If you racked up the bill, you pay it

By 
  • December 5, 2012

Perhaps thankfully, my propensity for racking up unmanageable debt emerged early in life. It started via the Capitol Record Club, which I rashly joined at the age of 14.

I was suckered in by a magazine ad that invited me in big bold letters to help myself to 12 free LPs. In considerably smaller print, the ad mentioned that I’d have to buy 12 more LPs over the following year at seriously inflated prices, plus an exorbitant shipping fee.

Somewhere on that membership form, in equally small print, was a proviso that you must be of legal age (then 21) to join but I just ignored that. It was hard to believe that many of the LPs being promoted — by one- and two-hit wonders like Freddie and The Dreamers, The Outsiders and Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs — would have any appeal to anyone over the age of 15.

When my stack of free platters arrived, I read through the membership booklet and came to realize just what a wallet-Hoovering dilemma I’d gotten myself into. I reacted like a bunny in the headlights — doing nothing at all in the unrealistic hope that this awful predicament would magically go away. Not very mature, I know (did I mention I was 14?). This inaction only made things worse, as the Club construed my silence as consent to receive their featured selection of the month, which came to me every four weeks.

Eventually my account was handed over to a collection agency and my parents caught wind of what a fine pickle I’d gotten myself into. To their immense credit (I think that today but I wasn’t so sure at the time), my folks did not bail me out but saw to it that I marched downtown once a week for I don’t remember how many months to slide my allowance money and miscellaneous earnings across the counter at some second-floor business office.

During those weekly walks of shame, I had a lot of time to meditate on the happiness-sapping dynamics of debt. I’ve had a couple of horrific lapses since then when the waters of debt have risen to uncomfortable levels (and, as ever, it’s usually music or books that are my gateways to insolvency) but by and large my wife and I have done a pretty decent job of living within our means.

During one of those sad trudges to the collection agency office, I invented the idea of an international debt forgiveness day. So far as I could see, every adult, business, nation, seemed to owe money to someone. Wouldn’t it be wonderfully liberating if we could, by mutual consent, wipe everybody’s slate clean at one go and resolve to cease all lending and borrowing?

Decades later I read of Pope John Paul II’s initiatives to try to get developed nations to forgive debts they were owed by much poorer countries and remembered my musings as a 14 year old. “Good idea, your Holiness,” I thought. “You just need to take it a bit further and let everybody off the hook at the same time and then get everybody to take the pledge.”

In the year 1300 Pope Boniface VIII convoked a Holy Year, hearkening back to the idea of a Jubilee as outlined in Mosaic law, specifically in the Books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. The Christian conception of a Jubilee is that it’s a year set aside for making pilgrimages to Rome and other sacred sites. The Jewish idea of Jubilee — to be held once every 50 years — had some rather more earthly and practical applications, such as the freeing of slaves and the remission of mortgages and debts. That’s the tradition I’d love to see us revive.

Of course I know it’s not realistic. Of course I know it’s not the way things are done. But looking around the globe today, when even the greatest national economies are sputtering and misfiring and future generations are being saddled with crippling debts that they’ve had no part in racking up, it’s hard to accept that the system deserves to persist. Unless a radical realignment is effected, it’ll be like having my grandchildren or great grandchildren trudging downtown to fork over their allowance to pay for my crummy records.

If it wasn’t right for my parents to bail me out back then, it seems quadruply wrong to stick my descendants with this new bill.

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