From big bank bailouts to big bad bonuses to mystery market meltdowns, Wall Street is nothing if not in our face these days. But each time there's an eruption, ordinary people are the ones caught in the lava flow while the gods of high finance watch blissfully untouched from their own Mount Olympus.
As a result -- anger in the heartland -- likely to burn even hotter before it simmers out. Maybe even mass civil unrest like we've recently seen in the cradle of democracy when Greece accepted big bank-imposed austerity measures in exchange for loans to deal with their own debilitating debt.
Ironically, it's Greece of any earlier age that can teach us all a thing or two. So let's return to ancient Athens to see how they dealt with the dangers of extreme financial imbalance.
In the heyday of Athenian democracy -- starting in the 5th century B.C. -- a growing number of citizens had small but productive family farms that enabled them to live decent lives. This led to social stability and a capacity for self-governance. But a century before, during a time of rule by Aristocrats and Oligarchs, both the economy and society were much less stable, often bordering on chaos. In the early 6th century B.C., a unique response to growing conflict between rich and poor was put forth by common ground-seeking leaders. If offers valuable lessons for us today.
Back then, most people tried to eke out a living, or at least dinner, by farming small pieces of hard scrabble land. But even the most skilled farmers could have a bad crop, or bad weather, or other bad luck. And since there was no government safety net, when a crop failed and the farmer had no means of supporting his family, he borrowed money from wealthy noblemen -- the mortgage-lenders of their day. But these loans came with exorbitant interest rates and a stiff penalty for default.
Since these struggling farmers lived from crop to crop, one failure was usually enough, by itself, to ensure they'd be unable to pay back their loan. When that happened, first came the lien on the farm and all the man's possessions -- and thus sealed their fate. No ownership of your farm meant no means of making money. No way to repay the loan.
And so another form of surety was taken -- this time against the personhood of the borrower himself. Meaning slavery. Actually, the farmer's son was usually enslaved first, and if that was still deemed insufficient collateral by the lender, then the parent(s) were taken as well.
We're talking actual slavery here. And not of people captured in a war, or exploited from an undeveloped foreign land. These were formerly free citizens of greater Athens who were turned into slaves. And this was common practice.
We've fortunately outgrown that form of extreme debt repayment, but ask an underwater home owner today if they don't feel like a virtual slave to the noblemen of Wall Street. Ask an unemployed auto worker or teacher or fireman who just saw their retirement fund evaporate, courtesy of unseen billionaires who control their fate. Ask a couple hundred million other Americans who feel financially chained to titans who earn more per hour than they'll ever earn in a year. No wonder so many fellow citizens feel their freedom is slipping away.
Meanwhile, back in old Athens -- the discontent of the slaves was starting to turn white hot. Instability threatened, and the upper crust of society knew what that meant. If a full fledged rebellion broke out, the response would be a harsh crackdown and the emergence of an iron fisted tyrant -- a common form of governance elsewhere in the ancient world, but something the freedom-loving rich of Athens detested as much as giving the non-rich a voice in politics. So an interesting compromise was born.
Athenian leaders decided to select a single man, and endow him with the ability to legislate reforms, all by himself, in order to quickly release some of the societal pressure. In 594 B.C., they chose one of the city's most wise and widely admired men -- a poet named Solon -- and he quickly rose to the occasion.
The first thing Solon did was cancel all debt for slaves, and set them free. Farmers were able to return to their farms, and further reforms even provided state support for expanding and diversifying their crops, which over time led to agricultural wealth and great security for Athens.
Solon also enacted other reforms that, for the first time, gave political voice to ordinary citizens. This naturally didn't sit well with the rich and noble who loved equality as long as it was between themselves, not between them and everyone else. And so some of these other reforms didn't stay in place very long (although they re-emerged a few decades later and helped set the stage for the birth of the world's first democracy).
But for now, the debt reforms did stick -- and they were a huge help to the worst off in Athens, and therefore released some of the pressure that could have led to bedlam. And that served the interests of one and all, rich and poor alike.
Of course, human nature being what it is -- and with no democratic government to check accumulation of power or regulate moneyed interests -- serious strife soon followed anyway. Years of conflict and anarchy eventually led, as feared, to a coup by a strongman, and a period known as the Athenian Tyranny.
Cut to today.
Since Wall Street won't reform itself, and since populist anger is growing, and may grow out of control, we desperately need our leaders to put aside their petty ambitions, and collectively produce a wise Solon-style response.
Not by ceding their power to a sole magistrate. But by channeling the enlightened sense of duty that America's founders set the mold for, and bat heads and compromise smartly to enact the kind of life-enhancing and life-sustaining policies America so urgently needs to, at least, ward off the worst on the horizon.
But, that won't happen until and unless well-informed serious citizens give them a clear mandate to do so. Until we do that, and do it consistently, don't expect politicians to ever step up. And this is true regardless of who is president, or which party controls Congress.
Which is why you could actually make an argument that, in today's paralyzed polarized America, maybe we would be better off with a wise and benevolent autocrat like Solon. Send the executive and legislative branches on hiatus for a few years, and let one smart strong admired man or woman call all the shots by fiat.
Unfortunately, we know what happens to even the best intended when absolute power is in hand.
So what to do?
The only way to obliterate our slavish devotion to unfettered markets and our casino-crazed financial system is if ordinary citizens take it upon themselves to study up on the issues involved -- and once they develop sufficient knowledge, to make their voices heard in an effective way. And in so doing, break their bonds of fiscal slavery with their own two hands.
Because there are no political saviors. Just us.
In fact, informed citizen action is also the only way we'll ever enact the kind of transformative policies needed in other vital areas, like energy policy, national security, and a national debt that will at some point suck us down into the same vortex Greece is now swirling in.
And it's the only real way to regulate the rage that is building, which just may spiral out of control in our own backyard.
Since the political class is as incapable of reforming itself as Wall Street is, we urgently need other leaders in the culture to help usher in a new era of the Serious Citizen in America.
In some quarters, this has already begun. There is a proven process by which the public voice can become fully and objectively informed, and effectively listened to by policy makers. And when citizens are given an opportunity to participate, they jump.
For a sneak peak of the self-empowering process that awaits serious citizens, take a look at what some leaders in the growing and highly promising field of Deliberative Democracy are doing on June 26 to address our national budget imbalance.
Then imagine deliberative forums, large and small, being held in every community in the land -- on a regular basis -- as a permanent fixture of self-governance.
Or, we can just stick with politics-as-usual and wait for the implosion.
I wonder what choice Solon would make.
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