On Wednesday the Croatian government announced a plan to eliminate the debts of about 60,000 of its poorest citizens. The announcement garnered a lot of attention even if the relief being offered is more modest than the headlines would suggest (maximum debt relief is capped at around $5000 US). The idea of debt cancellation used to be confined to the political fringes; now it is an acceptable idea to advance in polite society among Serious People. David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years strongly advocates a universal debt cancellation policy. With his argument in the back of my mind I wondered a few weeks ago if we couldn't apply a similar idea to non-violent inmates in our prison system.
Ideas like debt cancellation or amnesty for incarcerated people are often dismissed out of hand despite being no more or less ridiculous than many of the things regularly taken seriously as public policy. On its own merits, Croatia's plan isn't hard to justify. The inherent problem with this kind of plan, though, is that these are superficial solutions to institutionalized problems. What good does it do to offer debt relief to a few people when all of the social, legal, and economic structures that bury people in debt remain in place? Why bother letting everyone out of prison if the institutions that keep the prisons overflowing with inmates aren't going to function any differently?
If 60,000 Croats get debt relief and nothing else changes, many of them will end up back in debt in time when they confront the same lousy job market, the same parasitic lending practices aimed at the poor and desperate, and the same maze of punitive fees that turn modest debts into large ones over time. If Americans emptied out the prisons, does anyone doubt that our law enforcement and justice systems would have them full again within a year or two?
It's nice to offer debt relief. It's much more useful to offer relief from the institutions designed to bury people in debt.