This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.This essay will appear in the next issue of Jacobin. It is posted here with the permission of that magazine.
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.