A Reckoning

From Leviticus to 9/11/21


Most people when they hear a reference to the Old Testament think about the Hebrews under the Pharaoh or Abraham preparing to slaughter his son Isaac. There is also the story of Adam and Eve getting banished from the Garden, Cain slewing Abel, and many other tragedies, wars, and things like the brutal justice of cutting off the hands of a thief which is still practiced by some Islamists. As a result, 9/11 fits into a political framework of the attackers wanting a return to Sharia law. Of course, part of the reaction is visceral on both sides: kill those who would kill you, preserve your system from theirs. In the twenty years since nineteen young men committed murder-suicide, one simple question has been studiously avoided: Why? As the Taliban take over Afghanistan, perhaps we can finally explore the answer.

Murder-suicide is all around us. From the kamikaze raids by Japanese flyers to the students slaughtering their classmates, random attacks at movie theaters, churches, nightclubs, workplaces and family homes, something is seriously wrong. The world is full of violence, fear, hate, misunderstanding, yearning and self-righteousness. The Ten Commandments, which deal primarily with self-restraint, are too hard. Loving your enemy, turning the other cheek, forgiveness, these seem like crazy ideas. They are fine in times of peace, when both sides agree, but any event is reason for an exception. The Declaration states it clearly: “Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.” The rank hypocrisy of history is easy for anyone to see, even with a modicum of objectivity. Slavemasters clamoring for freedom and rights over a few measly taxes? Yet, the cycles of desperation and revenge and doublethink persist. Where is the wellspring?

In the years following 9/11, I spent a lot of time trying to reverse engineer the thinking behind the attack. I came to the conclusion that it was about interest, or usury. Wall Street is the center of the financial system, which is why the World Trade Center was attacked. Congress created the system, and the Pentagon defends it worldwide. Just like throwing tea into the harbor, the attack was directly in context of the reason for the protest. There was also a religious zealot component, too. All fascism (left, right or religious) needs a book of words to justify its crimes, otherwise it would simply be a criminal action. In 2003 I discovered that Osama bin Laden had written a Letter to America in 2002. It confirmed everything I thought he was thinking. The letter was completely suppressed by the news apparatus. You can find it on The Guardian’s website, but few other places.

I continued for years studying the roll of usury in history. (All interest is usury, it has nothing to do with a high or low rate. A high rate is just a larger percentage of the same sin). I developed a thing I called The Interest Mechanism, and was fairly sure if we eliminated interest completely then all of our problems would go away. I was half-right, which is the same as being wrong. The more I explored this interest-free model, the more I realized that all the same problems continued. It was not nearly a big enough change to create an economic system where everyone could thrive and enjoy enduring stability. The attackers killed themselves for nothing. One of my touchstones in this was a line in Leviticus that said to not charge interest. What I missed was that the same line also said to not charge profit. Think about this for a minute. How do you create an economic system that uses money but has no profit? And why? I had to begin again.

Jesus said the love of money is the root of all evil. People assume that the blindly ambitious sell their soul, and that is why they stand with the camels at the eye of the needle unable to enter Heaven. But what if it was not a reference to our redemption, but was simply an observation of how the world works. Both the ability and inability to satisfy a desire has consequences. As a child, we have no knowledge of money. As we decay, the race is beyond us and we must rely on others. The world is structured based on the ideas people find important. We have been arguing over money for thousands of years, but not all societies! Ironically, the moneyless societies are referred to as primitive because they have no need to apply an abstract value to a random object. Does anybody think we are any better at taxation than the Crown was 230 years ago? We are simply repeating the mistakes of history over and over again. Kill the person in charge, but the new person in charge is just as clueless as to what makes a better system. The United States replaced the United Kingdom, a small change in language. We have a constitutional president instead of a constitutional monarch. Again, same system with a new sign. Communists have similarly recreated this common political framework, and the Taliban are likely planning the same, too. Generically, central governments with standing armies and central currencies have endured for ages, despite any alleged changes of faces and philosophy. All money has somebody’s picture on it. Money has changed hands in exactly the same way over ages, too. Of course, all the same problems must return! Nothing structurally significant has ever changed!

Have you ever played the game Monopoly? It is based on some of the observations of Henry George, a 19th century economist. Everyone starts out even, takes turns, gets paid the same, and there are no taxes required to play or live. There is even a rough form of rent control. As the game continues, the early boom turns into a bust. All the wealth concentrates into the hands of one player. He did not cheat. He had no favors by birth, skill or government. Luck alone determines winner and losers. This is a mathematical phenomenon caused by the act of buying and selling! In other words, capitalism is inherently volatile. This makes the admonition in Leviticus to avoid both interest and profit extremely prescient! Trade itself is dividing society, yet we cannot live without trade.

Just as interpretations of the Bible have gotten twisted over the years, so too have the thoughts of Adam Smith and Karl Marx. “A nation with the highest rate of profit goes to ruin the fastest,” wrote Adam Smith. It is class struggle that destroys the wealth of the nation, because there is no prosperity in a state of war. When Smith mentions the invisible hand, he is referring to the self-restraint that the Commandments embodied for creating a good society. Marx similarly wanted to see an end to class struggle, not perpetual malcontent. When Marx wrote slavery, feudalism and sweatshop conditions existed simultaneously. It was not socialism or government spending making the world miserable or the economy volatile, it was capitalism. Like many others before them, including Moses and Jesus, Smith and Marx were saying that if there was no social contract, then social conflict must follow. The industrial revolution has amplified all the issues of wealth separation that Monopoly demonstrates, while simultaneously raising the standard of living. It’s a strange juxtaposition. None of it would have been possible without paper money, deficit financing and modern finance, which started a scant three hundred years ago. Inflation is now infinite, so too is debt, and wealth separation. Yet, the solution offered in Leviticus 25:36 is still the right solution: “Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you.”

Imagine if we had a Congress that understood both history and economics, and were working on a system that eliminated both interest and profit. We would have peace, progress and prosperity not only for ourselves but for the entire world well into the future. War has always followed trading routes, both within and outside of any community. The division of labor cannot be an excuse for a division of understanding or a division of reward. We must understand how to cooperate and not leave it to a mythical fantasy called the marketplace.

Take a look at this receipt from the 1950's for a roof replacement. It was once common knowledge that profit was not something to maximize, but something to constrain. Profit was listed as a line item at 10%. Overhead was listed as a line item at 15%.

Everyone is going to go through every stage of life, no exceptions. The economic system must plan for new births and new elderly, and have prepared for all their needs as they need them. Edward Bellamy’s book Looking Backwards offered a glimpse of such a happy society. Life was not difficult, it was just logical. He offered no deep diagnosis of the problem or a strategy of how to accomplish it, but a society where everyone has enough money and opportunity is simple and clear. The real enemy is inflation. Inflation is evil, and it is created by all those who sell. When 2+2=5, then 5=2+2. It’s a zero sum game which generates winners and losers. But, if 2+2=4, everyone wins. Everyone can produce and everyone can consume without friction, and there is great abundance with little waste. Those primitive societies were highly advanced. We can be like them, but with machines.

As always, the means and the ends are inseparable. To create a new world order, all that is required is writing down different numbers. It was all that was ever required. A Jubilee is a better way to start anew than civil war and revolution. A Jubilee is how Solon started democracy, and how Nehemiah began too, but neither knew what to do next. Cromwell, Jefferson, and Lenin were men of power not of insight. The Taliban as easily as the Amish and Mennonites could see that cooperation and handling money differently can put an end to all our needless worldly conflicts. The Old Testament is not obsolete, it is our common understanding of it that is flawed.

Imagine if you were to have your hand cut off for taking interest or profit. They are theft in a more subtle form. We would be a handless society. Rather than being a slave to numbers, let us be their master.

The attacks of 9/11 were wrong because all killing is wrong. But in understanding why, a better way forward is possible. If we handle money and pricing differently, E pluribus unum.

Monday September 13th, 2021
Wednesday September 8th, 2021