By Noni Mausa
Wealth Inequality and Sentimental Credit
I go to the store and buy a loaf of bread. But I haven’t actually harvested a loaf of bread (unless I am a shoplifter.) I have, instead, used a tiny scrap of credit to mobilize a farmer, a baker, a truck driver, and probably a score of others to exert their skill and energy to have a loaf of bread there when I arrive.
Though my credit is sliced very thin and passed around to these dozens of people, and though it travels backwards in time, so to speak, to reward them, it is merely a placeholder for an exchange of human effort.
My “credit” is not necessarily cash or even money. It is simply whatever leverage I can wield to direct human effort to my benefit. Sometimes, of course, it takes the form of cash, but just as often it can manifest as pity, fear, misdirection, beauty, hope, hatred, fun, or family feeling.
One way to increase one’s own power is to increase your ability to work one or another of these levers. Currently, people focus on only one of these – the possession of money, in the forms of cash, investments, steady incomes, etc.
When the possession or control of cash increases in a small group, we call this wealth inequality. But another way to increase inequality lies in reducing people’s access to non-cash credit, what you might call sentimental credit.
Sentimental credit is the credit the poor depend on when all else is stripped from them. This is the reason why people in the poorest countries are often described as generous, welcoming, lovely, cheerful, honourable, charitable, and keenly alive to community and family connections. It’s why these people create intricate art and music and wonderful food out of the unlikeliest poor materials, and tell long and fascinating stories. It’s why their land, however poor, is seen as their home, with loyalty, respect and family-feeling.
In deeply poor communities, sentimental credit circulate available resources, earns respect and trust, cultivates family feeling, builds pride, and basically keeps things together. People in these societies who aren’t generous, who are miserable to be around, who take but never give, who take no pride in skills, who know no stories, and yet are not actually crippled and thus deserving of assistance — these people don’t have anything to trade. They have little or no sentimental credit. Such people can get along fine if they have a good supply of cash and can live in a relatively anonymous society. Otherwise, they are, ahem, evolutionally impaired.
How does this apply to the descent of America into an unequal society?
I have wondered for several years at a growing pattern of fragmentation in America. In all ways this pattern has moved opposite to the fibres that strengthen sentimental credit. In culture, vulgarity. In communities, intolerance. When encountering the poor and needy, contempt. In the legal system, tolerance of fraud and injustice. In families, shrapnel-dispersion of children and families which makes mutual support or even communication difficult, and weakens their attachment to the land they stand on. In skills and knowledge, disrespect of excellence, or institutional barriers to acquiring or using it.
Sentimental credit, I believe, reaches a kind of steady state in an “oh-aren’t-they-lovely-and-generous”culture after a few generations of steep poverty. And indeed it exists, must exist, in all stable cultures. But its elements may also be used to push back against or circumvent pressures of inequality.
Were the props of sentimental credit in the United States targeted and willfully kicked away (or co-opted) from 1975 onwards, as conventional, anonymous credit was consolidated in fewer and fewer hands?
Which was cause? Which was effect?
And how can they be rebuilt?