A Clean Slate

by Berry Friesen (March 3, 2017)

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
President Donald Trump (Jan. 20, 2017)

Did you listen to President Trump Tuesday evening as he explained to Congress how he plans to stop “this American carnage?”

A $54 billion jump in military spending—“one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history,” according to Trump.  Big new tax cuts for corporations.  An end to subsidized health insurance coverage for the working poor.  $1 trillion in new borrowing for infrastructure projects.  Those are a few highlights of his plan.

America’s top 1 percent is devoid of patriotic spirit.  Over the past 25 years, since Communism collapsed in a pile of dust and the US-led empire stood unchallenged in the world, the American autocracy has made itself very rich by moving capital and business operations overseas and corrupting our democracy.

The result is the “carnage” the President spoke of at his inauguration: depressed cities and towns, working age men and women no longer attached to the work force, an aging and depleted public sector.  Today, most Americans are on a treadmill, holding their own at best or sliding backwards.  Many young people face a less prosperous future than their parents have enjoyed.   The economy is still growing, but nearly all of the benefits flow to the top.

In the context of “this American carnage,” the newly-elected Oligarch-in-Chief went before Congress, blamed foreign countries, Islamic terrorists and immigrants for our problems, and declared, “I am not going to let America and its great companies and workers be taken advantage of any longer.”

What’s astonishing is our interest in what Trump is selling. It’s irrational, but we want to believe a man who has dedicated his life to acquiring wealth and social status is going to save us.  It’s magical thinking.  Still, after all the conventional Democrats and Republicans who have betrayed us, we find ourselves hoping this swashbuckling maverick will bravely make a stand on behalf of us commoners.

Why so eager to believe?  Part of it is we can’t imagine a better way.  We can only imagine the system we have, so we desperately want someone to make it work.

To spur our imaginations, in recent weeks I’ve been highlighting ways of viewing the empire that are out of the mainstream.  Today I bring you another—a frame of reference provided by economist Michael Hudson.

Hudson’s desire for an economy that serves all the people—not just the elite—has taken him deep into Babylonian economic archeology and the study of how ancient societies avoided economic strangulation by the elite.  That pathway, in turn, has taken him to the Law of Moses and from there to words of Jesus.

That’s a lot of ground to cover in a blog post.  Here’s the short version.

America is headed toward the dead-end many societies have reached before.  Our economy and government are controlled by an elite whose goals and purposes are no longer significantly aligned with the well-being of the rest of us.  We need a clean slate, a fresh start.

Ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia had a solution to this kind of problem 4-5,000 years ago.  Here is Hudson describing that history.

“People owed debts because they were in arrears; they couldn’t pay the fees owed to the palace. We might call them taxes, but they actually were fees for public services. And for beer, for instance. The palace would supply beer and you would run up a tab over the year, to be paid at harvest time on the threshing floor. You also would pay for the boatmen, if you needed to get your harvest delivered by boat. You would pay for draught cattle if you needed them. You’d pay for water.”

Over time, the burden of debt would compound and become unpayable.  Yet collection agents would persist in their debt enforcement practices, separating people from their ancestral lands, from their own livelihoods and even from their children, who would be sold into indentured servitude.  All of this further sapped the economy of its vitality. Again, here is Hudson:

“What do you do if you’re a ruler and your people can’t pay? One reason they would cancel debts is that most debts were owed to the palace or to the temples, which were under the control of the palace. So you’re canceling debts that are owed to yourself.

"Rulers had a good reason for doing this . . . It was the way to restore people to self-sufficiency. So in Sumer and in Babylon, every major ruler would proclaim a Clean Slate. We have the records to detail this century after century.

. . . .

“These Clean Slates had three elements: Number one, they would cancel the personal debts – not the business debts, not the debts denominated in silver among merchants and other rich people. These debts were business contracts, and they remained in place. It was the petty debts, the consumer debts, that were canceled. Number two, lands that had been forfeited were restored: the crop rights, if they’d been pledged to creditors. And three, all the human beings who had been pledged as bondservants would be free to return to their families.”

The Jewish people embraced the ancient wisdom of debt forgiveness during their exile to Babylon 2500 years ago.  We read of this in the 25th chapter of Leviticus, where the Law of Moses is described as requiring a “Year of Jubilee” every 50 years, an event which returned land to ancestral owners debt-free and freed slaves and indentured servants. We read of this in the 15th chapter of Deuteronomy, where the Law of Moses is described as requiring the cancellation of private debts every seven years.   We read of this in the 61st chapter of Isaiah, where the prophet proclaimed liberty to the captives and release to the bondservants.

We read of this in the 4th chapter of Luke, where Jesus adopted Isaiah 61 as his mission statement, and in the 6th chapter of Matthew, where Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors.”

Hudson sees all of this as highly relevant to Western societies of today.

“Either you’re going to have economic renewal and restore people’s ability to support themselves; or you’re going to have feudalism.

“That basically is how the Roman historians describe Rome as falling. The debtors were enslaved . . . just about everybody was enslaved, put in barracks on the land. Finally, you needed to have a population, so you let people marry and you gave them land rights–and you had slavery develop into serfdom. Well we’re going into a similar situation today, where I think we’re going into a kind of neo-feudalism. The strain of today’s society is as much a debt strain as it was back then.”

Read Hudson’s entire speech.  It’s a big subject and I can only introduce it here.

Hudson is a fan of classical economists such as Adam Smith and John Stewart Mill. They targeted special interests—landlords, bankers, oligarchs—who added costs to the products people needed to live.  These economists had a word for those added costs: rent.  It was the difference between the cost of an item or service when produced efficiently and its cost after the special interests had taken a premium.

Of course, for several generations now, we’ve been taught that the core problem identified by classical economists was government regulation.  Not true, says Hudson, we’ve been misled.  For more from Hudson about this bit of educational fraud (as well as very interesting commentary on current events), see Hudson’s essays here.

Spending $54 billion more on the military is stupid, to be sure.  But let’s not think the US-led empire is only bombs and military intimidation.  It’s also an economic model that squeezes people dry and an elite who grow unimaginably wealthy as a result.  As we imagine an alternative to empire, let’s read Michael Hudson and remember that when Isaiah and Jesus proclaimed liberty to the captives, they were talking about freeing people from a life of debt and servitude.