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In Crisis, A Call To Return To Old Ways: Usury Laws

The word "usury" might bring to mind a high school or college English class, when many of us read The Merchant of Venice. Judging by Shakespeare's portrayal of Shylock, moneylending wasn't exactly a respected profession.

"This is making money through lack of work. It's something that the idle rich — or those who want to be idle and rich — practice," financial historian Charles Geisst tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

"It's not considered work, and that was one of the other problems with it."

But moneylending has since lost its stigma, and in modern times, bankers became Masters of the Universe. That standing may even survive the current financial crisis, as reports of exorbitant bonus pay suggest.

One development that helped changed the way we think of debt was a simple linguistic shift, according to Geisst. He recently wrote a book on the subject: Collateral Damaged: The Marketing of Consumer Debt to America.

The problem, he says, was when "debt" began to be called "credit."

And now Geisst would like to see usury laws brought back on the books.

President Obama has signed a bill called the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights, which would restrict some of the lending practices Geisst finds objectionable.

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