Friday, August 26, 2011

Understanding Debt

The “embeddedness” argument of the economic sociologists and anthropologists applies supremely to debt.  If you have any doubt, read this captivating interview with David Graeber (via Naked Capitalism).  Here’s a nice quote, pulled from near the end, after a long discussion of monetary and credit practices in different times and places:
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.
The name that is missing from this interview (I don’t know about the book) is J. M. Keynes.  Keynes had clearly confronted the moral aura surrounding debt, and his approach to monetary policy above all tried to strike a pragmatic balance between the interests of creditors and debtors.


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