Friday, January 18, 2013


Not too long ago, when I actually submitted to the self-stabbing frustration of arguing with radical leftists, a conversation was started by one of them about debt. Of course, there's only one opinion that a radical leftist can have about debt; he simply must believe that it's wrong, evil, repressive, a manipulative trick that bad people play on good people in order to control them. Naturally, this conversation had started out talking about how people who had bought houses in 2006 or so had been fucked over, and some similar conversations about people who had credit cards.

The guy was plugging a book, this one here:

It's by an anthropologist with strong leftist tendencies writing about how debt and the money system came into being. I've read synopses, but not the book, and I'm not going to read the book. This pisses off some people, I know, but these people evidently haven't heard of the concept of opportunity costs; I have stacks of books on my to-read list and I'm not going to drop everything for one where the jist of it seemed so easy to grasp anyway. As far as the information goes, what I've read about it seems fine. It makes perfect, obvious sense to me that debt predates money and that money was created by authorities, all of this created as a control mechanism.

I just don't think that's a bad thing.

And I don't want to read a book about it by someone who's strongly inclined to present it as a bad thing. I know that emotional state, and I don't share it.

But as we piss and moan about shit like the current government debt limit, both pro and con, it's worth a second to take a look at just how central the concept of debt is to our world. This is how I see things having evolved; the book may or may not agree, I don't know.

Debt and Relationships

How do you come to understand who is valuable to you?

Life is pretty random about how we come into proximity with one another, but what's less random is that some people create a positive reaction in us, more so than others. There are people we want to be around. They make what we want, they ARE what we want, they help us. Sometimes it's what they don't do that they could have done that we like, especially if you're dealing with people that can hurt you. We usually try to create incentives to keep the people we like close, but those exchanges don't happen simultaneously, so we end up vaguely keeping track of positives and negatives over time, who helped someone else out last time, watching for who has been free-riding. These exchanges create inequalities. People bring different positives to the table, and they aren't all equal. This isn't something that happens on conscious terms, but over time, we develop positive and negative intuitions about individuals and types of people like this. Even the way we talk to each other is laden with this exchange notion. We call a conversation an exchange, which it is. Information for information, and flattery gets us everywhere. Intimacy could be defined by vulnerability, having debts to people. And it’s political; you tell me what I want to hear, and I return the favor (sometimes). Favors come in lots of different styles.

In the Really Old Days, people living in close proximity certainly did favors for each other all the time. Then, favors were turned around and repaid. What one favor was worth compared to another must have come up for debate; trying to pay off some guy that built you a fire and saved your life in winter, by giving him some nuts and berries, then calling it good, just isn't acceptable. So inequalities of value certainly created hierarchies of what was worth more, and the ensuing system of internally-tracked debts became more complex as people tried to define their world.

Take this process and try to turn it into something large-scale, and you immediately see the difficulty: no one can keep track of all these assholes who we may or may not owe favors to, and who may or may not owe us something. And as you carry out more transactions in an environment with more choices, you can't sit down and work out with people, "well, in exchange for this drinking gourd, I'll give you two strips of beef jerky, then come back and patch that hole in your roof next week." You need to standardize all these things, track them sensibly. Enter money.

The personal element was removed; in order to make a large-scale system work, the personal intimacy of favor and obligation must become more distant. Favors went from being personal to being statistically tracked, which, particularly for emotional types, seems deeply alienating. And it is; people become subject to the market. Money is power. It's just that the organization of modern society is only possible because of it. Without such impersonal tools and the huge command perspective they create, society at a scale beyond the hunter-gatherer tribe is impossible.

But the degree to which debt connects us to the social world makes it too important for some people to simply accept this. The biggest problem is that the system denies us the primary predicate of every exchange: attention. The depth of relationship that happens when we really know someone goes out the window too quickly. Efficiency kills the intimacy, and it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the nature of the system is to worship quantity over quality. The interpersonal exchanges, the debts, bound us together in small-scale society; now that they’ve become so regular and so coldly rational, they seem to tear people apart.

Nietzsche's Lens 

I wonder about one thing particularly; does the author of that book agree with Nietzsche? He might even mention him. In Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche specifically states that the concept of guilt stemmed from market exchange. He's very specific about it, even giving intriguing evidence for it (and Nietzsche rarely bothered with petty, self-depricating notions like evidence). The German word schuld, meaning guilt, seems to stem from the word schulden, meaning debts. (Nietzsche was a philologist, btw. My amateurish sense of language says that the English word should is related, as well. Like, "you should do this, it's the right thing to do." Should creates a normative condition, its moral nature obvious as hell. I seriously doubt that I'm the first person to notice this: English gets about 60% of its root words from German)

Basically, Nietzsche said that our understanding of morality was rooted in creditor-debtor relationships. And creditor-debtor relationships all make the assumption that the debtor has the capability to pay back what he owes, that it is within his power to fulfill the obligations. This insinuates the concept - Nietzsche might have said, the luxurious power of - responsibility. If it can be assumed that you have the capability to make things happen to pay what you owe, then it can be assumed that you have a level of control over your world that allows you to create and affect your environment at will. If you haven't read Genealogy, read it. My book recommendations are better than that other book recommendation, trust me. And ignore all those parts that the Nazis took too seriously.

Debt and Justice

What irritates is the perception of injustice that comes from the lack of intimacy. Market economies extend these notions of responsibility and empowerment out to everyone, which seems to be a problem, given how unequal people are. We assume, with our "free markets", that people have the ability to go out and work, so if they can't repay their debts, then the blame is on them. Ah, blame, that ugly-ass word; you can logically blame a poor person with no sense for running up a credit card tab he can’t pay, but emotionally, if you know such a person, would you actually do it? Leftists are so emotional about this stuff... But you can see their point. The individual, particularly the broke individual, does not control the economy. Given that money is power, that should be obvious. They aren't starting their own business, they aren't going back to college (although we try to make this absurdly easy), and they may not even have gas money. How can you blame someone in such a position?

You see this situation, and you want to help. Much of our moral thought has revolved around helping, and doing it unconditionally, do it for everyone without being concerned with tracking debts, which sounds very romantic and appealing.

Help ALL the people! It's so Christian, all of this. Jesus died to pay our debts. We should all be equal; these games that create inequalities are just stupid, right? It’s no one’s fault. The leftist wants everyone to relax and be cool; don't keep track of the debts, don't bother. Just do for others, be nice, serve instead of empowering yourself. Don't think about how opportunity costs mean that for every person you serve, you're passing up serving another, and no matter what, you end up having to prioritize and show that you value some more than others. The leftist reads that debt book linked at the top, and comes to the conclusion that it was all basically a conspiracy to enslave people.

Children, children... 

There are so many ways to see this morally, you can take it to tremendous depth, with definitions of justice and all that. I had about three pages written on here trying to do it. But the point is very simple: systemization is hell, and the large scale of civilization is the problem. Organization itself is oppressive at that level. Organization demands that you connect someone’s value to the value of their actions. Organization turns emotional exchanges into faceless, rational ones. It’s easy for the individual and the system take each other for granted. Anyone who actually does the math rationally sees how good the exchange is compared to any other viable system, or no system at all. But this has nothing to do with a rational understanding of justice or calculations of utility based on how much worse things could be. It has everything to do with emotions. It’s about the perception of cruelty. Deprivation and blame are cruel.

Older societies knew this, and they created some system to deal with it; those systems were called religions. Religion justifies the debts and pushes you to give thanks while personifying the power. Without it, the whole situation is just something faceless that you don’t control, but that controls you.

Without it, there’s no solution to this emotionally except to man the fuck up. There is no personal, yet large-scale, organization. Wal-Mart cannot deliver truly personal customer service. Wal-mart can't even be a personal employer. Even relatively small corporations - and governments - hire thousands, sell to millions, and have to see people as statistics. The system can’t be run on Christian principles. They have to track value, factually, coldly, with rational self-interest. That’s how they survive and stabilize the mess.

That’s why it works. We show up on time and pay our debts because the system can create consequences for not doing so. We’ve been trained for it. The rigor of it will never be fun. At most, we can take comfort in routine, but lots of people, particularly young people, don’t want more routine. They want more intimacy, to be special and highly valued. It’s not personal enough. It doesn’t resound in us. The system DOES devalue the individual. There are a lot of us; of course we aren’t worth much. Supply and demand.

But to deny the validity of debt is to deny the harsh, masculine sense of honor that insists on accepting the exchange system as having meaning, and the inevitability that people will take debts and payments as measurements of their individual worth, with all the hierarchical alienation that implies. Assaulting that idea might feel good, but like so much other political garbage, it's just public masturbation.

You might think of the people you've seen who take pleasure in service, who genuinely seem to act out of love, and think that either this debt thing, this monetizing of value, is complete bullshit or that it's obsolete. It's tempting to think that we can do without it, that we can run society on people doing out of love and doing what they enjoy. But no one has come up with a way to run shit according to emotional needs. If you take the notion of incentives and power seriously, trying it on a large scale could only create a brittle, irrational society where the concept of responsibility would become an issue of emotion management, just as susceptible to manipulation and control by those with power, but without the honest coercion of cash money. It couldn't possibly be stable, and in any measurable sense, it would have to be worse.

But it’s never going to do any good to point this out to kids.

We've run up something like fifteen trillion in debt. Not personally, socially. And it's our society, our system, like it or not. My moral principles say that we should pay it down, without fucking over investors with inflation or getting into a pissing match with the creditors who loaned us their economic power on the assumption that we were good for it. It will be painful to do this. But we earned it.

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