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Debt Serfdom Comes to America

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Today We're All Irish.

March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, when people of all national origins raise a glass and declare, "Today we’re all a bit Irish!" This may be truer than we know. The Irish were driven to America by debt, and they are leading the Western world in household debt today.

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The London Daily Telegraph reported on March 13, 2008 that household debt in Ireland has reached 190 percent of disposable income, the highest in the developed world; and that the Irish banking system is suffering such acute strains from the downturn in the housing market that it may have to nationalize its banks.1 The same may soon be happening in the United States, and for much the same reasons.

Debt Drives the Irish to America

A short review of the history of the Irish in North America reveals that few were here before 1845, when a disease struck the potato crops of Ireland, wiping out the chief or only source of food for many poor farmers. Famine continued for the next five years, killing over 2.5 million people. "God put the blight on the potatoes," complained the Irish farmers, "but England put the hunger upon Ireland."

Farmers who were heavily in debt were shipped to England to pay the rent owed to their landlords. Impoverished Irish immigrants saved what little money they could to send family members across the Atlantic, traveling on overcrowded ships on which many died of disease or hunger on the way. When they arrived, the Irish men had to fight – often physically – to get labor jobs involving long hours and low pay; while the women worked mainly as servants (called "Brigets") to upper-class families. Despite their very low wages, they managed to send a bit of money back to their families, until other family members had enough to buy the ship tickets to America. In the American South (mainly New Orleans), the Irish lived in swamp land infested with disease.

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Here, Irish men were looked upon as actually lower than slaves. As one historian put it, if a plantation owner lost a slave, he lost an investment; if he lost a laborer, he could always get another. Because the Irish workers were plentiful and expendable, they were often sent in to do dangerous jobs for which the slave-owners were reluctant to send their valuable slaves.2

"Debt Slavery" Replaces Physical Slavery

This form of "debt slavery" or "debt peonage" was not just an accidental development of history. It was a deliberately-planned alternative to the slave arrangement in which owners were responsible for the feeding and care of a dependent population, and it is still with us today.

Although European financiers were in favor of an American Civil War that would return the United States to its colonial status, they admitted privately that they were not necessarily interested in preserving slavery. They preferred "the European plan": capital could exploit labor by controlling the money supply, while letting the laborers feed themselves. In July 1862, this ploy was revealed in a notorious document called the Hazard Circular, which was circulated by British banking interests among their American banking counterparts. It said:

"Slavery is likely to be abolished by the war power and chattel slavery destroyed. This, I and my European friends are glad of, for slavery is but the owning of labor and carries with it the care of the laborers, while the European plan, led by England, is that capital shall control labor by controlling wages.

This can be done by controlling the money. The great debt that capitalists will see to it is made out of the war, must be used as a means to control the volume of money. To accomplish this, the bonds [government debt to the bankers] must be used as a banking basis. . . . It will not do to allow the greenback, as it is called, to circulate as money any length of time, as we cannot control that."3

A system of "debt peonage" is inextricably linked to a banking system in which money is issued privately by bankers and lent to the government rather than being issued as "greenbacks" by the government itself Today the "European plan" has evolved into the private central banking system, and it has come to dominate the economies of the world. A private central bank creates money simply by printing it or entering it as an accounting entry, then lends it to the federal government in exchange for government bonds or debt. Private commercial banks create many more dollars in the same way, advancing money created as accounting-entry loans without even incurring the cost of a printing press.

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Except for coins, the entire U.S. money supply is now created as a debt to private bankers.4 Banks create the principal but not the interest necessary to pay back their loans, so more money is always owed back than was put into the money supply in the first place. More loans must therefore continually be taken out to cover the interest, spiraling the economy into increasing levels of debt and inflation, in a futile attempt to repay principal and interest on a debt that is actually impossible to repay. The result is "debt peonage," and it has systematically reduced the people to working for the company store, bound to their corporate masters for the food, shelter and health care formerly provided by slave owners under the old physical-slave system.

The Colonial Alternative: The Pennsylvania System of Benjamin Franklin’s Day

This is not the only way to run an economy. Until 1913, when the Federal Reserve Act was passed, the European system of debt peonage competed with what was called "the American system" – debt-free government-issued dollars generated by provincial governments to pay their expenses. This "greenback" system was not actually used in the United States after the American colonies became a nation, except during the Civil War; but the "American system" flourished for decades in colonial America. Paper money was issued by local provincial governments not only to pay their own expenses but as commercial loans.

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