The Rolling Jubilee

I recently read Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. (Graeber is a leader in the Occupy Wall Street movement and is the one often credited with coining the phrase "We are the 99%.")

Reading Debt has made me more thoughtful about debt and debt cancellation. Debt cancellation is deeply woven into the biblical narrative, most notably in the Year of Jubilee. In fact, the Lord's Prayer is a prayer of debt cancellation, a Prayer of Jubilee:
Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And the debts of the Lord's Prayer are as economic as they are moral.

In light of that, let me point you to something coming out of OWS, the Rolling Jubilee. In the Rolling Jubilee individual debt is purchased by other individuals and then forgiven, Jubilee-style.

Matthew Yglesias describes the idea and effort this way:
How does that work? Well, all kinds of debt gets "securitized" these days. Instead of a bank just lending money and collecting interest, it sells the rights to that income stream as an Asset Backed Security. By buying up a diverse array of ABS you can end up with less exposure to idiosyncratic risk than if you're just lending. But what happens when securitized loans go bad? Well they become "distressed debt" that can be purchased for pennies on the dollar. So in theory you can find a loan with a face value of $100 and buy it for just $15. That's supposed to be a kind of risky investment—a bet that the loan will actually pay off in the end. But the Rolling Jubilee concept is to turn it into a random act of kindness. Just write off the loan! 
The idea is to donate money so that bad debt can get purchased for pennies and then cancelled. In this way the debt is forgiven, it goes away. You get to "bail out" people the way the government bailed out Wall Street.

Yglesias goes on to ask some questions wondering if this idea--debt cancellation--is better than direct charity, simply giving poorer people the money, or if we should give money to poorer people who don't have any debt.

Those are points well worth making. For my part, my resonances with the Rolling Jubilee are deeply biblical.

Here's a positive review of the Rolling Jubilee from Forbes which also discusses how the Jubilee gets around IRS tax issues.

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28 thoughts on “The Rolling Jubilee ”

  1. I made some similar commentary recently. It's something that I think Christians can take note of how people can be powerful instruments of justice, in spite of the injustice of the systems, and still be perfectly legal and good in the eyes of those same systems.

  2. One thing I got from Graeber was just how important the Jubilee or Clean Slate events were in the Ancient Near East. I think most Biblical scholars and Christians and even Christians of the reasonable type kind of put the whole Jubilee off as some ideal, utopian thing that was never really practiced at all and that we should really not worry about the whole thing, because it's really unreasonable and touches on some pretty sensitive subjects.  But with the advent of the ongoing 2008 financial crisis a lot of things have become apparent and are being revealed.  One thing is just how important Clean Slate events were in the Near East. They weren't utopian. They happened on a regular basis, mostly violently. Jubilee was the peaceful alternative. Jubilees happen one way or another. You can either forgive the debts and get society going again, or have the creditors hold on and squeeze as much as they can until there's a violent rebellion. As one advocate says "Debts that can't be paid, won't be paid".
    One thing that I've been thinking about and this is to put together a couple things from Graeber is that, in the ancient near east when you fell into debt and didn't want yourself, and/or your wife and children to become slaves you fled into the wilderness. Another thing, the word for "repent" also means "return". So when John the Baptist is in the Wilderness is he talking to these debtors who have fled, and is he telling them to "Repent" or "Return". I think he is announcing the Jubilee and that the debtors can return to their ancestral lands and their communities because their debts will be forgiven.
    Because we know from Margaret Barker that there were Jubilee expectations at the time Christ.

  3. Now that is a Lefty type idea that should just be standard practice.  Only one problem.  First the TARP and now the Federal Reserve with Quantitative Easing (QE 1,2,3...) is buying exactly these bonds at full price by printing money.  They would be worth 15 cents on the dollar, but admitting that would crush the too big to fail banks balance sheets especially if it went all at once.  And instead of forcing that reality onto the people who took the risk (i.e. shareholders), the taxpayer bailed them out and continue to do so in a rolling way.  Everybody living paycheck to paycheck is paying for it in higher food prices and at the pump (real inflation) as the printing presses are running giving the banks and shareholders a way out from recognizing the loss.  If TARP had been used to buy the bonds at fair price and we had a jubilee we'd be out of the mess, but the powerful got themselves made full.

  4. Biblically, I love these ideas. As someone who's thought about them more than I have, I wonder if you could address the three obvious downsides to debt-forgiveness:

    1) It rewards and encourages promise-breaking, such that poor people (or countries) who choose not to make promises that they can't or won't keep, and struggle through their lack of funds, receive less help from rich nations/ churches/ ministries than poor people (or countries) that choose to make a bunch of promises that they can't or won't keep.

    2) For any country or institution that is interested in remaining solvent, it de-incentivizes loaning to the poor in the first place--the next time a poor country or person asks for a loan, the bank/ nation/ ministry will realize that it should only give that loan if it doesn't plan to receive the money back. (The Old Testament passages on debt-forgiveness are well aware that people aren't as likely to loan to money right before the year of Jubilee--in that sense, they are utopian, imagining a gracious open-handedness on the side of the lender and a total lack of abusive acquisitiveness on the side of the borrower.)

    3) People who really want to BORROW money that they really can, and will PAY BACK, will have to find a new word for their intentions, since the word they are currently using will have been changed to mean "take money and not pay it back."

    Do you know how the debt-forgiveness people get around these three problems?

  5. I'm struck by your idea that these things happened often, in non-utopian ways. I wonder why this doesn't match the history I'm learning. We might have to consult a real historian, which (as I understand) Graeber is not.

    In the Old Testament, as far as I can tell, the Jubilee year was never actually observed. And while yes, the Jews who rebelled against Rome did indeed burn all records of debt in their act of rebellion, one might say that the debts were still collected--in blood. Certainly the Romans didn't let anyone off the hook.Meanwhile, I was also told (by a reputable source) of only one attempt, in modern Israel, to practice the year of Jubilees. It was a disaster. Everyone stopped loaning because they knew they wouldn't get it back. The part of the economy most dependent on loans, mostly poorer people who couldn't get a mortgage or even finance the purchase of seeds to sow crops, were crushed. Then the "Jubilees committee" came up with a rather tortuous loophole where banks could make "non-Jubilees loans," to the great relief of everyone.

    I totally agree that there were Jubilees expectations associated with John, and with Jesus. I just don't know what it means to call these "non-utopian." As far as I can tell, the call to return from exile, to return from debt into non-debt, the call to experience full forgiveness, is deeply utopian in the best possible sense. And, like everything else utopian Jesus says, I have an extremely hard time applying it--and an even harder time denying that I OUGHT to apply it!

  6. Britain imposed a debt on the colonies, we said we aren't paying. Britain tried to enforce the debt. They failed to inflict enough violence on the colonies to make them pay. The debt disappeared, it was "forgiven".

    First century Jews said we ain't paying these debts. Rome with overwhelming violence killed everybody. Since no one left to pay, the debts disappeared, but Rome got to make a spectacle of what they can do to those who refuse to pay. 

    Wall Street said our CDO's/or whatever have failed, AIG has insured them. AIG "we don't have any money". Wall Street we need to be paid. Wall Street owned Fed Gov. "we'll pay those debts with our fiat currency. Jubilee for Wall Street, foreclosure and the boot for the little people who don't own the Fed Govt.". All debts are negotiable, it's just that some sort violence is usually the negotiating tool.

  7. Some of the answer has to do with the systemic issues underlying debt. That is, it's less about debt per se than why the debt exists in the first place or gets distressed. Tomorrow I have a post coming out that gets at some of this.

    Also, some of the issue is simple symmetry and fairness. The 1% was bailed out. So should the 99%, But the point is well made and it looks like the Rolling Jubilee is targeting things like academic- and medical- related debt. There is some discernment going on.

    Finally, from a biblical view, debt-cancellation is always an experience of grace. No one "deserves" it. If you adopt a Jubilee frame "desert" isn't a term with theological traction.

  8. I think what Occupy is doing is buying up debt that has been all but written off already.  It's not going to get paid. Debt collecters buy it for cents on the dollar and then try to collect as much as they can intimidate people into paying. So I think they're just saving people with the most unpayable of debts from encounters with rapacious debt collecters.
    But getting the idea of Jubilee out there is awesome. Now they just need to start Bible studies and uncovering the Jubilee strand of the Gospels.
    One image that I have is the Israelites at Jericho blowing the trumpets of Jubilee until the walls fall down.

  9. Hi Jonathan

    What makes you think Graeber isn't a "real" historian? Also, from what I gather from certain scholars, later prophets used the Jubilee as a barometer for the royal elite, suggesting that some form of it was practiced or that it remained a very vivid requirement for, and indictment against, society. Even so, history becomes a little murky in these mythologized accounts.

  10. This interview with the Graeber and the subsequent discussion in the comments is good background material.

  11. Professor Beck --

    It's easy enough to see why someone would disagree with this premise from a fiscal perspective (rewarding bad behavior, laziness, over-spending, etc.) but I'd love for you to write about scriptural disagreement with what Graeber proposes.  Specifically, how it would be inappropriate to apply the Jubilee concept to us today.

  12. I agree it becomes VERY murky. And I'm sorry--is Graeber a historian? I'm sorry if I assumed from some of his publications that his training was in another area. I'll retract if he is actually a historian--I wasn't trying to be snobby about who does (or doesn't) count.

  13. Hey Jonathan, no worries at all. You didn't sound snobbish; I just wanted to clarify because even asking a trained historian probably wouldn't resolve the issue, especially since it would depend on which trained historian we asked. You're technically right about Graeber: by training, he's not a historian. But he's an anthropologist (one of the most respected), which requires copious historical inquiry. 

    In many ways, I love the historical murkiness, which refocuses on the dramatic ethos of the narrative. I wouldn't want to jettison history or anthropology (and I do think both fields support Jubilee-type events in different societies), but I'm also intrigued by how debt-forgiveness and land reform function in the story itself and it's picked up by later characters, included Jesus.

  14. Surely opportunist banks would start selling bad debt at a much higher rate if they thought that you were buying it up to cancel it.

  15. It sounds like we agree with each other more than either of us agrees with either Graeber or Buck, both of whom (as I understand it) are basing arguments, NOT on the utopian memories and dreams of Israel picked up by an apocalyptic prophet of the Reign of God, but by some claim that this "really happened" and can "really work" as "shown in history."

    I personally don't know that this claim is false, but I haven't ever run into this claim really fleshed out in a credible way, and I have heard it denied by historians and economists.Of course, if this is really about grace, about the Spirit, about faith in the power of the Messiah--then the utopian vision is worth living for. I guess I get thrown off by the bait-and-switch rhetoric--do it because it's fair, but it's not about fairness, it's about grace; do it because it works, but it's not about working, it's about trusting Jesus.

  16. This is pretty good. Michael Hudson of the "Kansas City School".

    Here's another:

  17.  We may indeed, although I do concur with Graeber that such acts functioned in some societies throughout history. I'm skeptical of neoliberal economists who reject it based on theories of human nature with little basis in ecology or historical anthropology. That's part of the argument Graeber's making in quite a bit of his work.

    My point is related to literary interpretation: it's a secondary concern to me whether or not ancient Israel actually achieved Jubilee, just as it's a secondary concern to me whether or not Jesus said or did most of the stuff recorded in the Gospels. But that's not because I'm doubtful that such things could happen; I'm very interested in historical-critical exegesis, but I'm primarily interested in socio-literary hermeneutics. However, that doesn't detract from the gritty practicality of debt-forgiveness, land reform, loving one's enemies/neighbors, etc. Ched Myers compares rejecting Jubilee out of historical dubiousness to rejecting the Sermon on the Mount for the same reasons. Both of them, when set in a particular socioeconomic context, describe concrete practices concerned with how we dwell well together. For instance, there's little to no evidence about Israelite slavery in Egypt, but that liberation narrative functioned very tangibly and had concrete implications for social movements in the past and today.

    I'm with you to a certain degree about bait-and-switch rhetoric, but I also don't want to form rigid binary oppositions between "faithfulness" and "effectiveness" or between "utopian dreams" and "what really happened."

  18. Yeah--there's quite some history of interpretation on the Sermon on the Mount that tries to deal with the reality-vs-ideal problem. I'd hate to short-circuit that discussion with faux anthropology that says "It can't be done"--but I'd also hate to short-circuit that discussion with faux history that says, "Societies have really lived without lust and anger, this is completely practical."

    My main concern is that Jubilees was, as I read Scripture, an act of radical and costly generosity. (So is loving your enemy.) This doesn't mean we shouldn't try to live it out practically--but it does at least warn us that doing so will require costly discipleship. (This is, I think, complementary with what Ched Myers is saying.)

  19. I definitely agree. Good points. Graeber short-circuits the
    discussion in a different way by noting that traditional gift economies didn't
    include the artificial distinctions we make between interest/altruism,
    person/property, freedom/obligation, etc. Few of our
    actions, he contends, are motivated by untrammeled greed or utterly selfless
    generosity: “When we are dealing not with strangers but with friends, relatives,
    or enemies, a much more complicated set of motivations will generally come into
    play: envy, solidarity, pride, self-destructive grief, loyalty, romantic
    obsession, resentment, spite, shame, conviviality, the anticipation of shared
    enjoyment, the desire to show up a rival, and so on.”

  20.  Jubilee is not altruistic, it is enlightened self-interest.  You can keep the debt crisis going until only a few people own everything, and everyone else is effectively debt peons, because debt compounds, until you have societal breakdown and subsequent societal implosion.  Jubilees/Clean Slates/Debt Forgiveness/Resets/the cleaning out of bad debt that is holding everyone hostage whatever you want to call it short circuits the absolutely inevitable dissolution of society due to debt crisis. Jubilees/Clean Slates did occur in the ancient world, heck we have even seen an example of it in our country in the last four years. What is Quantitative Easing and the Bailout if not a Jubilee for Wall Street and the 1%.
    Either a lot of people are going to die or we're going to be smart enough, and demand the govt. to pay off or cancel our debts.
    Even the not-so-enlightened monarchs in Saudi Arabia can see the benefits of Jubilee.
    Maybe your definition of Jubilee is too narrow.

  21.  There's nothing utopian or particularly generous or anything about a Jubilee.  It is the institutionalization of debt forgiveness and release/renewal to protect the elites from their own stupidity.  It is to protect the elites from waking up one morning and saying "there's a G#% D&%# mob outside and they're going to slaughter us."
    A good example of this is the Jericho story in Joshua. Jericho all walled up not wanting to let the Israelites in. So they march around the city blowing the Trumpets of Jubilee, shouting "Jubilee" until the walls fall down and they go in and slaughter everybody, except Rahab who let them in. (the prostitute who was most likely a prostitute because she was a debt slave, so she sympathised with them)
    What's the Egypt story but Moses demanding a Jubilee from Pharaoh?

  22. Buck, I suggest you make clear where you are getting your information. In the Bible, Jubilees is only mentioned a few places, where "generosity" is indeed mentioned. Jubilees is not mentioned in any places where slaughter is happening (including the Jericho story). Nor is debt ever mentioned (though it could have been) in Joshua or in Exodus. So either you are simply imagining things, or you have some access to information that I don't have.

  23.  The Israelites carried Trumpets of Jubilee around Jericho. That is what the Hebrew says. They blew the Jubilee trumpets until the walls fell down and they slaughtered everyone but Rahab.
    In the Exodus story the Hebrews are quite obviously slaves and Moses tells Pharaoh to let them go. Jubilee is about the release of slaves and debt. Pharaoh would not let them go then the plagues happened.

    This guy lays the Jericho thing out pretty well.

  24. Jubilee in the OT is based on a very different economy. All economies are based upon ecology, land distribution and management. The land is the source of all wealth, and if an extractive wealth building is going on, desertification results. The wealthy can just move on and destroy another piece of land, because their wealth is spread out over a complicated system of leveraging. But those who directly rely on the land for their livelihood are most affected. For instance, cash cropping and ranching, benefiting large corporations, has resulted in much deforestation in Africa. Forests, with their ability to regulate climate by holding water in the landscape and capturing moisture, have historically been the most productive landscapes (see _1491_, for example), while grain based cultures have been the diet of displaced peoples. In the milpa system, indigenous peoples grew grain by charring sections of forest, in small areas at a time, sowing tree seedlings after a few years of grain, and not returning to the same site for 70 years, allowing the forest to regrow. When this is not practiced, vast areas are lost to desert and famine. Jubilee was as much of an ecological land management system as it was a political/economic one. The land had to be given a chance to renew itself. Every 7th year, and every Jubilee. On a Jubilee year, the land would have two years' rest, because it would fall after a sabbath year. The economy was also more of a distributist model. Every tribe and family had their allotment given by divine dictation. Most would agree that God does not directly dictate how land is distributed, and we are left with trying to justify land taken and managed by power over establishments. I do not think there is any property holding today that is morally justified by the Bible. Maybe the best we can do is distribute it to people who will manage it well and educate others to do the same. 

  25. That will only happen if forgiveness becomes a major reason to buy debt. I seriously doubt this will gain enough momentum to change their pricing structures.

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