It’s the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, the global price of oil hit minus zero and headlines are declaring the end of the economy as we know it.
And, sorry, but I don’t want to go back to normal. I want to go forward, toward a better future for us humans, Earth and all the creatures that call this planet home. I want to continue to enjoy clearer skies, cleaner water, the quiet. But how, you may well ask?
Let’s adopt a successful practice that dates back to 1729 BC and declare a Jubilee Year. After 49 successful years, the 50th became the Jubilee Year, when complete freedom from all debt and servitude was proclaimed throughout the land. The ancient Babylonian King Hammurabi forgave all citizens debts owed to the government, high ranking officials and dignitaries. Boom. Gone. Not to be restarted for an entire year.
The idea that debt can grow faster than the ability to repay, until it unbalances a society, was well understood thousands of years ago. Ancient rulers weren’t motivated by charity; they were being pragmatic — trying to make sure that citizens could meet their own needs and contribute to public projects, rather than just laboring to pay creditors.
What’s more, the jubilee year worked, according to economist and historian Michael Hudson. “Societies that canceled the debts enjoyed stable growth for thousands of years.’’
Right now, steadily growing debts of one kind or another are weighing on economies all over the world.
Declaring a Jubilee year, wiping out every possible kind of debts — from mortgages to tuition and training, medical debt, payday loans and credit card debt — would provide an opportunity to re-set the entire economy, freeing everyone to reexamine and rethink their own priorities as the economy assumes some new, as yet unforeseeable form.
From prehistoric times, debts tended to mount up faster than the ability of most debtors to pay. That’s basic mathematics: Economic growth is arithmetic and it can’t keep up with debt growing at compound interest.
The idea of huge write-offs is no longer new. Elizabeth Warren advocated canceling most of the $1.6 trillion in U.S. student loans. Bernie Sanders wants to erase the nation’s $81 billion medical debt.
Debt forgiveness may be gaining ground on the other side. Remember when one of the Trump administration’s senior student-loan officials resigned, describing the American way of paying for higher education as “nuts,’’ he also called for wholesale student loan write-offs.
Meanwhile, struggling with a global pandemic, the current economy is whipsawing this way and that, rocking along like an unbalanced washing machine threatening to burn out its motor while unplugging itself. We need some way to re-balance the load.
The problem of debt backlog is an ancient one that began when interest-bearing loans were invented in agrarian Mesopotamia in the 3rd Millennium BC. Their remedy: the royal Clean Slate proclamation (a Jubilee Year of debt forgiveness). These proclamations liberated indebted bondservants (and their families) and restored land rights, so that people could continue living productively, pay taxes, and be available for military and community services.
The usual economic question, of course, has always been what happens if debts cannot be paid?
We’ve tried debt writedown in favor of debtors (to benefit large corporations), and allowing creditors to foreclose on personal debtors and mortgage-holders. Both paths lead to concentrating the economy’s assets away from the public sector and into the hands of the 0.001 percent.
Hudson has written that a Jubilee Year may be the only way to avoid an economic depression.
But, as Charles Eisenstein points out in Sacred Economics, we are already suffering from a kind of soul depression that comes from separating ourselves from each other and from the wonder that is our life on Earth.
Spend a few minutes with him and see if the idea of a Jubilee isn’t so far fetched after all:
Need more? I recommend another book from Eisenstein: The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible.
When to begin our Jubilee Year? My suggestion: the Autumn Equinox. Tuesday, September 22 this year. It’s before the elections; it’s a day defined by Earth’s relationship with the Sun — and the symmetry of equal night and day is both appealing and appropriate.