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America Is Turning Into One Big Prison for People in Debt

From debtor’s prison to debtor nation.
 
 
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Shakespeare’s Polonius offered this classic advice to his son: “neither a borrower nor a lender be.”  Many of our nation’s Founding Fathers emphatically saw it otherwise.  They often lived by the maxim: always a borrower, never a lender be.  As tobacco and rice planters, slave traders, and merchants, as well as land and currency speculators, they depended upon long lines of credit to finance their livelihoods and splendid ways of life.  So, too, in those days, did shopkeepers, tradesmen, artisans, and farmers, as well as casual laborers and sailors.  Without debt, the seedlings of a commercial economy could never have grown to maturity.

Ben Franklin, however, was wary on the subject. “Rather go to bed supperless than rise in debt” was his warning, and even now his cautionary words carry great moral weight.  We worry about debt, yet we can’t live without it.

Debt remains, as it long has been, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of capitalism.  For a small minority, it’s a blessing; for others a curse.  For some the moral burden of carrying debt is a heavy one, and no one lets them forget it.  For privileged others, debt bears no moral baggage at all, presents itself as an opportunity to prosper, and if things go wrong can be dumped without a qualm.

Those who view debt with a smiley face as the royal road to wealth accumulation and tend to be forgiven if their default is large enough almost invariably come from the top rungs of the economic hierarchy.  Then there are the rest of us, who get scolded for our impecunious ways, foreclosed upon and dispossessed, leaving behind scars that never fade away and wounds that disable our futures. 

Think of this upstairs-downstairs class calculus as the politics of debt.  British economist John Maynard Keynes put it like this: “If I owe you a pound, I have a problem; but if I owe you a million, the problem is yours.”

After months of an impending “ debtpocalypse,” the dreaded “debt ceiling,” and the “fiscal cliff,” Americans remain preoccupied with debt, public and private.  Austerity is what we’re promised for our sins. Millions are drowning, or have already drowned, in a sea of debt -- mortgages gone bad , student loans that may never be paid off, spiraling credit card bills, car loans, payday loans, and a menagerie of new-fangled financial mechanisms cooked up by the country’s “financial engineers” to milk what’s left of the American standard of living.  

The world economy almost came apart in 2007-2008, and still may do so under the whale-sized carcass of debt left behind by financial plunderers who found in debt the leverage to get ever richer.  Most of them still live in their mansions and McMansions, while other debtors live outdoors, or in cars or shelters, or doubled-up with relatives and friends -- or even in debtor’s prison. Believe it or not, a version of debtor’s prison, that relic of early American commercial barbarism, is back. 

In 2013, you can’t actually be jailed for not paying your bills, but ingenious corporations, collection agencies, cops, courts, and lawyers have devised ways to insure that debt “delinquents” will end up in jail anyway.  With one-third of the states now allowing the jailing of debtors (without necessarily calling it that), it looks ever more like a trend in the making.

Will Americans tolerate this, or might there emerge a politics of resistance to debt, as has happened more than once in a past that shouldn’t be forgotten?  

 
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