How the rich strip wealth of the 99% through debt

Coming up on July 4 — a day in which we patriots honor patriotism — I offer this on modern “debt peonage” from Virtually Speaking and David Cay Johnston. It’s a terrific interview; Johnston is just so quick with the numbers and the easy-to-grasp framing.

As Johnston says here (my emphasis and paragraphing):

The idea of modern debt peonage or neo-feudalism came to my attention at Marcy Wheeler’s FDL blog. It’s an old concept–the idea is that you can sell yourself into temporary slavery, with a plan of working off the debt.

Most of us will remember hearing about indentured servitude as a means of funding a new life in America during the 17th and 18th centuries. But the practice is as old as domesticated agriculture. David Graeber discusses the practice at length in Debt, the First 5000 Years, describing, as well, the idea of a jubilee year when all debt, including servitude debt, is forgiven. This [jubilee debt forgiveness] was necessary, Graeber claims to forestall peasant uprising and land seizure.

A note about the interview — it actually contains several clearly differentiated segments. Feel free to jump to the ones that most interest you. I found the whole thing a great listen, you may find yourself with a little less time than I did. The segments are these:

▪ (Start) How the IRS scandal was perpetuated by an IRS official, Lois Lerner (Johnston now calls for her to be fired)

▪ (5:50) America’s Internet and why it’s lagging by miles behind that of the rest of the world — for example, the Internet in South Korea is one-sixteenth as expensive and 200 times faster (see what I mean about Johnston and his numbers?)

Writer David Cay Johnston

Writer David Cay Johnston

▪ (9:00) “Espionage” in a time of not-war and the prosecution of journalists for espionage by the National Security State (note the discussion of authorized leaks vs. unauthorized leaks)

▪ (18:15) Supreme Court voting rights decision and how Roberts, the “ideological radical,” lied to Congress in his confirmation hearing. Great story about Johnston’s daughter being harrassed by the Arizona state police.

▪ (23:02) Debt peonage, the increasing share of income controlled by the very wealthy, and permanent debt by us “peons,” or as Johnston calls it, “wage slavery” and “indentured servitude”

▪ (27:17) Back to the Supreme Court in response to a listener question — the radicalism and incompetence of the four right-wing justices, plus the pro-business bias of both parties. One stunning quote:

“We have a system now in which the only people in either party who get to run for president are people who are approved of by Wall Street and the rest of big business.”

▪ (36:18) More on debt peonage, debt in the ancient world, and the ancient practice of jubilees — periods in which all debts were summarily forgiven. Note the contrast to modern student indebtedness.

▪ (42:38) Accelerating inequality. Tons of great (meaning horrible) numbers here. One example (paraphrased):

If the income gain of most people since 1966 is one inch, the income gain of the top 1% of the top 1% is five miles. Mitt Romney is in the group, but at the very low end.

There’s also a great discussion near the end about our new world, in which more and more work is being done by capital, not labor. In that world, there are no jobs. From where will come the income for the rest of us?

Tales of the Rich and the Rest. Enjoy this great interview:

The graphic they mention in the interview, showing modern American personal indebtedness, is here (click to open in a new tab).  More commentary from Mr. Johnston here.


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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