In the Public Interest

It is Budget Eve here in Australia. Definitely not as exciting as Christmas Eve. Now, if you are poor, you won’t be slapped around the face tomorrow to the extent you were with the traumatising Hockey budget a few years back, but any presents you do receive will be located under the Bad Debt tree, just so you know to drag your tail of shame between your legs on your way there for daring to not be a power-unto-yourself in a crumbly society. 

It is a oddity that even if you know that a social safety net is a more than reasonable way to keep a society running well, and even if you disgree with the austerity of neoliberalism, and even if you violently disagree that social safety nets belong in the bad debts column, it still stings to hear one more person with far more power than you say that it is evil. Every time you’re reminded that elected governments who are tasked with managing our money – our money – have such breathtaking levels of callous disregard, it hurts. And that’s after they’ve cleaned themselves off a little bit from the neoliberal jizzfest 9f recent years.

Politicians are really just one more example though of how fragmented we are, of how disastrous and dangerous our dealings with each other become when we are so exploded into the pieces of our own alienation that we cannot see the most basic fact of our existence – our dependence on each other, the fact that  strengthening the most struggling people in our society makes us feel safer too, benefits us ourselves too, in ways that can never be demonstrated on even the most sophisticated spreadsheet, nor be reflected in our GDP.

Remember you are worth more than your economic standing, when ScoMo infers that you are a drain, with your disgusting lack of profitability, your chugging at the public Bad Debt teat. There is very little left now of the kind of rhetoric that went on in Joe Hockey’s infamous budget, but I’m not so sure the ideology has changed. It is still the same old crap that is the only way that capitalism makes moral sense – that everything that happens to you is by your own hand. You deserve whatever you get. That is the way you must necessarily be seen by any government which functions first and foremost in service to the global economy.

However, it was not the economy that the OECD declared to be ‘the mission of government and public institutions.‘ The fundamental reason for the existence for all of our governments, for our schools, our police forces, our hospitals, for the Department of Treasury, for Scott Morrison’s position, is not the economy. These institutions do not exist in order to increase Australia’s GDP, to keep our AAA credit rating, to rump up our country’s exports. 

No. The fundamental mission for it all, as stated by the OECD, is the public interest. It’s us.

‘Us’ is a concept that many of us barely remember. It is a funny thing, like a tardis, bigger on the inside than on its outside view. The public interest is not just the totality of all of us, with our indiviual interests, preferences, paradigms and beliefs. It is, as the cliché goes, bigger than the sum of its parts. ‘Us’ is a space which gives strength, comfort and identity and it does it, strangely enough, within the very fact of our differences. Unity in diversity. What so often seems to be a fragmentation of indiviual factions and lobbying groups in the economic sense is a cohesive whole in this higher overview, big enough to encompass paradoxes and polarised elements.  

The concept of ‘us’ is one we need to nourish because it is the space from where we get our collective identity. It goes beyond race, gender and class, but it enables true incusiveness.

A strong ‘us’ will be able, at some future point, to stand against a global world economy that is holding us all at knifepoint.  The need for drastic reform is dire – absolute ground floor issues such as the problems a debt-based economy causes, the way we are forever chasing our tails in order to pay back the money owed by borrowing it in the first place, which leads to an always-expanding economy, which must grow and grow like a cancer in order for us not to collapse under it’s own dumb stupid weight.

Of course, we are already being crushed by this dumb, bloated, stupid but relentlnessly complex and convoluted financial pustule. Despite its complexity, it’s a stupid plot, one which is killing its own story.

Debts must be paid! We must rein in the deficit! And according to many we must, and to others we can’t and shouldn’t, and I don’t have a clue about that except that it feels dangerous to be so indebted to the richest people on the planet. The political right is more likely to point out the bloody bulbousness of the size of the thing, while the left points out that a country cannot be run like a household budget. And anyway, can any country govern without being in debt when the financial system upon which it depends actually causes things to be that way?

A strong public interest would look at a situation like debt from the broadest, most telephoto-lens view possible. Who must pay the debt? Is it necessary that the debt be paid at all? Who is most able to pay the debt? 

Of course, the idea that anyone other than the incurrer of a debt should be the one to pay it is an anathemic one that we balk at. It pokes at our sense of pride. And yet our government has not balked at the idea of trying to get the poorest to bear far more than their share of the weight in the quest to reduce the debt flab. It isn’t an idea beyond the realms of possibility to them that the poorest should get shafted the most. 

What is in the public interest is that the richest should bear their share of the weight to start with. And then more again. If someone is going to have to pay, it should be the ones with the most toys. The fact that this will feel an undue imposition on rich people is another story, one that has to do with the fact that too much money is never enough to fill the hole that spurts and splutters in the middle of us all. That is an issue for them to deal with.

Or how’s this for a win/win situation then? Cancel the debt entirely. A worldwide jubilee, a debt cancellation by those who can most afford to wipe them – the banks. The ones who record quarterly profits in the millions and billions worldwide.

What would the banks’ profits be if they cancelled country’s debt? Who knows? But whatever it is it would, again, not be enough. It would never, ever be enough. 

The concept of debt cancellation is not such an uncommon one. The Old Testament details the requirement to every seven years cancel all debts owed.  A return back to zero. That’s some hardcore balancing of the books, and while such a concept seems foreign to us, impossible even, the inequality gap has widened enough that what once seemed radical now makes a whole lot of sense.

Of course, the IMF wouldn’t think that was such a great idea. It has for years sought to enslave third-world countries by offering them rescue packages that saved them in the short term but ensured that they would be tied in debt forever. There it is again, the taking from the poorest to line the pockets of the rich. We don’t need to be reminded of the levels of individual greed. They are gargantuan, never more than in a time when society is crumbling, when the public interest is at its lowest and misanthropy at its highest.

All this talk of jubilee is just pie in the sky hippie ayahausca-swill, right? Irresponsible. In the current economic capitalistic paradigm it’s more than that, it’s disgusting. If you are the digital economic blip that the corporatocracy insists that you are, it’s speaking beyond what you understand of what is possible in finance. And for you personally, as homo economicus, it is speaking above your station. 

But when you look at something like debt cancellation, or of a zero-growth economy, or of currency being pegged to environmental health, or demurrage, through the eyes of the public interest, it’s really not such a crazy idea at all. It’s actually quite attractive. That’s the thing about looking through the lens of ‘us’ – all sorts of new and refreshing and human- and earth-honouring ways of doing it differently open up. It can be quite the heady brew, drinking to future possibilities. That which serves the public interest and strengthens us, that which honours our lives as more than homo economicus, has been taken from us piece by piece by piece. Piece by piece is the same way it will be threaded back together again. 


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