Creditworthy

A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America

Josh Lauer

Columbia University Press

Creditworthy

Pub Date: July 2017

ISBN: 9780231168083

368 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $35.00£30.00

Pub Date: July 2017

ISBN: 9780231544627

368 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $34.99£30.00

Creditworthy

A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America

Josh Lauer

Columbia University Press

The first consumer credit bureaus appeared in the 1870s and quickly amassed huge archives of deeply personal information. Today, the three leading credit bureaus are among the most powerful institutions in modern life—yet we know almost nothing about them. Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion are multi-billion-dollar corporations that track our movements, spending behavior, and financial status. This data is used to predict our riskiness as borrowers and to judge our trustworthiness and value in a broad array of contexts, from insurance and marketing to employment and housing.

In Creditworthy, the first comprehensive history of this crucial American institution, Josh Lauer explores the evolution of credit reporting from its nineteenth-century origins to the rise of the modern consumer data industry. By revealing the sophistication of early credit reporting networks, Creditworthy highlights the leading role that commercial surveillance has played—ahead of state surveillance systems—in monitoring the economic lives of Americans. Lauer charts how credit reporting grew from an industry that relied on personal knowledge of consumers to one that employs sophisticated algorithms to determine a person's trustworthiness. Ultimately, Lauer argues that by converting individual reputations into brief written reports—and, later, credit ratings and credit scores—credit bureaus did something more profound: they invented the modern concept of financial identity. Creditworthy reminds us that creditworthiness is never just about economic "facts." It is fundamentally concerned with—and determines—our social standing as an honest, reliable, profit-generating person.
Who deserves credit? Who is a prime borrower, and who is subprime? The stakes of these questions could not be higher: loans are essential to the education, transport, and housing of millions. Lauer has written a compelling history of how businesses assess creditworthiness, from nineteenth-century trade associations to contemporary data science mavens. Lucid and packed with fascinating detail, Creditworthy is an essential guide to the intersection of finance and surveillance. Frank Pasquale, University of Maryland
Clearly written, well researched, and wide ranging, Creditworthy provides a fresh account of the evolution of credit agencies in the United States. By combining insights from business history and cultural studies, Lauer probes the sometimes unsettling role of corporate surveillance in the making of financial identity. Richard R. John, Columbia University
At last! A book that drills down into the history of consumer credit-scoring and demonstrates its massive contribution to our daily experience of contemporary surveillance. Not just a vital chronicle of a hitherto hidden history but a principled account of what happens when human value is reduced to monetizing consumer details. Creditworthy penetrates to the core of contemporary capitalism’s disturbing obsession with personal data. David Lyon, Queen's University, Canada
Consumer credit reporting is ubiquitous, but its pioneering role in the surveillance of consumers has been poorly understood—until now. Josh Lauer has dug deep into the historical sources and marshaled his findings into a rich and cohesive narrative that encompasses business dynamics, social norms, technology, and regulation. This book will become the indispensable source on the history of both consumer credit reporting and the surveillance society. Rowena Olegario, University of Oxford
Josh Lauer has written an important book for anyone interested in the history of consumer credit. Long before there were FICO scores, consumers' creditworthiness was being assessed and considered. Without the developments Lauer documents in this notable work, it is unlikely consumer credit would have exploded as it did in the early twentieth century. A must read! Martha Olney, University of California, Berkeley
[A] fascinating study of the credit-rating industry’s central role in creating the 'modern surveillance society.' . . . Lauer’s top-down economic history is a thorough, enlightening, and long-overdue contribution to the field. Publishers Weekly
Crisply written, deeply researched, and forcefully argued, [Creditworthy] offers a reckoning with the informational infrastructure of modern capitalism, now a century and a half old. . . . In illuminating how the credit industry devised rules, formulas, and laws to tame this problem and also to profit from it, he has crafted a penetrating prehistory of our present dilemmas about data surveillance. Sarah E. Igo, The American Historical Review
This compelling book offers food for thought for all its readers, but especially for those surveillance scholars who argue that state surveillance has led commercial surveillance in the social monitoring of Americans. Sachil Singh, Surveillance & Society
Deeply researched and boldly argued, Creditworthy is an empirical account of an important economic institution and the technologies, government policies, industry leaders, and professional bodies behind its rise. . . . Creditworthy makes a significant contribution to the history of capitalism, and is well placed within the new Columbia University Press series on this subject. Vicki Howard, The Economic History Review
Through his thorough analysis of the history of this industry, the seemingly harmless gathering of detailed consumer financial information throughout the years has led us to a point where our privacy is compromised and our financial identity has been reduced to algorithms and ratings. This book is appropriate for anyone interested in financial privacy, consumer profiling, the history of credit reporting and issues around financial identity. Lisa Glover, Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy
[A] riveting history of the credit reporting industry. Greta R. Krippner, Public Books
Credit is an exchange made on a promise to pay at some future point. The provision of credit depends, therefore, on an assessment of whether or not to trust that promise. It’s a risky business. Josh Lauer traces the history of credit scoring – a means of quantifying this risk – back to the 1840s. Rachel O’Dwyer, London Review of Books
Creditworthy is an accessible history of consumer credit reporting. Journal of American History
The book is a tour de force: it spans close to two centuries of detailed history...this engaging and richly documented book will no doubt be of great interest to scholars and students of consumer credit, credit surveillance, and financial identity in the United States. Contemporary Sociology
Creditworthy is a fine piece of scholarship that enhances our understanding of a pervasive and essential institution of modern capitalism. It is also a genuinely good read. Josh Lauer deserves a great deal of (you guessed it!) credit for his outstanding work. Sean Trainor, Enterprise & Society
With Creditworthy, Josh Lauer has written a landmark book which will surely prove a must-read for historians, sociologists and economists interested in the history of credit in the United States. Simon Bittmann, European Journal of Sociology
Lauer’s Creditworthy peels back the curtain on the business of rating consumers for obtaining credit—how to judge if a person was worthy of credit and, if worthy, for how much. Sharon Ann Murphy, Reviews in American History
Acknowledgments
Introduction
1. “A Bureau for the Promotion of Honesty”: The Birth of Systematic Credit Surveillance
2. Coming to Terms with Credit: The Nineteenth- Century Origins of Consumer Credit Surveillance
3. Credit Workers Unite: Professionalization and the Rise of a National Credit Infrastructure
4. Running the Credit Gantlet: Extracting, Ordering, and Communicating Consumer Information
5. “You Are Judged by Your Credit”: Teaching and Targeting the Consumer
6. “File Clerk’s Paradise”: Postwar Credit Reporting on the Eve of Automation
7. Encoding the Consumer: The Computerization of Credit Reporting and Credit Scoring
8. Database Panic: Computerized Credit Surveillance and Its Discontents
9. From Debts to Data: Credit Bureaus in the New Information Economy
Epilogue
Notes
Selected Bibliography
Index

Winner, 2018 SSN Book Award, Surveillance Studies Network

About the Author

Josh Lauer is an associate professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire. His historical studies of communication technology, surveillance, and financial culture have appeared in Technology and Culture, New Media & Society, and several edited collections.