Thoughts on Debt, by David Graeber

For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors—of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’ children into slavery. By the same token, for the past five thousand years, with remarkable regularity, popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destruction of debt records—tablets, papyri, ledgers; whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place.

In the throes of the recent economic crisis, with the very defining institutions of capitalism crumbling, surveys showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans felt that the country’s banks should not be rescued—whatever the economic consequences—but that ordinary citizens stuck with bad mortgages should be bailed out. This is quite extraordinary, as Americans have, since colonial days, been the population least sympathetic to debtors. (Back then, the ears of an insolvent debtor would often be nailed to a post.) The notion of morality as a matter of paying one’s debts runs deeper in the United States than in almost any other country, which is odd, since America was settled largely by absconding debtors. Despite the fact that the Constitution specifically charged the new government with creating a bankruptcy law in 1787, all attempts to do so were rejected on “moral grounds” until 1898, by which time almost all other Western states had adopted one. The change was epochal.

Source: 3 Quarks Daily

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