I’ve been reading about a lot of tales of economic woe in the news lately due to the wrenching effects of the subprime mortgage debacle. One of the more bizarre cases is Jefferson County, Alabama, which is currently several billion dollars in debt because, apparently, some of its public officials, with questionable backgrounds and dubious motives, thought they could save on interest payments for the taxpayers by making some risky bond-swapping agreements. In addition, there was some plain old-fashioned graft going on in a county-wide overhaul of the sewer system being awarded to inexperienced companies with ties to the same questionable officials. Though they haven’t hit bottom yet, poor Jefferson County appears headed to break the record for municipal bankruptcy. Who’s to blame? More importantly, who should pay? The citizens of the county are on the hook to the tune of around $7,000 a person. Who in their right mind can call that fair?
Municipal bankruptcy laws were created during the Great Depression to deal with the woefully inadequate laws then on the books. Prior to then, the only choice for a county or state in debt was to raise taxes on its citizens to pay off their debts – as required by law. (The justification for that type of legal action was termed by mandamus, Latin for “we command”; who’s “we” in this case, I wonder?) It seems we are still learning the lessons of the Great Depression, for many municipalities will be very thankful for these bankruptcy laws now in place. Jefferson County is not alone: there are many news stories on municipal bankruptcy can be easily found on the Net.
Municipalities are just one type of victim of the current global financial crisis; but it is an impersonal aspect of it. The more personal aspect is more compelling: who knows how many millions of households are now facing foreclosure, and the massive scale of hardship they are enduring? What is now clear is that this has been caused by financial chicanery on an international scale.
A fundamental point here is that all this debt — which is causing real hardship, misery, even homelessness, murders and suicides — has been inflicted on unknowing innocents by an unjust economy. The economy is not some blind, impartial force of Nature, and cannot fall into that famous clause in legal contracts as “acts of God.” Far from it! The economy is an entirely man-made artifact, subject to our possible collective control; so why does it seem so out of control? It is because the current laws and regulations allow it — laws and regulations heavily influenced by corporate lobbyists, but ultimately under democratic control. I believe that we should start to recognize that economic stalkings and killings are just as serious as those criminal acts committed in person — and they are far more widespread. Innocent victims should not be made to pay for the economic injustice knowingly committed by economic thieves and murderers. We need a new Court of Economic Justice where such people and communities can plead their case, name their attackers and have the economic evidence reviewed and considered, just as we do now for the criminal acts that consider the motives, the weapons, the evidence, and all the facts, before reaching a verdict.