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“Sixteen Tons”: A National Anthem?

Centuries of cultural inheritance teach us that debt puts us at moral and material disadvantage. As Margaret Atwood points out in her book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, there are ancient reasons that Jesus was called the "Redeemer." He came to pay our debts.

Buddhist laws of karma teach much the same principle, except Buddha taught us to redeem ourselves. Sooner or later, what goes around comes around.

But here’s the thing about debt. For the poor and middling, debt, despite its illusions, tends to limit freedom. Think of the burden of student loans. Knowledge is power, right? But, as millions have discovered, career choices (and even, sometimes, possibilities of love and family) are foreclosed by such a debt.

For those already wealthy, debt increases freedom. That’s how the rich get richer. Capitalism, itself deeply in debt to Calvinism, explained this moral paradox by making financial wealth a visible sign of God’s invisible favor. Abracadabra, what looked immoral (accumulating great wealth at the expense of your neighbors) became the very symbol of morality. If one is rich, one is moral.

The trickery, of course, turns traditional Western morality on its head. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson note in their book, Philosophy in the Flesh, we often conceptualize well-being as wealth. According to the Moral Accounting metaphor – central to Western moral thought – increasing others’ well-being increases their wealth. Decreasing their well-being metaphorically decreases their wealth. "I’m in your debt," means, morally, that I owe you a favor.

Capitalists, with an assist from the Calvinists (and Adam Smith’s faith in self-interest), literalized the metaphor. Financial wealth became moral well-being, more wealth even better-being. When financial wealth equals morality, no further moral book-balancing is necessary, unless, perversely, it is we who are somehow in debt to those who have exploited us.

For instance, thieves like AIG executives can, quite logically within this warped moral scheme, demand bonuses for the part they played in decreasing the well-being of the world. We owe them for taking our money away from us.

Which brings me to Merle Travis’s legendary song, "Sixteen Tons." It’s a song about debt, in this case the practice of paying coal miners just enough that they remain in debt to the coal company store.

St. Peter don’t you call me ‘cause I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store.

It’s like the student loan scam. They lend you just enough to train you to work for them, just enough to make sure you behave yourself and don’t wander from the mine. (The Republican craze to deregulate public university tuition sure did serve the interests of their campaign contributors in the credit industry. As tuition rose beyond the paycheck-to-paycheck means of most Americans, more of us were forced to borrow from those companies.)

There’s something odd and maybe revealing about American’s love for the song "Sixteen Tons." Recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955, it sold two million copies by December, making it the most successful single ever recorded at that time. Just eight years earlier, when Travis recorded it on a folk album, he was labeled a communist for singing about workers’ woes.

Did Americans of the 1950s, many of them in huge debt to mortgage companies as they moved into new suburban homes, sense something was morally amiss in the post-War boom? Is that why the song spoke to them? Or did they suddenly imagine they had finally escaped from the coal companies and sang along with Ernie to celebrate their freedom by condemning their past? I don’t know. I picked the ‘60s "go-go" version of the song for the YouTube video above because it captures the ambiguity.

If it was the latter, we are coming to realize the escape was imaginary. Today, federal spending needed to stimulate the economy will ultimately cause inflation, and inflation rewards big borrowers – the already wealthy. Why? Because they can pay pack a loan worth $1 yesterday with a dollar worth 50 cents tomorrow. Those of us who, thinking it prudent, saved $1 yesterday could find it worth 50 cents tomorrow.

If we are to escape a second Great Depression, we will have to step up consumption. That’s how pumping money into the economy is stimulating. We’ll have to buy more at the company store. Producing for that consumption will take energy. Coal, for instance. So, as Atwood points out, we will increase the most dangerous debt of all: our debt to the planet Earth.

An economic stimulus is necessary at this time. We have to cope with the disaster left us by the Bush Administration. And, as a big borrower, the federal government will benefit somewhat from inflation as the dollar is devalued. But that’s not lost on our creditor, China, either. Needless to say, it will behoove us to quit borrowing before China quits lending.

America is likely to discover that it’s more like a poor or middling citizen of the world when it comes to debt, its autonomy diminished by continued borrowing from China and other countries.

As we work to re-design the institutions of American capitalism – and it is urgent that we do so – we should start by rejecting the metaphorical trickery of the past. While one can be moral and wealthy, wealth does not equal morality.

Instead, our wealth must serve moral purposes, which means a balanced accounting of the well-being of the world and of one another. We can regulate against destructive immorality, but I don’t believe we can successfully impose such a morality from the top down, the way Calvinist Elders and robber barons did with their "my wealth makes me moral" sleight-of-hand. The real revolution will be won in the hearts of individuals.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith