What is perhaps most distressing of all the revelations of frailty and incompetence beneath the former veneer of progress, is the recognition that mankind has very little idea of how to solve problems apart from throwing money at them.
The past few months have turned the world as we knew it upside-down. Civil liberties, which I naively assumed were the foundation upon which our republic was constructed, turn out to be privileges that the government can rescind at will. Science, in which most of us put our hopes for long life, has been overwhelmed by a variant of the common cold. Scientific experts, the oracles of science, cannot agree on even the most basic tenets of their disciplines. Even things that hardly any of us thought about before, such as the meat and dairy sections of the corner grocery store, are now revealed to have been great boons to mankind. Nobody knows what is coming after the Covid Year, the twenty-first century’s version of Samuel Pepys’ 1666. What we do know is that we will never go back to the way things used to be.
What is perhaps most distressing of all the revelations of frailty and incompetence beneath the former veneer of progress, technological supremacy, and relative political stability—things now smoke to the wind—is the recognition that mankind has very little idea of how to solve problems apart from throwing money at them. In the United States, especially, a people forged from freedmen, pioneers, Native warriors, colonists, and intrepid immigrants has been reduced to begging the federal government to print racks of fiat currency to make a season of suffering go away. Our modern idolatry of money as the skeleton key to unlocking secular paradise is on full display, and I suspect I am not the only one who is more than a little uncomfortable at seeing our lucre-worshipping reflection in the sudden mirror of this global plague.
As the current crisis has unfolded, the response of governments worldwide, including of course the United States’, has been to monetize contingency and load the national balance sheets with enormous quantities of debt. We all know that this debt is going to ruin us. Many of us, including me, are still reeling from the deception that has unfolded before our eyes—another topsy-turvy development of this turmoiled spring—namely the spectacle of Republicans, who twelve years ago railed against the post-Lehman stimulus and Obamacare boondoggles, scrambling to add more red ink to the books than Democrats a few election cycles ago could have dared to dream possible. Whatever happens henceforth, there will be no gainsaying the new economy of spend, spend, spend. We are debt men walking. Our profligacy is going to come due, and the pain then will make the pain now seem almost sweet by comparison. Losing the meat and dairy supply chains is very inconvenient. Losing the entire grocery store and the wherewithal to buy groceries in the first place is a matter of life and death. O, debt man walking, take heed and prepare.
But there is something even more disturbing. As I have reflected on the growing mountain of liabilities and IOUs, the inability of governments from the village level up to Washington, DC, rein in spending or even pretend to practice fiscal responsibility, I have noticed that it is not so much the debt itself that frightens me as the arrogance of the people signing on to it. Debt man walking may be oblivious to his fate, but what’s worse is that he is apparently also oblivious to the damage being done to his soul. This is because of the nature of debt, which in many ways is more insidious than the various bond and mortgage and loan and T-bill and financing and credit card debt packages concretely. “Debt” today does not really mean debt at all, if you think about it. Very few people in governments who are indebting us have any intention of paying back what is being taken out. Very few people seem to think that debt must be paid back at all. “Sovereign debt” is the product of a notion of godlikeness, of a divine ability to create ex nihilo with no offsetting liabilities to come due somewhere down the line. Washington, DC, this year now acts as Zeus—no, as God Himself. Even Zeus faced consequences for his indiscretions. The federal government now acts as though there will be no consequences at all, that it can absolve itself of the need even to consider the realities of the material universe and the limits of mankind’s physical and spiritual resources. We don’t have “debt,” strictly speaking. We have an outright declaration of sovereignty of will. So let it be written, so let it be done. Fiat luxe, and, behold, luxury was available for all. No money down, eternity same as cash.
David Graeber’s strangely beautiful 2011 magnum opus Debt: The First 5000 Years is the must-read of our plague year. Dr. Graeber’s book is an erudite tour of human history and is not for the faint of heart, but his message of state sovereignty standing behind fiat currency and sovereign debt is imperative for us to understand. Dr. Graeber writes:
Since Nixon’s floating of the dollar, it has become evident that it’s only the wizard behind the screen who seems to be maintaining the viability of the whole arrangement [of fiat currency and sovereign debt]. . . . There’s a reason why the wizard has such a strange capacity to create money out of nothing. Behind him, there’s a man with a gun.[*]
Dr. Graeber is exactly right. The godlike ability of a government to magically take on unrepayable debt, even though everyone understands what is happening, is a function of the state’s monopoly on violence. Mars underwrites Mercury. War is the health of the state, and debt is future war on the installment plan. Debt man walking has more than just money woes to worry about. He also must now wonder when the state—which has arrogated to itself the ownership of the future, of time itself, as well as the creative power that rightly belongs only to God—will send an impoverished, spiritually broken Debt Man Walking to fight in the apocalyptic war that will rejigger, for another century or so, the arrangement of who gets to declare himself master of sovereign debt.
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[*] David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years (New York, NY: Melville House, 2011): 364.
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