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Monday, February 2, 2009

[roeoz] Debt and forgiveness through the ages

Posted by AccGURU

Speaking of biblical decrees, I was surprised to read this today.

There is no guarantee that the measures will succeed. The vast scale of government borrowing may exhaust the stock of global capital. Markets are already beginning to question the credit-worthiness of sovereign states. The Fed may find it harder than it thinks to disengage from colossal intervention in the bond markets.

In the end, the only way out of all this global debt may prove to be a Biblical debt Jubilee.

Jubilee is an interesting tradition that hasn't really been practiced for centuries, but for thousands of years it was an accepted part of middle east tradition. In today's world the idea of a periodic wholesale canceling of debts and the restoration of land to the poor seems utopian and anachronistic.
Unlike today's world, the ideas of morality and religion wasn't excluded from economics. In fact, unlike today, morality and religion was infinitely more important than profit and personal property.

What was radically disturbing in archaic times was the idea of unrestrained wealth-seeking. It took thousands of years for the idea of progress to become inverted, to connote freedom for the wealthy to deprive the peasantry of their lands and personal liberty.

"Land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to me and you are only strangers and guests. You will allow a right of redemption on all your landed property."
- Lev. 25:23-28

I first got interested in the concept of Jubilee, not for religious reasons, but for economic reasons. The person who introduced me to the idea was my favorite economic historian, Michael Hudson.

"First they ignore you, then they denounce you, and then they say that they knew what you were saying all the time," said Gandhi. The same might be said of today's overhang of debts in excess of the economy's ability to pay. First the policy makers pretend that they can be paid, then they denounce the pessimists as spreading panic, and then they say that of course students have been taught for four thousand years now how the "magic of compound interest" keeps on doubling and redoubling debts faster than the economy can squeeze out an economic surplus to pay.

What has ended is the idea that "the magic of compound interest" can make economies rich without having to work and without industry. I hope we have seen the end of derivatives formula seeking to make money by playing in a zero-sum game. A debt overhang always ends either in foreclosure of the debtor's property, or in a debt annulment to preserve the economy's overall freedom and equity.

This means that the postmodern economy as we know it must end – either in financial polarization and debt peonage to a new oligarchic elite, or in a debt cancellation, a Jubilee Year to rescue society. But when the government says that it is reviewing "all" the options, this reality is not one of them.

The Federal Reserve has attacked the current financial crisis as if it were a problem of liquidity (not enough money is available to borrow and loan). In fact the problem is the levels of debt in the world today.
To put it another way, it's not the financial system is illiquid. It's that the world's banks are insolvent. Some officials recognize this to be the case.

"This biggest worldwide economic crisis arose by getting into debt," Josef Proell, Austria's new finance minister, said. "You can't fight a debt crisis by getting into more debt."

I would have more confidence in optimism if the optimists lived wisely!
A pessimist is a well informed optimist!


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