Marginalia, no.119

Owe your banker £1,000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed.

~ John Maynard Keynes

Panurge in Rabelais’s third book insists that “nature has created man for no other purpose but to lend and borrow.”  Vision is borrowed from light, breath from air, the atomic materials of flesh and blood from ancient exploded stars.  Life is a usurious circle guaranteeing insolvency, after which our effects are taken up by others.  My mother warned me not to “borrow trouble” by worrying over things that were in God’s hands.  Maybe there’s as much trouble in insufficiently mortgaging oneself.  Keynes would rewrite Polonius’ advice to Laertes: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be – but if you borrow, owe big.”



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3 responses to “Marginalia, no.119

  1. Hi Ian,

    Good, & finely written. I envy your concision.

    As to this: ‘Keynes would rewrite Polonius’ advice to Laertes: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be – but if you borrow, owe big.”’ The wit is sharp. My problem was that, before I moved to Japan, I always “owed smal or middling,” where “small or middling” can mean the cost of a house and an education. The people at the top of Bank of America et al knew how to owe big, so their position was “reversed,” as Keynes might say.

    But pace Keynes, these bits from Emerson come to mind:

    “Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.”

    “Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer. He fails to make his place good in the world, unless he not only pays his debt, but also adds something to the common wealth. Nor can he do justice to his genius, without making some larger demand on the world than a bare subsistence. He is by constitution expensive, and needs to be rich.”

    “The subject of economy mixes itself with morals, inasmuch as it is a peremptory point of virtue that a man’s independence be secured. Poverty demoralizes. A man in debt is so far a slave; and Wall-street thinks it easy for a millionaire to be a man of his word, a man of honor, but, that, in failing circumstances, no man can be relied on to keep his integrity. And when one observes in the hotels and palaces of our Atlantic capitals, the habit of expense, the riot of the senses, the absence of bonds, clanship, fellow-feeling of any kind, he feels, that, when a man or a woman is driven to the wall, the chances of integrity are frightfully diminished, as if virtue were coming to be a luxury which few could afford, or, as Burke said, “at a market almost too high for humanity.” He may fix his inventory of necessities and of enjoyments on what scale he pleases, but if he wishes the power and privilege of thought, the chalking out his own career, and having society on his own terms, he must bring his wants within his proper power to satisfy.”

    “The secret of success lies never in the amount of money, but in the relation of income to outgo; as if, after expense has been fixed at a certain point, then new and steady rills of income, though never so small, being added, wealth begins. But in ordinary, as means increase, spending increases faster, so that, large incomes, in England and elsewhere, are found not to help matters; — the eating quality of debt does not relax its voracity. When the cholera is in the potato, what is the use of planting larger crops?”

    The first is from “Self-Reliance,” the rest from “Wealth.” But then, in the latter, Emerson also says, infamously (as many see it anyway): ‘”The “Bank-Note Detector” is a useful publication. But the current dollar, silver or paper, is itself the detector of the right and wrong where it circulates.’


  2. Ian Wolcott

    Thanks for the Emerson. I should have used that quote on my parents when I wanted an increase in my weekly allowance: “I am by constitution expensive.”

    I’ve heard the Keynes quote above used to justify – or soften concern over – the US debt in China’s hands, but I’m not sure I buy it. As a sort of general philosophical principle, however, I think it’s interesting. What happens when you over-leverage yourself to Life and then the market turns and you find yourself under water and unable to pay the mortgage? Metaphysical foreclosure?

  3. Here’s Frost as to the matter of “metaphysical foreclosure”:

    ‘Yesterday in conversation, I was using [E.A. Robinson’s] “The Mill.” Robinson could make lyric talk like drama. . . He is at his height between quotation marks.

    The miller’s wife had waited long.
    The tea was cold, the fire was dead.
    And there might yet be nothing wrong
    In how he went and what he said.
    “There are no millers any more,”
    Was all that she had heard him say.

    “There are no millers any more.” It might be an edict of the New Deal against processors (as we now dignify them). But no, it is of wider application. It is a sinister jest at the expense of all investors of life or capital. The market shifts and leaves them with a car-barn full of dead trolley cars. At twenty I commit myself to a life of religion. Now, if religion should go out of fashion in twenty-five years, there would I be, forty-five years old, unfitted for anything else and too old to learn anything else. It seems immoral to have to bet on such high things as lives of art, business, or the church. But in effect, we have no alternative.”

    From RF’s introduction to Robinson’s “King Jasper” (1935).

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