cover image Beggar Thy Neighbor: A History of Usury and Debt

Beggar Thy Neighbor: A History of Usury and Debt

Charles R. Geisst. Univ. of Pennsylvania, (400p) $39.95 ISBN 978-0-8122-4462-5

Geisst, a professor of finance at Manhattan College, tackles this double-edged, troublesome topic not from a personal level%E2%80%94you won't find 10 tips to reduce personal debt here%E2%80%94but from a historical and practical level. He starts from before banks even existed, with a debate that continues today over interest rate ceilings, and it's evident that we are indebted to religious institutions, both Catholic and Jewish, for the foundational practices of money handling, borrowing, loaning, and repaying. A word that is barely muttered, written, or read today%E2%80%94usury%E2%80%94lies at the center: a topic of treatises, books, and speeches that can hardly be defined without starting a debate. Generally defined as "excessive interest", history proves usury has been far more complex, sometimes straightforwardly stated, others based on formula-length calculations. How does one define "reasonable interest"? You'll know it when you see it, apparently. Though no longer an enforced law in America, Geisst shows how the history of usury, with its varying prohibitions and definitions, has affected current financial regulations, banking practices and government spending in America and abroad. Much like the topic at hand, Geisst's dense volume is daunting to get through, but the relief is palpable when you do. (Mar.)