The overhang of debt from the financial crisis is the weight that is pulling down our future. According to David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, money has always transitioned between a commodity (a physical object such as gold) and virtual money where people accepted the equivalent of IOUs in exchange for something (ie: credit). The problem is for a credit market system under a market failure, many people can end up falling into debt traps.
Interest-bearing loans, in turn, probably originated in deals between the administrators and merchants who carried, say, the woollen goods produced in temple factories (which in the very earliest period were at least partly charitable enterprises, homes for orphans, refugees or disabled people for instance) and traded them to faraway lands for metal, timber, or lapis lazuli. The first markets form on the fringes of these complexes and appear to operate largely on credit, using the temples’ units of account. But this gave the merchants and temple administrators and other well-off types the opportunity to make consumer loans to farmers, and then, if say the harvest was bad, everybody would start falling into debt-traps.
This was the great social evil of antiquity – families would have to start pawning off their flocks, fields and before long, their wives and children would be taken off into debt peonage. Often people would start abandoning the cities entirely, joining semi-nomadic bands, threatening to come back in force and overturn the existing order entirely. Rulers would regularly conclude the only way to prevent complete social breakdown was to declare a clean slate or ‘washing of the tablets,’ they’d cancel all consumer debt and just start over. In fact, the first recorded word for ‘freedom’ in any human language is the Sumerian amargi, a word for debt-freedom, and by extension freedom more generally, which literally means ‘return to mother,’ since when they declared a clean slate, all the debt peons would get to go home.
It is this form that the world is using today which has created the huge leveraged debt that weighs down the world today. But instead of making the extremely wealthy take a hair-cut, the overall focus is on how to make the many pay for the market failure even when they did not create the problem. Graeber says:
What’s been happening since Nixon went off the gold standard in 1971 has just been another turn of the wheel – though of course it never happens the same way twice. However, in one sense, I think we’ve been going about things backwards. In the past, periods dominated by virtual credit money have also been periods where there have been social protections for debtors. Once you recognize that money is just a social construct, a credit, an IOU, then first of all what is to stop people from generating it endlessly? And how do you prevent the poor from falling into debt traps and becoming effectively enslaved to the rich? That’s why you had Mesopotamian clean slates, Biblical Jubilees, Medieval laws against usury in both Christianity and Islam and so on and so forth.
Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.
Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.
And, I might add, if Aristotle were around today, I very much doubt he would think that the distinction between renting yourself or members of your family out to work and selling yourself or members of your family to work was more than a legal nicety. He’d probably conclude that most Americans were, for all intents and purposes, slaves.
Now consider the following from the piece Digby linked to yesterday about the financial crisis in Europe:
The European sovereign debt crisis is little more than a huge ‘bait and switch’ perpetrated on the publics of Europe, by their governments, on behalf of their banks. We need to remember that what we refer to today as the ‘European Sovereign Debt Crisis’ began as a private sector financial crisis back in 2008, when ‘too big to fail banks,’ writing deep out of the money options on taxpayers, quite unexpectedly (to some) blew up. Fearing a financial Armageddon, governments transformed private bank debt into public debt via bailouts, lost revenues, lower growth, higher transfers, and yawning deficits. The unavoidable result across the European continent was a massive increase in government debt. While painting this as a story of fiscal irresponsibility has some plausibility in the Greek case, it simply isn’t true for anyone else. The Irish and the Spanish, I and S in the eponymous ‘PIGS’ were, for example, considered ‘best in neoliberal class’ in terms of debts and deficits until the crisis hit. Public debt is a consequence of the financial crisis, not its cause....Europe has reached a point where its collective bank exposures are bigger than its collective bailout capacity.
Today, the global debt is greater than all the austerity programs can fix. The best solution for this situation would be debt forgiveness, but this is clearly not in the cards today. And when the massive social unrest happens, the power structure knows it has all those nice toys that Digby discussed to keep the unruly in check.
*Updated to clarify the crisis is more generally a financial crisis. (thx Bill).
Also see this: We have forgotten what the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, the early Jews and Christians, the Founding Fathers and even Napoleon Bonaparte knew about money and debt. (h/t The Big Picture)