When Alan Greenspan pronounced debt good, the news was well received in Medford. Having been in debt most of my life (and one could argue that life itself is fundamentally a never-ending payback), I had for too long regarded it as something to be ashamed of, spawned by a combination of self-indulgence (did I really need to go to Italy last summer?) and poor career choices (years of part-time gigs in the academy). In light of this new revelation, I wonder what other wisdom to expect from Greenspan in the future. Might we one day hope to hear that debt is fine but indenture better, deepening as it does the bonds of obligation between rich and poor? And can its corollary be far behind: that indenture is okay but ultimately slavery is best of all?
What a blessing to have the authoritative voice of Alan Greenspan to bring to my ongoing arguments with my father, whose objection to debt is unyielding. In his old-world consciousness, debt promotes inequality and a dependence which can in the right (or wrong) circumstances be exploited by one’s creditors, who could urge you to compromise or corrupt convictions and principals. Debt has certainly been used in efforts to control nations—not, as we saw after the Treaty of Versailles, with uniform success.
Now I know several billionaires. They are good people. I like them. They are, as Hemingway famously observed, different than you and I only in the fact that they have more money (and as a result can provide better education for their kids, help their family and friends find better jobs, live in bigger houses, and a lot of them, and receive better health care, and while my friends work hard, there is a certain comfort in knowing that if you need to take off for a day, or a year, to care for a parent, volunteer at a homeless shelter, or travel around the world, why you can probably get away with it). I don’t begrudge them it—most of it, anyway. But, at a certain point, I do begin scratching my head in wonder: do they themselves never feel uneasy about the comfort they enjoy when they’re surrounded by evidence of the consequences of a lousy health-care system, decimated public schools, the struggle for survival of millions living on salaries generated by those lucky enough to be making three or four times “minimum wage”—never mind the less visible yet increasingly acute travails of the middle-middle classes fretting to maintain lifestyles shadowing those of their better-heeled and increasingly removed neighbors?
Now my billionaire friends are generous. All give substantially to charities. They support the arts. They support good politicians—within reason. It’s true, they’ve done very little to roll back the tax cuts from which they profited so disproportionately. Who would deny that it feels sweeter being a philanthropist than an equal among equals? At least, that’s what I assume they’re thinking—because the truth is these are delicate matters not easily broached. My friends are relatively private people—they are not like Sanford Weill, whose salary of $110,000 a day (plus an additional $15,000,000 in stock options) makes news in the financial pages of The New York Times. Nor would they like to see themselves discussed in a column alongside Charles M. Cawley, whose salary, along with stocks and options, came to $45,000,000 last year. Mr. Cawley, incidentally, just retired from his post as CEO of MBNA, the corporation which has so generously granted me the platinum credit card of which I’ve made such fine and frequent use.
I don’t think that Alan Greenspan would be proud of me, though. I am almost ashamed to say that my personal debt is considerably below the national average—maybe because my wife and I both work and have no children, factors which would rapidly change the equation and quickly push us up into our fellow Americans’ sphere of commitment and obligation to Mr. Cawley’s former employers. And yet, because I know that the finance charges from my debt, along with those paid by millions of my neighbors, covered Mr. Cawley’s salary, I have to wonder what it is he did for me, and for the rest of us, to merit such compensation. Any light readers might shed on this would be welcome.
In Lost Illusions Balzac, who had cause to know, observed that economic troubles were the most tragic of all society’s ills precisely because, unlike our other mortal woes, they could, in a pinch, be solved. Unlike health or the weather, our elaborate barter system is entirely the product of our imagination—this is as true for the global economy as it was for the village fair. The values and prices of all products are socially determined and do not inhere in the objects themselves. Minimum wage and maximum wealth, as well as just and unjust systems of taxation, can be changed overnight if the understanding and the will are sufficiently enlightened. Every part of the matter is scripted by us, including the mind-numbing and obscurantist habit of anthropomorphizing the behavior of markets. The global economy has every chance of succeeding, and of improving the lives of billions. If it does not, the fault is ours, and the miseries of the poor, whose conditions of suffering we helped to perpetuate (even if only indirectly, by supporting repressive regimes at home and abroad), will haunt us and unsettle our days forever.
Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.
In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, The Partisan Review, Grand Street, Ploughshares, AGNI, Poetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, Literature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.
He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.
Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College. (updated 9/2018)
See him interviewed on New England Authors.