Ethics, the Environment, and the Economy
Publication Year: 2013
From personal finance and consumer spending to ballooning national expenditures on warfare and social welfare, debt is fundamental to the dynamics of global capitalism. The contributors to this volume explore the concept of indebtedness in its various senses and from a wide range of perspectives. They observe that many views of ethics, citizenship, and governance are based on a conception of debts owed by one individual to others; that artistic and literary creativity involves the artist’s dialogue with the works of the past; and that the specter of catastrophic climate change has underscored the debt those living in the present owe to future generations.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: 21st Century Studies
Table of Contents
This collection of essays began life as a conference held at the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. The idea for a major conference on the theme of debt came about from the effort to find a term that could tie together the various crises—economic, environmental, and ethical—affecting the nation and the world. ...
This volume has its origins in a conference on the subject of debt that took place at the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in late April 2010. The planning for the event began during the fall of 2008, under the shadow of the cataclysmic events that imperiled the entire global financial system. ...
Across the United States, unsustainable debt helps force millions out of their homes, undermines consumption, prevents the extension of new credit, and in these ways sustains massive unemployment. Record volumes of personal bankruptcies intertwine with debt-driven collapses of banks, hedge funds, insurance companies, and other financial as well as nonfinancial enterprises. ...
2. “I Consider it Un-American not to have a Mortgage”: Immigrant Home Ownership in Chicago
In a 1953 New Yorker article, E. B. White fantasizes about accompanying Senator Joseph McCarthy on a trip to Walden Pond to investigate whether Henry David Thoreau was a communist. The trip gets off to a poor start because White’s fictional McCarthy doesn’t enjoy fresh air or walking, and then McCarthy is told that Thoreau had no mortgage. ...
3. Demonizing Debt, Naturalizing Finance
This essay seeks to illuminate several chapters in the history of debt. I am not primarily concerned with tracking the fluctuating totals of monetary debt, whether for nations or individuals. Nor am I primarily interested in the spiritual dimensions of debt. While I will argue that both calculative and theological frameworks figure in the history of debt, ...
4. On Debt
The notion of debt is rooted deeply in our understanding of ourselves and our world. This becomes apparent if we reflect for a moment on the old philosophical saw, Ex nihilo nihil fit, “Nothing comes from nothing.” Or to put it another way, everything comes to be from something else. ...
5. The Growth Imperative: Prosperity or Poverty
Generating a measurable rate of return for investors is the core element of any capitalist economy. Investors derive their income from percentage returns on stocks, bonds, or other business investments. If investors do not get these expected returns, they will sell their investments and seek returns elsewhere. ...
6. Democracy’s Debt: Capitalism and Cultural Revolution
Since the French Revolution, writers Left and Right have famously lamented the nihilism of bourgeois society. Take the Communist Manifesto for example: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. ...
7. Is Debt the New Karma? Why America Finally Fell Apart
The American Way of Life—which can be basically characterized as the union of technological innovation and economic expansion—has been mythologized or romanticized in various ways, and one of these is in terms of the story of Prometheus, a god of great energy who stole fire from Zeus and passed it on to mankind. ...
8. Measures of Time: Exploring Debt, Imagination, and Real Nature
“Without memory there is no debt,” writes Margaret Atwood in her 2008 book Payback—a series of lectures that explores debt as an imaginative construct. If the construct of debt requires memory, Atwood reasons, “debt [also] involves a plot line,” that is, a string of actions occurring over time, beginning with a handshake and heading toward a due date.1 ...
9. The Time of Living Dead Species: Extinction Debt and Futurity in Madagascar
Like much of the science fiction of H. G. Wells, the short story “Aepyornis Island,” set in Madagascar, plays with the mutability of time and the specter of extinction. It tells a tale of the fabled “Elephant Bird” of Madagascar, a species larger than the modern ostrich that was overhunted to extinction by humans by at least the seventeenth century. ...
10. Unintended Consequences and the Epistemology of Fraud in Dickens and Hayek
One surprising and unnerving result of the 2007–8 financial crisis has been the reactivation of the long-dormant Victorian debate about the difference between “investment”—a term that connotes fiscal soundness, prudence, and morality—and irrational, emotional “speculation,” which shades into “gambling” and which might be thinly disguised “fraud.”1 ...
11. The Resurrection of an Economic God: Keynes becomes Postmodern
The Bush and Obama stimulus packages have inspired numerous claims that John Maynard Keynes is back from the dead. But the resurrected figure is strangely different, rather literally a ghost of his former self, because what is most decidedly left out is the relationship of Keynes’s economics to the human body. ...
12. China and the United States: The Bonds of Debt
In the past twenty-five years the United States has had a growing balance of trade deficit with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Beginning with the 1971 reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, international trade between them expanded, first slowly and then rapidly. ...
13. Debt’s Moral
According to Hegel, a quarrel about law arose between two ancient Roman jurists: Favorinus of Arelata and Sextus Caecilius. In response to Favorinus’s contention that laws needed to be based on real situations, Caecilius showed that while law had to make sense, it did not actually have to go into effect.1 ...
14. Debt, Theft, Permaculture: Justice and Ecological Scale
If, as Fredric Jameson once wrote, it has become easier to imagine “the thoroughgoing deterioration of the Earth and of nature” than the end of capitalism, this is in part because we are increasingly aware that the two phrases describe in fact the same event.1 But the imagined extinction of alternatives to capitalism associated with Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” ...
Morris Berman is a cultural historian and author of a trilogy on the decline of the American empire: The Twilight of American Culture; Dark Ages America; and Why America Failed. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, most recently at the Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico City. ...