Debt -> Obligation -> Expectation -> Opportunity

Unfortunately society as a whole seems to be going the other way– for mortgage/rent, for education, for cars– it is all debt, all the time.    I suggest we should reverse the trend.

Debt gets you in trouble.   You owe, and if you do not pay it back it grows, and you are Bad if you do not repay your debts.     According to David Graeber, debt is quantified obligation.  Debts are contracts, enforceable, and if broken punishable by the government.  Debt is transferable, so if you owe one person they have the right to sell that to another and then you may owe someone else, someone worse.   Debt seems to be a bad way to build a world we want to live in.   Unfortunately we are getting really good at selling debt– on houses, cars, education, consumer goods, etc.    Renting rather than owning is a form of debt since if you can not pay for it, you have to leave.   No wiggle room.   Debt has landed people in slavery, in the military, in jail.      The strange thing is, money is created by making debt, so if you think: “oh, I dont have any debt, in fact I have lots of money in my bank accounts” then someone else is in debt.  So storing wealth in money causes others to be in debt.   Strange but true.   Maybe better said:  tragic but true.      Ok, what is better?

Obligation is a fuzzier form of IOU.   It is not transferable, and it is not a legally enforceable contract.    Obligations die with you– they are generally not passed on to a child.  Breaking an obligation can damage one’s reputation, and it can lead people to not want to trust you anymore.   Bad news travels fast, and broken obligations are damaging.   Moving to a new place, where no one knows your name can start you out again with no obligations, but you are also without a reputation so it may take time for others to build the trust to build a network you can depend on.    Sounds better than a system of debt, but still not so great.   What is better?

Expectation is something I sometimes put on my children.    Not proud of it, and I am trying to figure out something better, hence this blog post.   Expectations are not escapable except by satisfaction, but this is not always easy to know how to achieve this.   Sometimes a debt can seem better because it is clear what you have to do and then you are free.   But expectations are part of enduring relationships, one where you are not free, but part of a network.    Expectations seems to be what makes family gatherings hard to bear.    Ok, what is better?

Opportunity seems to be the system that grants the most latitude.   We hear it in slogans:  “This school gives your child every opportunity for achieving bla bla bla”.   Sounds good– this is school that does not “expect” or “obligate” but rather it encourages, facilitates, allows to grow.     This sounds good.   No guilt trips, just flexible partnerships that are fluidly defined.


Can we run a society on Opportunity rather than Debt, Obligation, or Expectations?   Quite possibly.   In our machine age, creating the basic necessities take very limited labor, so these can be provided without forcing people into jobs they might not like.    Forcing people seems to require debt these days to keep them on the treadmill through rent and school loans and such.   We are in a position that basic food and housing would take little forced labor.   Maybe we could even imagine it taking no forced labor at all, maybe could just give our kids, neighbors, and friends opportunities to get things done and we would have a happier life.

Can we imagine a society without Debt?   I find it hard, but intriguing.   We would have to rethink stored value since money=debt.   Outlawing debt somehow would be needed because it could creep back in.   Long term contracts, for instance, are a form of debt…   But this might be possible.

Can we imagine a society without Obligations?   If we enjoyed abundance rather than fear  scarcity, we might not have to bind others with obligation.    We are social animals, doesn’t that mean we naturally create obligations?   Maybe not.   Might be possible to grow beyond our web of obligations to create better and more prosperous lives for us all.

Can we build a society without expectation?   I would have to rebuild myself, for sure.   I have all sorts of self-expectations.   I drive myself forward with these.   I spill them over onto others.    This could be very difficult, akin to a re-awakening.

Can we enjoy a society that offered opportunity as the staple of life?    What an interesting ideal.    I have been in temporary utopias that seem to point in this direction:  Bread and Puppet Theater, Rainbow gatherings, and when inside the gates, Burning Man.  Money free and guilt free.   No “jobs”.   And it seems to work and people love them and want more of it.    Intriguing ideal.   Maybe would make a step in this direction.


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2 Responses to Debt -> Obligation -> Expectation -> Opportunity

  1. Joseph J. Menkevich says:

    “Plato regards the possession of private property as the source of every evil for the state — of avarice, of egotism, of a low character.”

    The greatest evil of all is that a man may sell his property and have no place in the State; while there is one class which has enormous wealth, the other is entirely destitute. But observe that these destitutes had not really any more of the governing nature in them when they were rich than now that they are poor; they were miserable spendthrifts always. — The Dialogues of Plato

  2. Sam Penrose says:

    Hi Brewster —

    Thanks for tackling this very important issue. I suspect you would quite enjoy Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. It is essentially a 600 page discussion of the history of the labor/capital split in the industrialized world, based on the best data known. It has much to say about the relationship between wages and ownership which so interests you.


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