- Anne C. Fleming, 1979–2020:An Exemplar of Interdisciplinary, Engaged Business History
The historical profession is mourning the tragic passing of Anne Fleming, professor at the Georgetown Law Center. Anne died far too young at the age of forty, just a decade or so into what was shaping up to be an extraordinary career of scholarship, teaching, civic participation, and intellectual leadership. Within just a day of her death, the Legal History Blog posted a compelling overview of her life and career, which focuses on her contributions to legal history.1 This remembrance offers a complementary meditation on the significance of Anne's historical research and writing within the fields of business history and the history of political economy.2 I also consider some potential implications of her career for how we approach the crucial task of educating the next generation of business historians amid the growing imperative to think differently about how we structure PhD programs.
Any assessment of Fleming as a scholar should begin with appreciation for the path that led her to embrace the historian's craft. That route ran through not just the training that she received at Harvard Law School but also the extensive experience with the legal situations confronted by Americans in less well-off economic circumstances, and especially those individuals who faced crippling consumer debt. During her time as a law student, she worked for both the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and the District of Columbia's Public Defender Service. After [End Page 304] stints serving as a clerk for a United States district judge and then a United States appeals court judge, she spent two years working in Brooklyn, New York, for the Foreclosure Prevention Project, at the height of the 2007–2008 global financial crisis. Thus, as Fleming entered the PhD program in history at the University of Pennsylvania, she already knew quite a bit about the pressures faced by consumer debtors. This background shaped Fleming's choice of research topics, as she developed a dissertation on the legal and policy history of what she came to call "fringe finance," the provision of credit to Americans who arguably needed it most precisely because they lacked wealth and often struggled to sustain income. Her experiences fostered a bedrock empathy for the subjects of her research.
Although Fleming wrote several excellent journal articles and essays, her most significant scholarly achievement was City of Debtors: A History of Fringe Finance, published by Harvard University Press in 2018.3 The book won two prizes: the 2019 Ralph Gomory Prize, awarded by the Business History Conference (BHC) to an outstanding monograph that sheds particular light on the impacts that "business enterprises [have] on the economic conditions of the countries in which they operate;"4 and the annual best book award from the American College of Consumer Financial Services Lawyers. City of Debtors explores the roots and evolution of subprime lending through a case study of consumer debt markets and regulation in New York State, and especially in New York City, from the 1890s into the twenty-first century.
The book brilliantly conveys the enduring challenges of finding effective regulatory answers to the problems posed by fringe lending, with federalism always mediating state-level regulatory instruments and tools. Fleming demonstrates the repeated inclination of many innovative and more successful fringe lenders to seek legitimation and stability through legislation or administrative action that would provide a regulatory basis for their business models, and their frequent success through such efforts. She also reconstructs the remarkable ingenuity of fringe lenders in developing new business models to sidestep regulatory rules, whether through jurisdictional arbitrage, or "ontological" arbitrage, redefining lending products to evade prevailing rules. At the same time, she explores the recurring concerns over deceptive and abusive practices associated with fringe lending, which drove recurring attempts to clamp down on those practices, especially at the state level, but also sometimes through national policy making. [End Page 305]
And she documents the enduring inventiveness of attorneys from all sides, whether in challenging regulatory constraints, looking to find a payday through representation of debtors, seeking to invent causes of action, or resetting legal thresholds.
At every stage in the...