Gilbert Index

A Q&A with Bob Lawless

Robert Lawless

Credit Slips is an influential blog that takes a deep dive into the world of debt. It’s run and authored by a diverse group of academics, ranging from law professors to sociology professors, whose research explores all things debt: bankruptcy, foreclosure, student loans, consumer finance, and on. The group uses Credit Slips as a space to share their work and insights with you. And because debt is determined to wiggle itself into your financial underpants at some point in your life, it’ll pay dividends to know a thing or two about related debt issues—which is where Credit Slips comes in.

Bob Lawless, law professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, administers the blog. And the other day I asked Bob a few questions.

In the Q&A we cover:

  • The story of Credit Slips
  • How academics can make their work accessible to the general public
  • What would happen if individual debt didn’t exist
  • And more

Enjoy!


1: Hi! Would you state your name and what you do?

My name is Bob Lawless. I am the Max L. Rowe Professor of Law and co-director of the Program on Law, Behavior & Social Science at the University of Illinois College of Law. I also administer the Credit Slips blog.

2: Tell me the story of how Credit Slips began. What specific problem(s) is the blog trying to solve?

Credit Slips was actually the outgrowth of a research collaboration. In the summer of 2006, I was working on what became the 2007 iteration of the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, which gathers data on persons who file bankruptcy. We were deep in the weeds of drafting survey and interview questions, data codebooks, coding protocols, and the other sorts of things you need to do to have an effective research project. It is necessary stuff but not a lot of fun. We started a blog as a team-building exercise, and seven of us started blogging. There certainly was some sense we could use the blog to talk about our research and other things we found interesting, but we did not set out with a specific mission. Whatever success we have had, I think, is due to the bloggers just focusing on things they find interesting.

3: To people who are unsure about why they should care about consumer credit, finance, among the other issues Credit Slips covers, how would you persuade them to care? I ask because your framing might advise others who care about these issues on how they communicate with those less enthusiastic.

Somewhere there is an old clip from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show where he is discussing the minutiae of some policy change – I think it was a Social Security issue. After Steward droned for a while, he looked at the camera and said, “I know. It’s boring. That is how the they get away with it.”

I think of many of the things we discuss on Credit Slips the same way. Even if the issues sometimes seem arcane, they can affect people’s pocketbooks in substantial ways. But, they tend to be boring to many. No one pays attention until it’s too late. Take the current debate over whether the CFPB’s arbitration rule will stand. If Congress acts to block the CFPB on the arbitration, financial services companies will know they need not fear being hauled into court by their customers. Aggressive or even outright unlawful fees and practices can continue.

4: I believe the work—your research into bankruptcy, consumer credit, financial institutions, etc.—academics like you are doing is extremely important. But often such work is impenetrable and not very actionable to the layperson. Credit Slips seems like an effort to deal with this problem, that is, to translate your insights for the general public. What are some additional strategies academics might use to increase general public engagement on these consumer issues?

Well, one avenue that academics should use is blogs like Credit Slips. Social media platforms like Twitter are another good outlet, although I feel like I don’t make as much use of Twitter as I should. Also, I always try to take media inquiries. Part of an academic’s job should be translating academic work and complex issues for the public, especially those of us who work at taxpayer-supported state universities.

I run across academics who disdain outreach efforts, almost as if the obscurity of their work is a badge of honor. I don’t know why people do scholarship and research if it is not there to be used. And, we can’t assume the world is going to find our work sitting in a research library. That being said, I do think academics need to be responsible in how they use blogs and social media. These outlets should promote underlying good research and not merely serve as a self-promotion bullhorn.

5: My readers are very skeptical of individual debt. They’re more forgiving when it comes to organizational debt where the risk is spread amongst the entity, but quite concerned about individual debt (mortgages, student loans, auto loans, credit card debit, etc.) where the risk is concentrated to the individual. In your view, what do you think would happen to the economy hypothetically if not a single individual assumed debt? Meaning if individual credit didn’t exist?

If consumers suddenly decided not to use credit, we would have one of the greatest economic recessions in history. If consumer credit never existed, our country would be much poorer. Whether it is an individual or an entity, credit fixes an important problem when need and capital availability do not line up. Without consumer credit, few people would be able to own homes or automobiles. Higher education would be in the reach of only a few.

That is not to be Pollyannaish about consumer credit. Obviously, people can make poor decisions about the use of consumer credit. I am in favor of laws that help prevent people from making these mistakes. For example, I think there should be a hard 36% usury cap. If a financial institution cannot make money lending at 36% annual interest, the loan carries such a high risk of default that it suggests exploitation of the consumer. As a society, we should be finding ways to provide food, shelter, transportation, and the other necessities of life rather than requiring consumers to look to predatory loans. An effective usury cap is but one example of the ways we could clean up consumer lending so it worked for us instead of against us, as it seems to do so often

6: Is there anything—say, a paper, a project, a book—you’d like to mention or have my readers check out? And what’s the best place for Gilbert Indexers to follow you and your work?

All of the Credit Slips bloggers maintain active pages at the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), which can be found here. Just search on our names to find our work. The SSRN web site allows free downloads of our published work as well as our working papers. Other than that, your readers also can follow Credit Slips on our RSS feed, Twitter page, or Facebook page. We tend to post on the blog when we have new work or when we see worthwhile papers from others that are worth a look.


If you want to learn more about debt and consumer finance, John Oliver might be a good place to start.

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