We Need More Jubilee

New Orleans      I heard about it in Sunday school or read it myself in the bible, I don’t really remember it.    When in South Africa in 2004 a decade after the end of apartheid in South Africa with a delegation from the Organizers’ Forum, I remember well our whole group of fifteen or more trooping into a small office to meet with a group called the Jubilee Debt Campaign.

The Jubilee Debt Campaign in South Africa was connected to campaigns in other countries and was centered in the United Kingdom.  The initial push had been for debt relief in 1990, but the drive had continued with the focus on debt owed to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that had often been initiated and then diverted by corrupt governments and authoritarian leaders but continued to be imposed on an emerging nation’s citizens, breeding inequality, and retarding development.  The debts were unjust so the demand was clear:  cancel them.  Wipe the slate clean!

Was this idea crazy?  Of course not.  The notion of jubilee came from the bible, which had great appeal and, regardless of whether or not it was divinely inspired, had deep historical roots.  Quoting from the campaign’s website, “There is historical evidence for debt jubilees – cancellations – in Babylon, dating back almost 4,000 years. Such cancellations happened in response to peasant uprisings. For peasants in the Middle East at the time, if they had a bad harvest, they would get into debt. Then in order to pay this debt they would be forced to sell their land. And finally, they would have to sell themselves and their family into slavery. Cancelling debt and freeing slaves was undoing this injustice.”

In biblical times, the sabbath was Sunday, a day of rest, and the sabbatical was observed every seven years, a practice picked up by academia, as a more extensive period for rest and reflection.  The jubilee was seven sabbaticals or forty-nine years and observed on the fiftieth year most historians believe.  In Leviticus 25:10, “This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families.”  Paraphrased by Wikipedia, “According to Leviticus, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest.”  Jubilee creates a better deal from a hard hand dealt years before.

We need more jubilee when it’s possible.  The consequences of mass foreclosures and the banks’ unwillingness to modify or forgive loans in their own self-interest and therefore denying property to the owners was a clear case where a jubilee was clearly required.  Student loans are driving the future of younger people and the government is tightening the grip, rather than bringing a little jubilee to the table which the situation demands.  I was reminded that in the deep south there was a story of jubilee somewhere when fish jumped up to the bank, and everyone harvested, or a truck full of goods was abandoned on the interstate, and of course when all slaves were set free.

Ok, maybe I’m dreaming, but we need a lot more of this in our lives, businesses, and governments.


House Rich, Dirt Poor

New Orleans    During farm crises, as prices get lower for crops and property taxes get higher, the old saying in rural areas about being “land rich, and dirt poor” comes to mind, especially in the states that have property taxes.  Talking to a relative about his aging father’s house, he mentioned that his son would love to have the house but couldn’t afford the likely $30,000 in carrying costs to hold onto the property in insurance, maintenance and property taxes.  Talking to a fair housing specialist recently about changing neighborhood demographics triggered by natural and speculative gentrification, it was hard to escape the fact that rising property taxes were making it harder for older, especially fixed income families, to avoid trying to cash in as the market rises, because they have little choice when their combined taxes and insurance have them against the wall, and they’ve become “house rich and dirt poor” as well.

How can we continue to avoid the regressive nature of property taxes as an income source for local governments when it so disproportionately burdens lower income and working families and exacerbates the gap between the real rich and the rest of us?

So, first things, first.  A progressive tax is one that equally distributes the burden based on income, like for example the income tax, not because it is a fixed percentage, but because it is based on ability to pay.  The wealth tax being promoted by some politicians has this notion at its heart.  A regressive tax is set at a flat rate and therefore takes a larger bite out of lower income or fixed income families than it does for the rich.  The best examples are sales taxes, especially when they do not exempt food and medicine, classic ACORN campaigns I might add, and property taxes, because these taxes do not make any allowances for income or the ability to pay.

Looking at property taxes, if they increase willy-nilly without any exemptions or caps for fixed income and lower income families, as gentrification raises its ugly head, there’s no way a family can survive without serious bucks.  Gentrifiers and developers are callous about this issue.  They will rationalize that the lower income family made a couple of dollars when forced to sell and will be better off somewhere else without taking into account their love and seniority for their community, travel distances, and the likely lack of affordability of alternative housing for them when they are dislocated, much less the value of diversity in the urban scene.  All of which will create cities of the rich, if there are not diverse sources of city income and hard and fast public policies to allow everyone to be able to live and thrive in the city.

Inability to grow food on farms will get someone’s attention someday.  Maybe even the problem of boomers and their families not being able to save their homes because of the burdens of taxes will be noticed eventually.  We might hope change will be triggered as well by displacement due to gentrification in cities that is happening throughout the world now.

Hope is not a plan, so sadly it may be too late for most people.