Tuesday, January 7, 2014

"I owe you..."

From Toledo, IA
(Photo by Nils Geylen via Flickr)
I've had debt on the brain lately. Our only car died last week and we had to rush out and get another, financed by a loan. We just signed papers yesterday for a home loan to finance some renovations on our old house. I look regularly at our outstanding student loans from grad school, which we've been paying on for just over a year, and will be for years and years to come.

Everywhere I look, financial debt constitutes a great bit of what we have to worry about in conducting the "business" of our household. We always attempt to be wise with our use of debt; we've never gotten in over our head, we've always been able to make payments on time, even paying a number of loans off early and aggressively. My wife and I both have jobs that pay, relative to the local economy, pretty well. Lenders in the past year have commented that our credit score is quite good; it is therefore quite easy for us to obtain loans.

That it is so easy is not simply a testament to the fact that we've played by the rules, though we indeed have. But as this provocative essay by Pamela Brown argues, the rules are surreptitiously geared to privilege well-off white folks like me. Lending and tax laws have changed over the past few decades, and combined with other socioeconomic and political shifts, consumer debt (credit card and mortgage, primarily) has disproportionately and negatively affected non-whites, particularly African Americans. Sub-prime mortgages, for instance, have not only affected poor blacks but also those solidly in the middle and upper-middle class. The impact of this racially-defined collective loss of wealth could take, by one estimate cited in the essay, take two generations to recover.

Similar to the New Jim Crow, then, a kind of "debtor's prison" has enclosed a large portion of the African American populace in the U.S., under a system that is purportedly "colorblind." That notion of colorblindness is, however, a smokescreen.

The myth of colorblindness

As Brown argues:
By rendering the debts that have created the structures of inequality invisible (i.e. "colorblind"), we reinforce the social dynamics of neoliberalism’s formulation of debt. And while the dominant belief is that the debts we owe are generic and disconnected from the past, colorblind practices amount to a willful denial and lack of concern with the reality of worsening racial inequality. Worse yet, by assuming that the playing field is truly even, colorblindness tends toward blaming the victim. After all, if it were not simply inherent deficit, why else would blacks be lagging so far behind?
Brown's argument here tips us off to the non-financial dimensions of debt. She moves from financial toward the historical debts to African Americans living with the legacy of slavery in this country, debts which reigning economic theories ignore outright. But such ignorance will only continue to perpetuate racism in the deep structures of American society, including in its economics. She closes:
As a debt resistance movement grows internationally, it will need to look at debt not just from the neoliberal perspective of debts we owe financial entities, but to broaden that perspective to a more historical analysis of how current inequalities are fueled by debts of other kinds. Without a critique of the intersections of race and debt, it seems unlikely that the solidarity needed for a global political movement could develop. And this is where, if colorblindness is neoliberalism’s corollary, it will have to be challenged with a demand to see.  Only after the cracks where debt hides are illuminated, will we be able to see what truly radical demands might be.
The construal of debt in neoliberal economics depends on a prior commitment in the liberal-democratic tradition: the primacy of the unfettered/"free" and rational individual. Individualism, then, works against construing debts (financial or otherwise) in the collective sense. A-historicism and individualism, then, make it incredibly easy, logical even, to "blame the victim" for worsening conditions for entire non-white racial groups. A-historicism: "We (white folks) aren't responsible for the sins of our fathers." Individualism: "Well, if these (black) folks would stop making bad decisions..."

Debt, historically considered

In a review of anthropologist David Graeber's book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Eli Cook starts by telling of the Rolling Jubilee, a project to liberate those crippled by financial debt, started by Occupy offshoot Strike Debt. Graeber may very well be the inspiration for the Rolling Jubilee, as he called for something like it in the final pages of Debt...
It seems to me we are long overdue for some kind of biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality, that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way.
The thrust of Graeber's book seems to be to awaken the realization among Western societies that we've been duped into thinking that debt is primarily an individual, financial obligation to financial institutions. Rather, debts have for the majority of human history functioned as social obligations that cannot and should not be quantified (or monetized). Democracy, then, has been undermined by the quantification and monetization of debt.

Which is why the biblical notion of Jubilee is so incredibly shocking and subversive to us Moderns (seriously, read all of Leviticus 25; it's amazing). And now there's an actual organization trying to practice a form of it in contemporary American society. The gall of these people!

Money, exchange, debt, and slavery were practiced in ancient Israel. And while it's debatable whether or not the biblical commandment of Jubilee - debt forgiveness, return of land, release of slaves, etc. - was ever practiced there or not, the commandment stands, and it reminds us that "You are not a loan," to borrow the slogan from Strike Debt. And further, this commandment was for an entire people: Israel, God's chosen - the people, resident aliens, bond slaves, and even the land itself.

Cook rightly notes quips, "Imagine trying to sell mortgage-backed derivatives with a law like (Jubilee) on the books!"

So what?

For my family's life and seeking the peace of the farm town, I wonder: What does it mean that "You are not a loan?" While our own financial wellbeing is secure (though that could change in an instant), I'm sure (yet am not adequately aware) that there are many in our community who struggle with debt. How can I not only be a good steward of our own family's material resources and be charitable/generous, but also seek the wellbeing of others? - Could a Rolling Jubilee be practiced here in Tama-Toledo? Would loosening the bonds of crippling financial debt liberate some to a degree where their more holistic flourishing could unfold? I wonder...

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