Why Not a Jubilee?

Source: The American Conservative

The American government exists to serve the American people. The purposes of its foundation are laid out more clearly than those of any other regime in human history: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

It has not done a stellar job at any of that in the last few generations. A list of examples would be endless and, at this point, tired. But one that is too little remarked upon is the federal government’s creation of a higher-education system that undermines the foundations of American order, impoverishes the middle class materially and spiritually, and concentrates capital in the coffers of anti-American institutions while shoring up the social and economic dominance of a transnational elite.

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State complicity in the university cartel is broad and deep, but (like most political problems) it centers on money. Operating on the absurd and socially corrosive assumption that all people should have the opportunity to go to college, the federal government has been backing loans open to virtually any American—regardless of merit or post-graduation earning potential—to finance the cost of a college education. This blanket guarantee has enabled universities to raise tuition and other fees at rates exponentially outstripping the actual cost of providing an education. At the same time, the availability of government-backed loans has encouraged virtually everyone to seek a college degree, devaluing the product in terms of actual education as much as in post-grad earnings.

Anybody will tell you one half of this story, but few will give you both. The people who admit that college is useless won’t concede that graduates have been given a bum deal, and the people who know that graduates have been given a bum deal (and thus support government action on student debt) can’t admit that the deal is bad because most college degrees are useless.

But the fact is, both are true. Young Americans were sold a bill of goods. None of the economic advantages promised to them when they took out those five-figure loans at the ripe age of 17 have survived the college craze. They were lied to.

The most urgent cause on student debt, then, is to stop its growth. Cut off the government dole to universities as fully and quickly as possible. Where federal involvement must be left in place, tie it clearly and inextricably to merit. Subject higher education to the forces of the market and move the American economy a little bit closer to its natural, proper state.

This is only part of the solution, though. Even if we can prevent further problems down the road, the fact remains that millions of Americans each hold thousands of dollars of debt incurred at the government’s urging to purchase a product not worth anything near what they were told it would be. Particularly affected are middle-class college graduates, who are discouraged (if not outright prevented) by their debt burdens from purchasing homes, having children, and partaking in all sorts of other activities necessary for the healthy function of a society. Something must be done for them.

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Anyone who suggests such a thing is met with the objection that government action amounts to a wealth transfer from the working class to the middle class. You want the freely chosen debt of laptop workers to be paid for by poor, working stiffs like truckers and plumbers?

Set aside the hilariously out-of-touch view of class suggested by these objections. (Plumbers and truckers are high proles with generally solid incomes and relatively low debt.) There is a legitimate concern underneath the outrage: millions of Americans have incurred other kinds of debts, or been bilked in some equally egregious way by the same kind of people who pulled off the college scam. Why not redress the wrongs done to them? objectors ask, bitterly. Why not forgive their mortgages? Why not help the single mother who never went to college or the working dad struggling to make ends meet?

To this the only answer is: okay.

It’s true: there is no reason a working mother with three children should be struggling to pay her mortgage while a McKinsey consultant’s Princeton loans are wiped out of existence. Because there is no reason a working mother with three children should be struggling to pay her mortgage. Student debt is bad, and must be addressed, because it discourages the middle class—once the backbone of American civilization—from family formation and home ownership. But all of the debt on which our society has been rebuilt is bad, and must be addressed, because it violates both biblical and American principles.

We won the Cold War only to see our own citizens robbed of the rights and privileges of ownership. The purchasing power of the average American worker, to say nothing of the American family, is at its lowest point in decades. Fertility rates are cratering not just because our culture has been conquered by a death-cult but because even good men and women must scrimp and save to support a child whose prospects in adulthood will be measurably bleaker than their own. Most Americans born in the last few years will likely never own a home or a piece of land; most who do will require decades-long mortgages at exorbitant rates of interest. We have become a debtor nation, our people subject everywhere to the sinful predations of usurers. The American government exists to serve the American people: let it solve that.

This crisis will not be resolved entirely (not even mostly) by unburdening debt-laden, low-wage, white-collar workers who were duped into thinking that their only chance for success was to buy into the government-university cartel; but neither can they be written out of the solution. What is required is a top-to-bottom, coast-to-coast revision of our society’s relationship to money, to debt, to value, and to ownership.

It is worth recalling, in the grand scheme of human events, how abnormal our status quo really is. For the vast majority of history people have understood that usury is not just immoral but profoundly dangerous. It is the kind of thing that kills civilizations.

Since time immemorial, protections against it have been written into law. It is condemned in Scripture in no uncertain terms. But the Bible goes further than just denouncing the sin of usury. It mandates a jubilee year, once after every 49—seven Sabbath cycles of seven years, roughly every generation—in which, among other things, debts are forgiven. God is wiser than man, and the rules He gave to Moses are both just and good. True, this is a Christian country, not a Judaic one. But the New Covenant unbinds us from the letter of the old law, not from its eternal and divinely ordered principles.

There are people who study these things, who understand not just the mechanics of policy but the intricacies of economics: where money comes from, how spending this here will affect that there, et cetera. I will leave it to them to figure out the details. I do not believe in numbers, and certainly not in big ones.

Those people will have to find money, I suppose. For student debt, they might start with taxing university endowments—massive stores of capital given a special carveout back when people still believed that universities would serve the public interest. (We could start at a nice, round figure—maybe something like 100 percent.) Other measures could surely be taken, too, to put the institutions themselves on the hook for their failure to deliver. On the broader crisis of homeownership, meanwhile, we might start by repatriating the hundreds of thousands of U.S. acres owned by the Chinese communists (our gravest national-security threat), and extend the principle to other predatory actors foreign and domestic.

I’m just spitballing; I’m sure the wonks could find a way. I am laying out here not a roadmap for policy but a basic and urgent sentiment: the dispossession of the American people is a crime that demands justice. A full jubilee for a nation of debt slaves may be wishful thinking. But surely movements can be made back toward an economy of ownership and work and away from one not just open to but founded on usury.

Maybe a better analogy, for those beholden to the novel and un-American principle of secularism, is not the jubilee but Solon’s seisachtheia. In the early years of the 6th century B.C., Solon came to power in an Athens plagued by widespread debt and subject to an unjust legal system. Huge sections of the Athenian population labored in servitude or outright slavery.

Solon, the great lawmaker, recognized the urgency of the crisis and the very real threat of civilizational collapse. The seisachtheia laws freed the debt slaves of Athens, returned the property stripped from debtors, and placed a legal cap on the area of estates to prevent the repeated concentration of economic power in the hands of a few.

It was received about as well as student-debt forgiveness (though done, admittedly, with much more foresight and an actual eye toward justice). But, over generations, it reshaped the entire order of Athenian politics and economics—delivering in Athens, after more than a century, the first real golden age of Western civilization. 

We can only hope that America is approaching a Solon moment: a time when, just at the edge of the abyss, a radical redirection restores our people to the dignity proper to citizens. It would not be easy. It would not be popular. It may not even bear fruit within our lifetimes. But Solon, after enacting his great reform, went off for a decade in exile to Egypt. For that, if nothing else, it may be worth it.