Review of Just Money, by Royce Kurmelovs

First published in The Weekend Australian

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To date, Royce Kurmelovs has written four books and written off at least two cars. We know this because his fourth book, Just Money, begins with him crashing his ageing Proton hatchback into a 2017 Mazda 3, having failed to give way at an intersection a hundred yards from his home in Adelaide. Newcomers to his work will hope that the young author is a better writer than he is a driver. Those, like me, who are familiar with it will know they’re in for a treat.

Mercifully both the Mazda driver and Kurmelovs emerge uninjured from the crash. Kurmelovs, however, also emerges uninsured, and it is here that his ‘misadventures in the great Australian debt trap’ begin. In the hole for $23,000, and already owing $40,000 in HECS and $5 in late fees to the West Torrens Library, his meeting with Matt the debt collector one year later is more or less assured. Still, he reflects, it could have been worse: he could have hit an Audi.

Thus begins a fascinating journey in which Kurmelovs’ own experience is woven into an expansive study of the ‘graft, grift and outright greed’ that characterise the finance industry. It is a massive subject, and a complex one, but Kurmelovs is a brilliant writer and his grasp of the material is such that he is able to explain often difficult concepts in language that is crisp and clear. The clarity is particularly important, for the byzantine nature of modern finance is not an incidental matter; as with the ‘collateralised debt objects’ that precipitated the global debt crisis, opacity is built into the system. Kurmelovs does a brilliant job of breaking open that financial black box.

What he finds is an essentially parasitical industry in which banks, insurers and credit card companies combine to increase the indebtedness of ordinary citizens. These debts, and the income that flows from them, are then packaged up as assets for investors, then sold, repackaged, resold and so on, to the point where it becomes less profitable to speculate on products or services in the real economy than on the debt those products and services generate. This is part of a broader process known as ‘financialisation’ (a term familiar to anyone interested in macroeconomic matters but still new enough to earn itself a red squiggle in my version of Word) and its social consequences are profound. As financial services move to the centre of the economy, growing in power and influence, it becomes more profitable to view, say, housing as a speculative investment than a social utility – a shift that leads, as Kurmelovs notes, to both the sub-prime crisis in US housing (and subsequent collapse of Lehmann Brothers) and the Grenfell Tower fire in South West London. It would be difficult to think of a phenomenon more corrosive of social solidarity, or indeed long-term economic security. Certainly the situation is perilous. As Kurmelovs notes, the global debt-to-GDP ratio is now well over 300 per cent.

Though Kurmelovs notes the way in which debt is leveraged by the US and China to ensure the ideological compliance of countries at the poorer end of the scale, it is private debt that really interests him. The emphasis is particularly relevant to Australia, where household debt is 120 per cent of GDP and 216 per cent of net disposable income. Then, of course, there are the countless stories of individual misery to have emerged from the Financial Services Royal Commission and the Online Compliance Intervention (i.e. Robodebt) scandal, where the ‘solutioneering of Silicon Valley and the cut-throat financial logic of investment banks intruded into the lives of thousands of Australians in a whole new way’. The chapters dealing with these twin disgraces are some of Kurmelovs’ best, and angriest.

One of the most impressive aspects of Just Money is the skill with which Kurmelovs weaves together the stories of ordinary, often desperate, people and broader socioeconomic analysis. This can be a tricky transition to manage, and one that many non-fiction books make all too arbitrarily, in a way that can leave the reader wondering what this or that interview or conversation really adds to the whole. But part of Kurmelovs’ aim in this book is to take a wilfully abstract system and demonstrate its material effects. As he puts it, ‘real life is not lived on a neat average. Most people spend their days navigating a skewed distribution … [and] their lived experience generates a competing narrative based on how they use or interact with an institution or series of laws.’ For Kurmelovs, this second narrative is now so remote from the ‘official’ one that conflict is bound to arise. ‘No matter the underpinning statistics, these two competing understandings of the past, and subsequent projections about the future, will collide.’

I should add that Kurmelovs’ own collision ends up costing him rather less than originally anticipated, the other driver’s insurance company having mangled the accident report and inflated the cost of a second-hand Mazda. Of course, he’ll still need to write a good few books in order to pay down the debt, but if they’re anything like as good as this one it should only take him a century or so. Best get some insurance, too.  

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Royce Kurmelovs, Just Money: Misadventures in the Great Australian Debt Trap

UQP; $32.99; 298pp