes my perspective more clear*

  • TomD says:

    If Different T is asking for an argument against usury to be made from the natural law and not Church law – that will be found in the “selling that which does not exist” part, and can be read about in Aristotle and other ancients.

  • Zippy says:

    TomD:

    My interpretation of this:

    The alternative perspective would be that the “basic principle” has become meaningless and attempts to translate it into finance or force fit it into a liberal perspective doesn’t seem to restore the meaning.

    … is that Different T desperately wants to disqualify moral condemnation of usury: the “basic principle” has become meaningless and talking about usury in the way it has been talked about for thousands of years (slavery analogy, financial contract types, etc) is invalid because doing so “translate[s] … into finance or force fit[s] into a liberal perspective”.

    The important thing appears to be to blow smoke at the natural law condemnation of usury.

    That’s my “best case” interpretation. Other interpretations are possible, including that Different T is confused, ignorant, and/or lacks the writing skill to say something straightforward and coherent. But if I charitably assume that he isn’t an imbecile, the point of his rhetoric seems to be to blow smoke.

  • Different T says:

    @ TomD

    There hasn’t been any request for an argument, of any type. That’s the point. These responses seem to assume that such a request was made; in fact, they only seem capable of interpreting every statement as exactly such a request. This seems most related:

    For the young man, the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life. This is in fact the aspiration at the heart of every human decision and action, the quiet searching and interior prompting which sets freedom in motion.

    @ Zippy

    I’ve enjoyed reading the encyclical, and having gotten to this point:

    In particular, as the Council affirms, “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether in its written form or in that of Tradition, has been entrusted only to those charged with the Church’s living Magisterium, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ”.

    and given your “best case” interpretation; it doesn’t seem fruitful, nor my place to offer more.

    I do want to be clear on this, though. Is the “tautology” your referencing this: “But it is morally wrong to place an improper obligation on someone to begin with, for any reason or under any circumstances, without any preceding “if” clause. That is what “improper” means”?

  • Wood says:

    I was suspicious Different T was giving labyrinthine statements just to make some point that he’s not Catholic – and the usury issue was just tangential. His last comment also suggests that. Different T, are you saying you disagree with the definition of usury?

  • Zippy says:

    orthros:

    I welcome your comment’s emergence from SPAM purgatory.

    So, is this technically not usury? Just the sin of… I don’t know… taking financial advantage of people who are bad at math? Or (I can’t imagine this is the case) no sin at all?

    This is addressed in Question 11.

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