Even before the novel coronavirus appeared, many American families were falling behind on student loans, auto loans, credit cards and other payments. America’s debt overhead was pricing its labor and industry out of world markets. A debt crisis was inevitable eventually, but covid-19 has made it immediate.
Massive social distancing, with its accompanying job losses, stock dives and huge bailouts to corporations, raises the threat of a depression. But it doesn’t have to be this way. History offers us another alternative in such situations: a debt jubilee. This slate-cleaning, balance-restoring step recognizes the fundamental truth that when debts grow too large to be paid without reducing debtors to poverty, the way to hold society together and restore balance is simply to cancel the bad debts.
The word “Jubilee” comes from the Hebrew word for “trumpet” — yobel. In Mosaic Law, it was blown every 50 years to signal the Year of the Lord, in which personal debts were to be canceled. The alternative, the prophet Isaiah warned, was for smallholders to forfeit their lands to creditors: “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.” When Jesus delivered his first sermon, the Gospel of Luke describes him as unrolling the scroll of Isaiah and announcing that he had come to proclaim the Year of the Lord, the Jubilee Year.
Until recently, historians doubted that a debt jubilee would have been possible in practice, or that such proclamations could have been enforced. But Assyriologists have found that from the beginning of recorded history in the Near East, it was normal for new rulers to proclaim a debt amnesty upon taking the throne. Instead of blowing a trumpet, the ruler “raised the sacred torch” to signal the amnesty.
It is now understood that these rulers were not being utopian or idealistic in forgiving debts. The alternative would have been for debtors to fall into bondage. Kingdoms would have lost their labor force, since so many would be working off debts to their creditors. Many debtors would have run away (much as Greeks emigrated en masse after their recent debt crisis),