Oct 22nd 2014

The Moral Economy of Debt

by Robert Skidelsky

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University, author of a prize-winning biography of the economist John Maynard Keynes, and a board member of the Moscow School of Political Studies.
LONDON – Every economic collapse brings a demand for debt forgiveness. The incomes needed to repay loans have evaporated, and assets posted as collateral have lost value. Creditors demand their pound of flesh; debtors clamor for relief.

Consider Strike Debt, an offshoot of the Occupy movement, which calls itself “a nationwide movement of debt resisters fighting for economic justice and democratic freedom.” Its Web site argues that “[w]ith stagnant wages, systemic unemployment, and public service cuts” people are being forced into debt in order to obtain the most basic necessities of life, leading them to “surrender [their] futures to the banks.”

One of Strike Debt’s initiatives, “Rolling Jubilee,” crowd-sources funds to buy up and extinguish debt, a process that it calls “collective refusal.” The group’s progress has been impressive, raising more than $700,000 so far and extinguishing debt worth almost $18.6 million.

It is the existence of a secondary debt market that enables Rolling Jubilee to buy debt so cheaply. Financial institutions that have come to doubt their borrowers’ ability to repay sell the debt to third parties at knock-down prices, often for as little as five cents on the dollar. Buyers then attempt to profit by recouping some or all of the debt from the borrowers. The US student-loan provider Sallie Mae admitted that it sells repackaged debt for as little as 15 cents on the dollar.

To draw attention to the often-nefarious practices of debt collectors, Rolling Jubilee recently canceled student debt for 2,761 students of Everest College, a for-profit school whose parent company, Corinthian Colleges, is being sued by the US government for predatory lending. Everest College’s loan portfolio was valued at almost $3.9 million. Rolling Jubilee bought it for $106,709.48, or about three cents on the dollar.

But that is a drop in the ocean. In the US alone, students owe more than $1 trillion, or around 6% of GDP. And the student population is just one of many social groups that lives on debt.

Indeed, throughout the world, the economic downturn of 2008-2009 increased the burden of private and public debt alike – to the point that the public-private distinction became blurred. In a recent speech in Chicago, Irish President Michael D. Higgins explained how private debt became sovereign debt: “As a consequence of the need to borrow so as to finance current expenditure and, above all, as a result of the blanket guarantee extended to the main Irish banks’ assets and liabilities, Ireland’s general government debt increased from 25% of GDP in 2007 to 124% in 2013.”

The Irish government’s aim, of course, was to save the banking system. But the unintended consequence of the bailout was to shatter confidence in the government’s solvency. In the eurozone, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and Cyprus all had to restructure their sovereign debt to avoid outright default. Rising debt/GDP ratios cast a pall over fiscal policy, and became the main justification for austerity policies that prolonged the slump.

None of this is new. Creditor-debtor conflict has been the stuff of politics since Babylonian times. Orthodoxy has always upheld the sacred rights of the creditor; political necessity has frequently demanded relief for the debtor. Which side wins in any situation depends on the extent of debtor distress and the strength of the opposing creditor-debtor coalitions.

Morality has always been the intellectual coin of these conflicts. Creditors, asserting their right to be repaid in full, historically have created as many legal and political obstacles to default as possible, insisting on harsh sanctions – garnishment of income, for example, and, at the extreme, imprisonment or even slavery – for borrowers’ failure to honor their debt obligations. Governments that incurred debt in costly wars have been expected to set aside annual “sinking funds” for repayment.

Morality, however, has not been entirely on the side of the creditor. In New Testament Greek, debt means “sin.” But, though it might be sinful to go into debt, Matthew 6:12 supports absolution: “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Widespread social resistance to creditors’ claims on debtors’ property for non-payment has meant that “foreclosure” has rarely been carried to extremes.

The position of debtors was further strengthened by the prohibition of usury – charging unreasonably high interest on money. Interest-rate caps were abolished in Britain only in 1835; the near-zero central-bank rates prevailing since 2009 are a current example of efforts to protect borrowers.

The truth of the matter, as David Graeber points out in his majestic Debt: The First 5,000 Years, is that that the creditor-debtor relationship embodies no iron law of morality; rather, it is a social relationship that always must be negotiated. When quantitative precision and an unyielding approach to debt obligations are the rule, conflict and penury soon follow.

In an effort to stem recurrent debt crises, traditional societies embraced the “Law of Jubilee,” a ceremonial wiping clean of the slate. “The Law of Jubilee,” writes Graeber, “stipulated that all debts be automatically canceled ‘in the Sabbath year’ (that is, after seven years had passed), and that all who languished in bondage owing to such debts would be released.” The Rolling Jubilee is a timely reminder of the continuing relevance of one of the oldest laws of social life.

The moral of the tale is not, as Polonius instructed his son Laertes, “neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Without both, humanity might still be living in caves. Rather, we need to limit the supply of and demand for credit to what the economy is capable of producing. How to do this and maintain freedom of enterprise is one of the great unsettled questions of political economy.


Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org



 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Dec 5th 2022
EXTRACT: "After a decade of unconstrained growth – when it seemed that a new billionaire was minted every day – the tech industry has finally hit a rough patch. Elon Musk’s erratic behavior following his takeover of Twitter has left the financially leveraged platform in a precarious state. The crypto exchange FTX’s sudden implosion has vaporized a business that was recently valued at $32 billion, taking many other crypto firms with it. Meta (Facebook) is laying off 11,000 people, 13% of its workforce, and Amazon is shedding 10,000. What are we supposed to make of these setbacks? Are they isolated incidents, or signs of structural change?"
Dec 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "Just looking at explicit debts, the figures are staggering. Globally, total private- and public-sector debt as a share of GDP rose from 200% in 1999 to 350% in 2021. The ratio is now 420% across advanced economies, and 330% in China. In the United States, it is 420%, which is higher than during the Great Depression and after World War II."
Dec 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "The Conservative leadership must stand up to the party’s extremists, and it must do so sooner rather than later. If moderates cannot defeat the hardliners by the next election, and the outcome turns out to be as bad for the Tories as recent polls suggest, they will find they have the same fight on their hands in opposition. --- Conservatives must never underestimate the importance of their moderate supporters. If the Party continues to disregard centrists whenever the Brexiteer right stamps its feet, it may find itself out of power for a long time to come."
Nov 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "....young voters did reach the polls they voted overwhelmingly for Democrat candidates across the country. According to reports, 63% of 18- to 29- year olds voted Democrat and 35% voted Republican in the House of Representatives elections. Voters between 30 and 44 split their vote between the two parties, while older voters tended to vote Republican."
Nov 24th 2022
Nouriel Roubini: "Central banks are in both a stagflation trap and a debt trap. Amid negative aggregate supply shocks that reduce growth and increase inflation, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they increase interest rates enough to bring inflation down to 2%, they will cause a severe economic hard landing. And if they don’t – attempting instead to protect growth and jobs – they will be left increasingly far behind the curve, leading to a de-anchoring of inflation expectations and a wage-price spiral. Very high debt ratios (both private and public) complicate the dilemma further. Raising interest rates enough to crush inflation causes not only an economic crash, but also a financial crash, with highly leveraged private and public debtors facing severe distress. The resulting financial turmoil that intensifies the recession, creating a vicious cycle of deepening recession and escalating financial pain and debt distress. In these circumstances, central banks will blink. They will wimp out in the fight against inflation, in an effort to avoid an economic and financial crash. But that will lead to a higher permanent inflation rate, while only postponing the arrival of stagflation and debt crises. In other words, central banks in the United States, Europe, and other advanced economies have only bad options."
Nov 13th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Today’s autocrats wear staid business suits and pretend to be democrats, and that has been sufficient to grant them access to high-level meetings in Davos or at the G20, where they actively recruit former Western politicians, lawyers, public-relations consultants, and think tanks to make their case in the West." ---- "....whatever the weaknesses of Western democracies, they still command a degree of soft power that their autocratic competitors could only dream of. Democracy remains popular around the world – among citizens of both democratic and nondemocratic countries. That is why modern dictators pretend to be democrats." ---- "....there is no shortage of criticism about how the US and Europe function. But that itself is a product of the press freedom and political opposition that one can find only in democracies. But actions speak louder than words: Immigrants from around the world are eager to come to Europe or America, whereas few are trying to get into Russia or China."
Nov 9th 2022
EXTRACT: "In conventional macroeconomics, an economy’s longer-term growth potential is determined by the sum of labor-force and productivity growth. If one of those factors slows, the other must accelerate. Otherwise, long-term growth suffers.  China is in serious trouble on both fronts. An unsustainable one-child family-planning policy –subsequently changed to a two- and now three-child policy – means that the working-age population is declining, and Xi’s speech at the 20th Party Congress suggested that already-strong productivity headwinds are likely to intensify. "
Nov 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "First and most obvious – it has happened before. And in an historical sense, it has happened relatively recently, with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 rightly considered a seismic event in world politics. The rub is that nobody predicted the end of the USSR either. In fact, it was confidently assumed in the West that Mikhail Gorbachev would go on ruling the Soviet Union, until the hard-line coup that failed to topple him (but left him mortally wounded in a political sense) made that view obviously redundant." ---- "So is it speculative to talk about a future Russian collapse? Yes. Is there evidence it is imminent? No. But in many ways that’s the problem: when authoritarian regimes implode, they tend to do so very quickly, and with little warning."
Oct 25th 2022
EXTRACT: " But in celebrating the CPC centennial, he [XI left little doubt of what those challenges might portend: “Having the courage to fight and the fortitude to win is what has made our party invincible.” A modernized and expanded military puts teeth into that threat and underscores the risks posed by Xi’s conflict-prone China."
Oct 8th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Recent inflation news from the eurozone’s largest member, Germany, is particularly alarming. In August, producer prices – which measure what is happening at the preliminary stages of industrial production – were a whopping 46% higher than in the same month last year. Given the long-term correlation between the growth rate of producer and consumer prices, this suggests that the latter could soar to 14% in November. Price stability – which is supposed to be the ECB’s uncompromising goal, per the Maastricht Treaty – is no longer perceptible" ----- "Since the 2008 global economic crisis, the ECB has allowed the central-bank money supply to increase twice as fast, relative to economic output, as the US Federal Reserve has. Of that growth, 83% was the result of the ECB’s purchases of government bonds from eurozone countries. With those purchases – which totaled an estimated €4.4 trillion – the ECB pushed interest rates on government bonds to around zero. This spurred countries to disregard European debt rules and accumulate debt at a breakneck pace."
Oct 7th 2022
EXTRACTS: "While some Russians have opposed the attack on Ukraine from the outset and publicly protested against the mobilisation that has just been declared, others, on the far right, feel that Russia is holding back too much and are increasingly calling for total mobilisation, the carpet-bombing of Ukrainian cities, and even the use of nuclear weapons." ----- "Will the Kremlin be able to channel the growing warmongering zeal? In view of the intensity of the rhetoric of the various wings of the Russian far right, backed recently by several Putin allies including the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, it is doubtful: whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine, nationalist pressure is likely to become a serious and lasting threat to Russia’s internal stability."
Oct 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "But US and global equities have not yet fully priced in even a mild and short hard landing. Equities will fall by about 30% in a mild recession, and by 40% or more in the severe stagflationary debt crisis that I have predicted for the global economy. Signs of strain in debt markets are mounting: sovereign spreads and long-term bond rates are rising, and high-yield spreads are increasing sharply; leveraged-loan and collateralized-loan-obligation markets are shutting down; highly indebted firms, shadow banks, households, governments, and countries are entering debt distress. The crisis is here."
Sep 29th 2022
EXTRACTS "Ever since she became a prominent political figure 12 years ago, Truss has been a shapeshifter. She started as a Liberal Democrat before becoming a Conservative, and she voted to remain in the European Union before championing Brexit. As a minister, it is hard to think of anything she accomplished. She signed a few EU trade deals as Secretary of State for International Trade, but most of those were rollovers." --- "But if until recently it seemed that Truss was driven solely by political ambition, her government’s 'mini-budget' proposal sheds light on her deeper ideological affinities."
Sep 20th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russia’s focus on Ukraine and Putin’s choice to frame this as a civilisational struggle with the west has created opportunities for China to enhance its influence elsewhere – at Russia’s expense."
Sep 20th 2022
EXTRACTS: ”The Ukrainian army is making spectacular advances,” --- “…the European Union has fully mobilized to confront the energy crisis.” ---- “we are helping our partners in the Global South to handle the fallout from Russia’s brutal aggression and cynical weaponization of energy and food.” ---- “In short: the overall strategy is working. We must continue to support Ukraine, pressure Russia with sanctions, and help our global partners in a spirit of solidarity.”
Sep 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "In 1950, a team of sociologists, including the philosopher Theodor Adorno, conducted an empirical study, later published as The Authoritarian Personality, which ....... “If a potentially fascistic individual exists, what, precisely, is he like? What goes to make up antidemocratic thought? What are the organizing forces within the person?... what have been the determinants and what is the course of his development?”
Aug 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russian aggression certainly poses a threat; but it is a familiar one that we know how to deal with. Rising temperatures, dry riverbeds, parched landscapes, falling crop yields, acute energy shortages, and disruptions to industrial production are something else."
Aug 25th 2022
EXTRACTS: "As the revolutionary founder of a new Chinese state, Mao emphasized ideology over development. For Deng and his successors, it was the opposite: De-emphasis of ideology was viewed as necessary to boost economic growth through market-based 'reform and opening up.' Then came Xi. Initially, there was hope that his so-called 'Third Plenum Reforms' of 2013 would usher in a new era of strong economic performance. But the new ideological campaigns carried out under the general rubric of Xi Jinping Thought, including a regulatory clampdown on once-dynamic Internet platform companies and associated restrictions on online gaming, music, and private tutoring, as well as a zero-COVID policy that has led to never-ending lockdowns, have all but dashed those hopes." ----- "With the upcoming 20th Party Congress likely to usher in an unprecedented third five-year term for Xi, there is good reason to believe that China’s growth sacrifice has only just begun."
Aug 23rd 2022
EXTRACTS: "Less widely noted, however, is that the prices of many commodities fell this summer. The price of oil decreased by about 30% between early June and mid-August. The politically sensitive price of gasoline in the United States fell by 20% over the same period, from $5 per gallon to $4 per gallon. The overall index fell 12%." ---- "There are two macroeconomic reasons to think that commodity prices in general will fall further. The level of economic activity is a self-evidently important determinant of demand for commodities and therefore of their prices. Less obviously, the real interest rate is another key factor. And the current outlook for both global growth and real interest rates suggests a downward path for commodity prices."
Aug 22nd 2022
EXTRACT: "How Trump planned to use the classified documents remains a question that investigators presumably have made a high priority. Depending on the answer and the resulting charges, if any, one thing is certain: Trump will play hardball, including by amplifying his claims of victimhood at the hands of the fictional Deep State, and denying any wrongdoing in purloining the documents. His lies and hyperbole, however, don’t preclude seeking a plea deal. In his previous tangles with the law, such as his Trump University scam, he agreed to compensate the victims (in that case $25 million) after his prevarications were exhausted."