Welcome to the Debt Age
By BETH HARPAZ
If the 20th century was the Jet Age, the 21st century must be the Debt Age. Hence the title of a book co-edited by Professor Peter Hitchcock (Baruch College, The Graduate Center). The Debt Age explores debt as a cultural phenomenon, not just an economic one, and looks at the history of debt, the ethics of debt, the politics of debt, and other aspects associated with being in that precarious position.
The collection includes essays by academics, critics, and activists from an array of backgrounds, which underscores the book’s wide scope. Hitchcock, for instance, is an English scholar. Resulting chapters examine what it means to live at a time when debt — from credit cards to student loans — has become the norm for ordinary people, as well as for companies and countries.
Hitchcock contributed a chapter to the book called “Kant at the Federal Reserve: On the Aesthetics of Quantitative Easing.” It examines how the U.S. Federal Reserve acquired bank debt during the financial crisis and reallocated it as surplus. This process, called “quantitative easing,” provided “instant liquidity to credit markets” as the economy was crashing.
Hitchcock turned to the work of philosopher Immanuel Kant to make sense of the notion that the government could “ingest junk” while turning out “real money.” The process, Hitchcock told SUM, “bore some resemblance to the way Kant was trying to understand that sublime moment of engagement with art, where all other forms of measures fall away and you’re emotionally transported.” A similar dynamic occurs when investments are “unhinged from the reality of the market, but the prospect of gaining something … (is) extremely pleasurable.”