The jailing of press baron Conrad Black for defrauding shareholders has captured the headlines this morning. Black’s $32 million theft is simply the tip of an iceberg of what may be viewed as an entirely criminal situation in the world of business and finance. Black’s six and a half years in jail will perhaps seem small to the millions of people around the world who are imprisoned by debt for their entire lives - while traders play the financial markets to notch up record profits.
The fact is that 2008 is set to be the year when debts come home to roost. And, as credit becomes harder to obtain, debt is changing from being a millstone around their necks, into a nightmare. Mortgages have helped people afford a roof over their heads, whilst at the same time locking them into repayments they can ill afford. But now comes the nightmare of repossession.
In the United States, things are now so bad that people have taken to the streets – Wall Street to be exact – to protest against the way in which black communities and ethnic minorities have been hit especially hard. Yesterday, demonstrators paraded through the centre of US big business to protest against the eviction of millions of homeowners, the first ever march to target the financial markets. US civil rights leader, Jesse Jackson, who has campaigned for economic empowerment since he joined Martin Luther King as far back as 1965, led the march. He has spoken on U-tube of a financial tsunami in the US and last Friday called for a Marshall Plan to provide relief to people who lost homes and savings in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.
The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, which organised the New York rally and a second one in Chicago, said in a statement:
“As the mortgage market continues to decline, millions of home-owners could face foreclosure in the coming year. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of those home-owners are minorities who were targeted for sub-prime, predatory loans”.
Like his mentor, Martin Luther King, Jackson sees the issue of debt as a class question as much as an ethnic issue. In Chicago, where Jackson’s Rainbow Push coalition is based in a former synagogue, 30% of homes are in foreclosure. In Detroit’s Wayne County, a quarter of homeowners are in default, as Danny Schechter reports.
Lest anyone thinks these problems are unique to America, just look at what is coming up here. The lead story in today’s Times notes that as shoppers are set to blow a record £11.7 billion on their credit cards this Christmas, the new year will bring nothing but pain. It concludes:
“There are fears that the credit crunch will have a devastating effect on some families which are already deep in debt. Nearly 5 million people have still not paid off their store and credit card bills from a year ago, according to moneyexpert.com.”
It is time to get real. We need to work out a bold programme for a not-for-profit economy, not rely on the same politicians who have worshipped at the shrine of capitalism for all their lives.