Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

17.5 trillion dollars is a lot of broken tables

The word bankrupt (Fr: en faillite) literally means broken table.

It comes from the Latin words; bancus (table or bench) and ruptus (broken). If traders were unable to meet their debts, or their business practices were unscrupulous, their trading tables would be broken – a clear sign for all.

Jesus also vandalised some trading tables in the temple. He accused the money changers and the dove (colombe) sellers of being, not so much financially bankrupt, but morally and spiritually bankrupt.

The Old Testament says bankruptcy and debt were often forgiven every 50 years; an event known as the Jubilee or Holy Year. According to the book of Leviticus; slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven and the mercies of God would be in abundance.

The Greeks weren’t so forgiving. If a man owed a debt that he was unable to pay, his entire family ­and their servants became debt slaves. Today bonded or debt labour is the most widely used method of enslaving people around the world.

A fantastic and grotesque story about debt and forgiveness concerns the Creech tribe of Sumatra, Indonesia. It’s a brilliant story to impress dinner guests, but best told between dishes. Travel writer Paul Theroux, in his book of anthropological fiction Unspeakable Rituals, describes the Creech people as violent, quarrelsome, and in general not very nice. But he says they have one unique tribal tradition.

Instead of complicated debt laws the Creech have a Memory Man. The Memory Man receives his title at birth. He possesses the entire memory of the people and for the people, and may spend as much as a week, day and night, reciting their genealogies and activities.

When a dispute arises the Memory Man settles it, because he knows what really happened. He knows all the secrets, debts, lies, infidelities and crimes.

After thirty years have passed and he is old by Creech standards – shrunken, wrinkled, probably toothless, probably losing his memory – a meeting is convened. The Memory Man recites the whole of the Creech history (or as much of it as he can remember) and at the conclusion he is put to death. He is then barbecued and eaten by every member of the tribe, in a ritual known as the ceremony of purification.

Nothing is left. The tribe has literally lost its memory, and they embark on a huge, orgiastic celebration of love and happiness and freedom – the best freedom of all, which is freedom from the past.

In England, before the Bankruptcy Act of 1869, debtors and often their families were routinely imprisoned, sometimes for decades. Most European countries limited imprisonment for debt to one year, but debtors in England were imprisoned until their creditors were reimbursed. When the Fleet Prison closed in 1842, some debtors were found to have been there for 30 years.

The English writer Charles Dickens wrote about the infamous debtors’ prisons in several of his novels. Dickens’ father was sent to the Marshalsea Prison on the River Thames because of a debt to a baker. Young Charles was forced to leave school and start work at the age of 12 to support his family.

A parliamentary committee reported in 1729 that 300 inmates had starved to death in the prison over a three-month period, and that eight to ten prisoners were dying every 24 hours in the warmer weather.

Dickens was haunted by his experience.

My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation…that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life.

Today in the USA corporate world, bankruptcy (better known as Chapter 11) is a well-used method of debt restructuring.

Donald Trump’s empire of hotels and casinos are valued in billions of dollars, yet in 1991, 1992, 2004, and again in 2009, Trump-branded companies or properties were declared bankrupt and sought Chapter 11 protection.

Country bankruptcy is an abstract concept. Most of the world lives in debtocracies. World debt ( the debt of nations) is now about 58 trillion dollars. Journalists and economists regularly ask the question: Is America bankrupt?

The country’s debt is now about 17.5 trillion dollars – that’s about $55,000 per person. The interest paid on the debt is $500 billion per year or $16,000 per second.

The National Debt Clock in New York is an electronic billboard which constantly updates the United States gross national debt and each American family's share of the debt.  The clock was modified in 2008 when the debt outgrew the billboard.

Here’s what 17.5 trillions dollars looks like. It’s bigger than Godzilla and just as difficult to tame.


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