What you can do to protect against credit card fraud

JDN 2457923

This is the second post in my ongoing series on financial fraud, but it’s also some useful personal financial advice. One of the most common forms of fraud, which I have experienced, and most Americans will experience at some point in their lives, is credit card fraud. The US leads the world in credit card fraud, accounting for 47% of all money stolen by this means. In most countries credit card fraud is declining, but not here.

The good news is that there are several things you can do to reduce both the probability of being victimized and the harm you will suffer if you are. I am of course not the first to make such recommendations; similar lists have been made by the Wall Street Journal, Consumer Reports, and even the FTC itself.

1. The first and simplest is to use fewer credit cards.

It is a good idea to have at least one credit card, because you can build a credit history this way which will help you get larger loans such as car loans and home loans later. The best thing to do is to use it for regular purchases and then pay it off as quickly as you can. The higher the interest rate, the more imperative it is to pay it quickly.

More credit cards means that you have more to keep track of, and more that can be stolen; it also generally means that you have larger total credit limits, which is a mixed blessing at best. You have more liquidity that way, to buy things you need; but you also have more temptation to buy things you don’t actually need, and more risk of losing a great deal should any of your cards be stolen.

2. Buy fewer things online, and always from reputable merchants.

This is one I certainly preach more than I practice; I probably buy as much online now as I do in person. It’s hard to beat the combination of higher convenience, wider selection, and lower prices. But buying online is the most likely way to have your credit card stolen (and it is certainly how mine was stolen a few years ago).

The US is unusual among developed countries because we still mainly use magnetic-strip cards, whereas most countries have switched to the EMV system of chip-based cards that provide more security. But this security measure is really quite overrated; it can’t protect against “card not present” fraud, which is by far the most common. Unless and until you can somehow link up the encrypted chips to your laptop in order to use them to pay online, the chips will do little to protect against fraud.

3. Monitor your bank and credit card statements regularly.

This is something you should be doing anyway. Online statements are available from just about every major bank and credit union, and you can check them at any time, any day. Watching these online statements will help you keep track of your spending, manage your budget, and, yes, protect against fraud, because the sooner you see and report a suspicious transaction the more likely you are to recover the money.

4. Use secure passwords, don’t re-use passwords, and use a secure password manager.

Most people still use remarkably insecure passwords for their online accounts. Hacking your online accounts —especially your online retail accounts, like Amazon—typically means being able to steal your credit cards. As we move into the cyberpunk future, personal security will increasingly be coextensive with online security, and until we find something better, that means good passwords.

Passwords should be long, complicated, and not easily tied to anything about you. To remember them, I highly recommend the following technique: Write a sentence of several words, and then convert the words of that sentence into letters and numbers. For example (obviously don’t use this particular example; the whole point is for passwords to be unique), the sentence “Passwords should be long, complicated, and not easily tied to anything about you.” could become the password “Psblcanet2aau”.

Human long-term memory is encoded in something very much like narrative, so you can make a password much more memorable by making it tell a story. (Literally a story if you like: “Once upon a time, in a land far away, there were seven dwarves who lived in a forest.” could form the password “1uatialfatw7dwliaf”.) If you used the whole words, it would be far too long to fit in most password systems; but by condensing it into letters, you keep it memorable while allowing it to fit. The first letters of English words are not quite random—some letters are much more common than others, for example—but as long as the password is long enough this doesn’t make it substantially easier to guess.

If you have any doubts about the security of your password, do the following: Generate a new password by the same method you used to generate that one, and then try the new password—not the old password—in an entropy checking utility such as https://howsecureismypassword.net/. The utility will tell you approximately how long it would take to guess your password by guessing random characters using current technology. This is really an upper limit—computers will get faster, and by knowing things about you, hackers can improve upon random guessing substantially—but a good password should at least be in the thousands or millions of years, while a very bad password (like the word “password” itself) can literally be in the nanoseconds. (Actually if you play around you can generate passwords that can take far longer, even “12 tredecillion years” and the like, but they are generally too long to actually use.) The reason not to use your actual password is that there is a chance, however remote, that it could be intercepted while you were doing the check. But by checking the method, you can ensure that you are generating passwords in an effective way.

After you’ve generated all these passwords, how do you remember them all? It’s unreasonable to expect you to keep them all in your head. Instead, you can just keep a few of the most important ones in your head, including a master password that you then use for a password manager like LastPass or Keeper. Password managers are frequently rated by sites like PC Mag, CNET, Consumer Affairs, and CSO. Get one that is free and top-rated; there’s no reason to pay when the free ones are just as good, and no excuse for getting any less than the best when the best ones are free.

The idea of a password manager makes some people uncomfortable—aren’t you handing your passwords over to someone else?—so let me explain it a little. You aren’t actually handing over your passwords, first of all; a reputable password manager will actually encrypt your passwords locally, and then only transmit encrypted versions of them to the site that operates the password manager. This means that no one—not the company, not even you—can access those passwords without knowing the master password, so definitely make sure you remember that master password.

In theory, it would be better to just remember different 27-character alphanumeric passwords for each site you use online. This is indisputable. Encryption isn’t perfect, and theoretically someone might be able to recover your passwords even from Keeper or LastPass. But that is astronomically unlikely, and what’s far more likely is that if you don’t use a password manager, you will forget your passwords, or re-use them and get them stolen, or else make them too simple and allow them to be guessed. A password manager allows you to maintain dozens of distinct, very complex passwords, and even update them regularly, all while remembering only one or a few. In practice, this is what provides the best security.

5. Above all, report any suspicious activity immediately.

This one I cannot emphasize enough. If you do nothing else, do this. If you ever have any reason to suspect that your credit card might have been compromised, call your bank immediately. Get them to cancel the card, send you a new one, and check any recent transactions.

Do this if you lose your wallet. Do it if you see something weird on your online statement. Do it if you bought something from an online retailer that seemed a little sketchy. Do it if you just have a weird hunch and something doesn’t feel right. The cost of doing this is a minor inconvenience; the benefit could be thousands of dollars.

If you do report a stolen card, in most cases you won’t be held liable for a penny—the credit card company will have to cover any losses. But if you don’t, you could end up making payments on interest on a balance that a thief ran up on your behalf.

If we all do this, credit card fraud could become a thing of the past. Now, about those interest rates…

Financial fraud is everywhere

Jun 4, JDN 2457909
When most people think of “crime”, they probably imagine petty thieves, pickpockets, drug dealers, street thugs. In short, we think of crime as something poor people do. And certainly, that kind of crime is more visible, and typically easier to investigate and prosecute. It may be more traumatic to be victimized by it (though I’ll get back to that in a moment).

The statistics on this matter are some of the fuzziest I’ve ever come across, so estimates could be off by as much as an order of magnitude. But there is some reason to believe that, within most highly-developed countries, financial fraud may actually be more common than any other type of crime. It is definitely among the most common, and the only serious contenders for exceeding it are other forms of property crime such as petty theft and robbery.

It also appears that financial fraud is the one type of crime that isn’t falling over time. Violent crime and property crime are both at record lows; the average American’s probability of being victimized by a thief or a robber in any given year has fallen from 35% to 11% in the last 25 years. But the rate of financial fraud appears to be roughly constant, and the rate of high-tech fraud in particular is definitely rising. (This isn’t too surprising, given that the technology required is becoming cheaper and more widely available.)

In the UK, the rate of credit card fraud rose during the Great Recession, fell a little during the recovery, and has been holding steady since 2010; it is estimated that about 5% of people in the UK suffer credit card fraud in any given year.

About 1% of US car loans are estimated to contain fraudulent information (such as overestimated income or assets). As there are over $1 trillion in outstanding US car loans, that amounts to about $5 billion in fraud losses every year.

Using DOJ data, Statistic Brain found that over 12 million Americans suffer credit card fraud any given year; based on the UK data, this is probably an underestimate. They also found that higher household income had only a slight effect of increasing the probability of suffering such fraud.

The Office for Victims of Crime estimates that total US losses due to financial fraud are between $40 billion and $50 billion per year—which is to say, the GDP of Honduras or the military budget of Japan. The National Center for Victims of Crime estimated that over 10% of Americans suffer some form of financial fraud in any given year.

Why is fraud so common? Well, first of all, it’s profitable. Indeed, it appears to be the only type of crime that is. Most drug dealers live near the poverty line. Most bank robberies make off with less than $10,000.

But Bernie Madoff made over $50 billion before he was caught. Of course he was an exceptional case; the median Ponzi scheme only makes off with… $2.1 million. That’s over 200 times the median bank robbery.

Second, I think financial fraud allows the perpetrator a certain psychological distance from their victims. Just as it’s much easier to push a button telling a drone to launch a missile than to stab someone to death, it’s much easier to move some numbers between accounts than to point a gun at someone’s head and demand their wallet. Construal level theory is all about how making something seem psychologically more “distant” can change our attitudes toward it; toward things we perceive as “distant”, we think more abstractly, we accept more risks, and we are more willing to engage in violence to advance a cause. (It also makes us care less about outcomes, which may be a contributing factor in the collective apathy toward climate change.)

Perhaps related to this psychological distance, we also generally have a sense that fraud is not as bad as violent crime. Even judges and juries often act as though white-collar criminals aren’t real criminals. Often the argument seems to be that the behavior involved in committing financial fraud is not so different, after all, from the behavior of for-profit business in general; are we not all out to make an easy buck?

But no, it is not the same. (And if it were, this would be more an indictment of capitalism than it is a justification for fraud. So this sort of argument makes a lot more sense coming from socialists than it does from capitalists.)

One of the central justifications for free markets lies in the assumption that all parties involved are free, autonomous individuals acting under conditions of informed consent. Under those conditions, it is indeed hard to see why we have a right to interfere, as long as no one else is being harmed. Even if I am acting entirely out of my own self-interest, as long as I represent myself honestly, it is hard to see what I could be doing that is morally wrong. But take that away, as fraud does, and the edifice collapses; there is no such thing as a “right to be deceived”. (Indeed, it is quite common for Libertarians to say they allow any activity “except by force or fraud”, never quite seeming to realize that without the force of government we would all be surrounded by unending and unstoppable fraud.)

Indeed, I would like to present to you for consideration the possibility that large-scale financial fraud is worse than most other forms of crime, that someone like Bernie Madoff should be viewed as on a par with a rapist or a murderer. (To its credit, our justice system agrees—Madoff was given the maximum sentence of 150 years in maximum security prison.)

Suppose you were given the following terrible choice: Either you will be physically assaulted and beaten until several bones are broken and you fall unconscious—or you will lose your home and all the money you put into it. If the choice were between death and losing your home, obviously, you’d lose your home. But when it is a question of injury, that decision isn’t so obvious to me. If there is a risk of being permanently disabled in some fashion—particularly mentally disabled, as I find that especially terrifying—then perhaps I accept losing my home. But if it’s just going to hurt a lot and I’ll eventually recover, I think I prefer the beating. (Of course, if you don’t have health insurance, recovering from a concussion and several broken bones might also mean losing your home—so in that case, the dilemma is a no-brainer.) So when someone commits financial fraud on the scale of hundreds of thousands of dollars, we should consider them as having done something morally comparable to beating someone until they have broken bones.

But now let’s scale things up. What if terrorist attacks, or acts of war by a foreign power, had destroyed over one million homes, killed tens of thousands of Americans by one way or another, and cut the wealth of the median American family in half? Would we not count that as one of the greatest acts of violence in our nation’s history? Would we not feel compelled to take some overwhelming response—even be tempted toward acts of brutal vengeance? Yet that is the scale of the damage done by the Great Recession—much, if not all, preventable if our regulatory agencies had not been asleep at the wheel, lulled into a false sense of security by the unending refrain of laissez-faire. Most of the harm was done by actions that weren’t illegal, yes; but some of actually was illegal (20% of direct losses are attributable to fraud), and most of the rest should have been illegal but wasn’t. The repackaging and selling of worthless toxic assets as AAA bonds may not legally have been “fraud”, but morally I don’t see how it was different. With this in mind, the actions of our largest banks are not even comparable to murder—they are comparable to invasion or terrorism. No mere individual shooting here; this is mass murder.

I plan to make this a bit of a continuing series. I hope that by now I’ve at least convinced you that the problem of financial fraud is a large and important one; in later posts I’ll go into more detail about how it is done, who is doing it, and what perhaps can be done to stop them.

Selling debt goes against everything the free market stands for

JDN 2457555

I don’t think most people—or even most economists—have any concept of just how fundamentally perverse and destructive our financial system has become, and a large chunk of it ultimately boils down to one thing: Selling debt.

Certainly collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and their meta-form, CDO2s (pronounced “see-dee-oh squareds”), are nothing more than selling debt, and along with credit default swaps (CDS; they are basically insurance, but without those pesky regulations against things like fraud and conflicts of interest) they were directly responsible for the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing Great Recession and Second Depression.

But selling debt continues in a more insidious way, underpinning the entire debt collection industry which raises tens of billions of dollars per year by harassment, intimidation and extortion, especially of the poor and helpless. Frankly, I think what’s most shocking is how little money they make, given the huge number of people they harass and intimidate.

John Oliver did a great segment on debt collections (with a very nice surprise at the end):

But perhaps most baffling to me is the number of people who defend the selling of debt on the grounds that it is a “free market” activity which must be protected from government “interference in personal liberty”. To show this is not a strawman, here’s the American Enterprise Institute saying exactly that.

So let me say this in no uncertain terms: Selling debt goes against everything the free market stands for.

One of the most basic principles of free markets, one of the founding precepts of capitalism laid down by no less than Adam Smith (and before him by great political philosophers like John Locke), is the freedom of contract. This is the good part of capitalism, the part that makes sense, the reason we shouldn’t tear it all down but should instead try to reform it around the edges.

Indeed, the freedom of contract is so fundamental to human liberty that laws can only be considered legitimate insofar as they do not infringe upon it without a compelling public interest. Freedom of contract is right up there with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the right of due process.

The freedom of contract is the right to make agreements, including financial agreements, with anyone you please, and under conditions that you freely and rationally impose in a state of good faith and transparent discussion. Conversely, it is the right not to make agreements with those you choose not to, and to not be forced into agreements under conditions of fraud, intimidation, or impaired judgment.

Freedom of contract is the basis of my right to take on debt, provided that I am honest about my circumstances and I can find a lender who is willing to lend to me. So taking on debt is a fundamental part of freedom of contract.

But selling debt is something else entirely. Far from exercising the freedom of contract, it violates it. When I take out a loan from bank A, and then they turn around and sell that loan to bank B, I suddenly owe money to bank B, but I never agreed to do that. I had nothing to do with their decision to work with bank B as opposed to keeping the loan or selling it to bank C.

Current regulations prohibit banks from “changing the terms of the loan”, but in practice they change them all the time—they can’t change the principal balance, the loan term, or the interest rate, but they can change the late fees, the payment schedule, and lots of subtler things about the loan that can still make a very big difference. Indeed, as far as I’m concerned they have changed the terms of the loan—one of the terms of the loan was that I was to pay X amount to bank A, not that I was to pay X amount to bank B. I may or may not have good reasons not to want to pay bank B—they might be far less trustworthy than bank A, for instance, or have a far worse social responsibility record—and in any case it doesn’t matter; it is my choice whether or not I want anything to do with bank B, whatever my reasons might be.

I take this matter quite personally, for it is by the selling of debt that, in moral (albeit not legal) terms, a British bank stole my parents’ house. Indeed, not just any British bank; it was none other than HSBC, the money launderers for terrorists.

When they first obtained their mortgage, my parents did not actually know that HSBC was quite so evil as to literally launder money for terrorists, but they did already know that they were involved in a great many shady dealings, and even specifically told their lender that they did not want the loan sold, and if it was to be sold, it was absolutely never to be sold to HSBC in particular. Their mistake (which was rather like the “mistake” of someone who leaves their car unlocked and has it stolen, or forgets to arm the home alarm system and suffers a burglary) was not to get this written into the formal contract, rather than simply made as a verbal agreement with the bankers. Such verbal contracts are enforceable under the law, at least in theory; but that would require proof of the verbal contract (and what proof could we provide?), and also probably have cost as much as the house in litigation fees.

Oh, by the way, they were given a subprime interest rate of 8% despite being middle-class professionals with good credit, no doubt to maximize the broker’s closing commission. Most banks reserved such behavior for racial minorities, but apparently this one was equal-opportunity in the worst way.Perhaps my parents were naive to trust bankers any further than they could throw them.

As a result, I think you know what happened next: They sold the loan to HSBC.

Now, had it ended there, with my parents unwittingly forced into supporting a bank that launders money for terrorists, that would have been bad enough. But it assuredly did not.

By a series of subtle and manipulative practices that poked through one loophole after another, HSBC proceeded to raise my parents’ payments higher and higher. One particularly insidious tactic they used was to sit on the checks until just after the due date passed, so they could charge late fees on the payments, then they recapitalized the late fees. My parents caught on to this particular trick after a few months, and started mailing the checks certified so they would be date-stamped; and lo and behold, all the payments were suddenly on time! By several other similarly devious tactics, all of which were technically legal or at least not provable, they managed to raise my parents’ monthly mortgage payments by over 50%.

Note that it was a fixed-rate, fixed-term mortgage. The initial payments—what should have been always the payments, that’s the point of a fixed-rate fixed-term mortgage—were under $2000 per month. By the end they were paying over $3000 per month. HSBC forced my parents to overpay on a mortgage an amount equal to the US individual poverty line, or the per-capita GDP of Peru.

They tried to make the payments, but after being wildly over budget and hit by other unexpected expenses (including defects in the house’s foundation that they had to pay to fix, but because of the “small” amount at stake and the overwhelming legal might of the construction company, no lawyer was willing to sue over), they simply couldn’t do it anymore, and gave up. They gave the house to the bank with a deed in lieu of foreclosure.

And that is the story of how a bank that my parents never agreed to work with, never would have agreed to work with, indeed specifically said they would not work with, still ended up claiming their house—our house, the house I grew up in from the age of 12. Legally, I cannot prove they did anything against the law. (I mean, other than laundered money for terrorists.) But morally, how is this any less than theft? Would we not be victimized less had a burglar broken into our home, vandalized the walls and stolen our furniture?

Indeed, that would probably be covered under our insurance! Where can I buy insurance against the corrupt and predatory financial system? Where are my credit default swaps to pay me when everything goes wrong?

And all of this could have been prevented, if banks simply weren’t allowed to violate our freedom of contract by selling their loans to other banks.

Indeed, the Second Depression could probably have been likewise prevented. Without selling debt, there is no securitization. Without securitization, there is far less leverage. Without leverage, there are not bank failures. Without bank failures, there is no depression. A decade of global economic growth was lost because we allowed banks to sell debt whenever they please.

I have heard the counter-arguments many times:

“But what if banks need the liquidity?” Easy. They can take out their own loans with those other banks. If bank A finds they need more cashflow, they should absolutely feel free to take out a loan from bank B. They can even point to their projected revenues from the mortgage payments we owe them, as a means of repaying that loan. But they should not be able to involve us in that transaction. If you want to trust HSBC, that’s your business (you’re an idiot, but it’s a free country). But you have no right to force me to trust HSBC.

“But banks might not be willing to make those loans, if they knew they couldn’t sell or securitize them!” THAT’S THE POINT. Banks wouldn’t take on all these ridiculous risks in their lending practices that they did (“NINJA loans” and mortgages with payments larger than their buyers’ annual incomes), if they knew they couldn’t just foist the debt off on some Greater Fool later on. They would only make loans they actually expect to be repaid. Obviously any loan carries some risk, but banks would only take on risks they thought they could bear, as opposed to risks they thought they could convince someone else to bear—which is the definition of moral hazard.

“Homes would be unaffordable if people couldn’t take out large loans!” First of all, I’m not against mortgages—I’m against securitization of mortgages. Yes, of course, people need to be able to take out loans. But they shouldn’t be forced to pay those loans to whoever their bank sees fit. If indeed the loss of subprime securitized mortgages made it harder for people to get homes, that’s a problem; but the solution to that problem was never to make it easier for people to get loans they can’t afford—it is clearly either to reduce the price of homes or increase the incomes of buyers. Subsidized housing construction, public housing, changes in zoning regulation, a basic income, lower property taxes, an expanded earned-income tax credit—these are the sort of policies that one implements to make housing more affordable, not “go ahead and let banks exploit people however they want”.

Remember, a regulation against selling debt would protect the freedom of contract. It would remove a way for private individuals and corporations to violate that freedom, like regulations against fraud, intimidation, and coercion. It should be uncontroversial that no one has any right to force you to do business with someone you would not voluntarily do business with, certainly not in a private transaction between for-profit corporations. Maybe that sort of mandate makes sense in rare circumstances by the government, but even then it should really be implemented as a tax, not a mandate to do business with a particular entity. The right to buy what you choose is the foundation of a free market—and implicit in it is the right not to buy what you do not choose.

There are many regulations on debt that do impose upon freedom of contract: As horrific as payday loans are, if someone really honestly knowingly wants to take on short-term debt at 400% APR I’m not sure it’s my business to stop them. And some people may really be in such dire circumstances that they need money that urgently and no one else will lend to them. Insofar as I want payday loans regulated, it is to ensure that they are really lending in good faith—as many surely are not—and ultimately I want to outcompete them by providing desperate people with more reasonable loan terms. But a ban on securitization is like a ban on fraud; it is the sort of law that protects our rights.

The credit rating agencies to be worried about aren’t the ones you think

JDN 2457499

John Oliver is probably the best investigative journalist in America today, despite being neither American nor officially a journalist; last week he took on the subject of credit rating agencies, a classic example of his mantra “If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” (note that it’s on HBO, so there is foul language):

As ever, his analysis of the subject is quite good—it’s absurd how much power these agencies have over our lives, and how little accountability they have for even assuring accuracy.

But I couldn’t help but feel that he was kind of missing the point. The credit rating agencies to really be worried about aren’t Equifax, Experian, and Transunion, the ones that assess credit ratings on individuals. They are Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch (which would have been even easier to skewer the way John Oliver did—perhaps we can get them confused with Standardly Poor, Moody, and Filch), the agencies which assess credit ratings on institutions.

These credit rating agencies have almost unimaginable power over our society. They are responsible for rating the risk of corporate bonds, certificates of deposit, stocks, derivatives such as mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations, and even municipal and government bonds.

S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch don’t just rate the creditworthiness of Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase; they rate the creditworthiness of Detroit and Greece. (Indeed, they played an important role in the debt crisis of Greece, which I’ll talk about more in a later post.)

Moreover, they are proven corrupt. It’s a matter of public record.

Standard and Poor’s is the worst; they have been successfully sued for fraud by small banks in Pennsylvania and by the State of New Jersey; they have also settled fraud cases with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice.

Moody’s has also been sued for fraud by the Department of Justice, and all three have been prosecuted for fraud by the State of New York.

But in fact this underestimates the corruption, because the worst conflicts of interest aren’t even illegal, or weren’t until Dodd-Frank was passed in 2010. The basic structure of this credit rating system is fundamentally broken; the agencies are private, for-profit corporations, and they get their revenue entirely from the banks that pay them to assess their risk. If they rate a bank’s asset as too risky, the bank stops paying them, and instead goes to another agency that will offer a higher rating—and simply the threat of doing so keeps them in line. As a result their ratings are basically uncorrelated with real risk—they failed to predict the collapse of Lehman Brothers or the failure of mortgage-backed CDOs, and they didn’t “predict” the European debt crisis so much as cause it by their panic.

Then of course there’s the fact that they are obviously an oligopoly, and furthermore one that is explicitly protected under US law. But then it dawns upon you: Wait… US law? US law decides the structure of credit rating agencies that set the bond rates of entire nations? Yes, that’s right. You’d think that such ratings would be set by the World Bank or something, but they’re not; in fact here’s a paper published by the World Bank in 2004 about how rather than reform our credit rating system, we should instead tell poor countries to reform themselves so they can better impress the private credit rating agencies.

In fact the whole concept of “sovereign debt risk” is fundamentally defective; a country that borrows in its own currency should never have to default on debt under any circumstances. National debt is almost nothing like personal or corporate debt. Their fears should be inflation and unemployment—their monetary policy should be set to minimize the harm of these two basic macroeconomic problems, understanding that policies which mitigate one may enflame the other. There is such a thing as bad fiscal policy, but it has nothing to do with “running out of money to pay your debt” unless you are forced to borrow in a currency you can’t control (as Greece is, because they are on the Euro—their debt is less like the US national debt and more like the debt of Puerto Rico, which is suffering an ongoing debt crisis you may not have heard about). If you borrow in your own currency, you should be worried about excessive borrowing creating inflation and devaluing your currency—but not about suddenly being unable to repay your creditors. The whole concept of giving a sovereign nation a credit rating makes no sense. You will be repaid on time and in full, in nominal terms; if inflation or currency exchange has devalued the currency you are repaid in, that’s sort of like a partial default, but it’s a fundamentally different kind of “default” than simply not paying back the money—and credit ratings have no way of capturing that difference.

In particular, it makes no sense for interest rates on government bonds to go up when a country is suffering some kind of macroeconomic problem.

The basic argument for why interest rates go up when risk is higher is that lenders expect to be paid more by those who do pay to compensate for what they lose from those who don’t pay. This is already much more problematic than most economists appreciate; I’ve been meaning to write a paper on how this system creates self-fulfilling prophecies of default and moral hazard from people who pay their debts being forced to subsidize those who don’t. But it at least makes some sense.

But if a country is a “high risk” in the sense of macroeconomic instability undermining the real value of their debt, we want to ensure that they can restore macroeconomic stability. But we know that when there is a surge in interest rates on government bonds, instability gets worse, not better. Fiscal policy is suddenly shifted away from real production into higher debt payments, and this creates unemployment and makes the economic crisis worse. As Paul Krugman writes about frequently, these policies of “austerity” cause enormous damage to national economies and ultimately benefit no one because they destroy the source of wealth that would have been used to repay the debt.

By letting credit rating agencies decide the rates at which governments must borrow, we are effectively treating national governments as a special case of corporations. But corporations, by design, act for profit and can go bankrupt. National governments are supposed to act for the public good and persist indefinitely. We can’t simply let Greece fail as we might let a bank fail (and of course we’ve seen that there are serious downsides even to that). We have to restructure the sovereign debt system so that it benefits the development of nations rather than detracting from it. The first step is removing the power of private for-profit corporations in the US to decide the “creditworthiness” of entire countries. If we need to assess such risks at all, they should be done by international institutions like the UN or the World Bank.

But right now people are so stuck in the idea that national debt is basically the same as personal or corporate debt that they can’t even understand the problem. For after all, one must repay one’s debts.