On searching, one very quickly arrives at the super-famous Noble Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is to Buddhism what the ten commandments are to Christianity, or Judaism, or whatever it was they pinched it from - the Book of the Dead was it? Anyway, the Eightfold Path is that variety of list-of-rules that I was trying to do away with when I came up with my genius continuum just up to the right here. But never mind, here is the Eightfold Path -
1 Right ViewFor the record I'll state that whilst the Noble Eightfold Path urges one to ethical behaviour, it does so primarily to serve the Four Noble Truths under which it lies. That is to say that the Eightfold Path resembles societal rules but they are only so insofar as one following the rules will hopefully see all of his relationships as harmonious ones and from within this state more readily leave suffering behind ...kind of thing. Like I said, no great expert, me.
2 Right Thought
3 Right Speech
4 Right Bodily Action
5 Right Livelihood
6 Right Effort
7 Right Mindfulness
8 Right Concentration
But nevermind the big samsara picture, I'm here to wonder at usury. And the part of the Eightfold Path where usury gets a guernsey is Right Livelihood.
5. Right livelihood (sammá-ájíva): abstaining from a livelihood that brings harm to other beings, such as trading in arms, in living beings, intoxicating drinks, poison, slaughtering, fishing, soldiering, deceit, treachery, soothsaying, trickery, usury, etc.That seems pretty clear cut doesn't it? Not if you ask this Singaporean monk. His first stab at the subject goes through a handful of the great number of historical condemnations of usury (mostly Christian) but dismisses them on the entirely spurious basis that since some Christians spend their time condemning other silly things, then there's probably not much to it. Or something. Which is all very well but what if a Christian is standing next to a well and condemning it as poisoned? Um... do we drink up? Or not? He then takes up the subject again, this time focusing on the peccant word itself and wondering at its translation. It seems the precise translation from the original Pali is actually pursuing gain upon gain. To which one would have to ask, 'Yes, but what does that mean?' Says our Singaporean monk, probably not usury, it's probably just don't be overly greedy. Hmm... perhaps it's just me, but I find that all a bit soft and ploppy.
First up there's the nature of translations. Perhaps the phrase pursue gain upon gain is in fact the Pali for usury. It's possible. The Chinese/Japanese character for firework transliterates as flower fire. Okay, now picture that as a dead language for a culture that no longer exists and with us two thousand years removed. Then imagine an argument over the meaning of the following: During the Summer festival people would gather to watch the flower fires. Anyone declaring they knew what that was would be doing it on the merest of say-so. Mind you, our usury argument would be settled for sure if we knew the Pali for usury and could say that pursue gain upon gain is not that. But we don't - all we know is that in all of the texts usury/gain-upon-gain/whatever-you-want-to-call-it cops a single mention.
Not forgetting the flipside to this of course: Surely the speakers of Pali had a word for greedy, yes? It's a simple word well within the vocab of three year olds. So, if they wanted to say 'don't be greedy' wouldn't they just say, 'don't be greedy'? Why use some convoluted, ambiguous phrase rather than the obvious?
I ask the question about the translation here because when it comes to usury, confusion as to meaning is par for the course. For instance, what does usury mean in English? Is it (a la the bible) the charging of any interest at all? Or is it (a la modern dictionaries) the charging of too much interest? Webster's 1913 dictionary has the former as the first and the second meaning and the latter as the third. Curiously it's now the other way around. That publishers have chosen to alter its meaning over the decades may tell us about the nature of usury, or it may tell us about the nature of publishers. And what with precisely such an evolution taking place in the Oxford University Press's religion defining Schofield Bible, I'd put my money on the latter.
And then there's Islam. In Islam (cue the understatement...) they have a lot to say about usury. But here too things get curly. To translate usury into Arabic isn't as straightforward as one might think. Their word riba is usury ...but not quite. Technically it's defined as surplus value without counterpart. Does that make things clear? Hardly - arguments about what does and doesn't qualify as riba are endless. But regardless, here's one of the Quran's many proscriptions against usury -
Those who believe do not eat up riba doubled and redoubled (Quran 3:130)Gee whiz. It sounds a lot like gain upon gain doesn't it? Otherwise, what is compound interest if not gain upon gain? No quibbling about the difference between interest and compound interest now - a single missed payment and the former becomes the latter.
So! In choosing which translation to go with, our Singaporean monk gives usury the benefit of the doubt. As do the people at the Buddhism A to Z page he refers us to. Says they, since it's legitimate to hire out one's ox, one's skills, or one's house, so it should also be legitimate to hire out one's money. Excellent! I'm sure those good people won't mind if I sink my teeth into this argument and give it a good chew will they?
Hands up everyone who can spot the odd man out amongst my ox, my time, my house, and my money. Sure enough the first three degrade with time. As more time passes there is 'less' of each thing: my ox is more arthritic, my house is more rickety, and me and my time? Gone - like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives, ha ha ha. Money on the other hand is magically possessed of eternal youth. It pains me to say this to a Buddhist authority, but the truth of all things must pass somehow fails to apply with money. I'll admit that with the passing of time money might buy less but believe it or not this isn't actually an argument against any of the above. Truth be known it's merely another usury-puncturing arrow in my quiver. But I'll come back to that.
Money is one thing, but money lent is another. Somehow debt is possessed of its own deathless voodoo. Contrived intangibles aside, everything that can be bought can pass from this world with the twinkling of an eye, but the money one borrowed to buy it with will remain as evergreen as the day it was minted. Financial armageddon can fall, with the value of everything turning to smoke, and yet somehow in amongst the carnage, debt and debt alone, magically remains inviolate. Indeed as more time passes after such an armageddon, debt, like some unholy thing from a perverse universe where time runs backwards, will only become greater.
Coming back to the ox and the house etc. where does that argument stand in the face of the fact that money is made out of thin air? When the privately owned reserve banks lend money to their respective governments (as is the case in every modern economy) they do not do so with money that they carefully saved over time and thus have sitting around waiting to be lent. Rather they simply declare that they have it (by entering the figure x billions into their computer) and they then 'lend' this sum to their respective governments. That may be hard to believe I know, but it's a simple cold hard fact. That is how it's done. Same-same when the IMF and World Bank provide 'bailouts' to various third world countries. Astoundingly each of these click-of-the-finger debts incur interest, which along with the principal must be paid in real world blood and treasure.
Oh, and that aforementioned devaluing of money? There's two strands to this. The first pivots on inflation wherein money buys less over time. Surely, one might ask, a lender needs interest in order to have the same purchasing power a year down the track when the debt is repaid? This will astound many people I know but this logic has the causality arse-about. Interest doesn't exist because of inflation. Rather inflation exists because of interest.
Think about it. Imagine a town without money - for the sake of argument let's presume they'd previously gotten by with a barter system. Now imagine a bank setting up in town with a thousand dollars that they then lend out in tranches of one hundred dollars. Assuming a ten percent interest rate at the end of that year the bank will be owed $1100. Excellent. But where does the extra $100 come from? It doesn't exist - the bank only lent out a thousand. Sure enough the bank will have to print it... and lend it. And there you are - welcome to inflation. Sure enough inflation can exist even in a non-usurous system by way of over-printing, but in no way is it an inevitability. A usurous system on the other hand, wherein money only exists if it is lent and what's owed is always greater than what's lent, can't not have inflation. It is 100% dead-set inevitability. Um... until it busts of course. And it will bust - it must. Here is a cold hard truth: usury = inflation and inflation = boom and bust. Truthfully, the only difference between usury and a pyramid scam is the time scale. In both of them a bust is as inevitable as the sunrise.
The second strand of the argument concerning a currency's purchasing power involves its value in comparison to other currencies. We imagine that this is due to some fault of that particular government's inability to manage their economy. Really? Who ultimately decides what a nation's currency is worth? Why was it back in 1999 that when I flew from Beijing to Tokyo I was unable to change my fat pile of Renminbi for yen? This was the official currency of a nation of a billion people and yet no one would touch it. Absurdity! The money changers at Narita Airport could have made a killing what with a zillion Chinese travelling through there daily and yet not one of them wanted to know about it. There was no way known that each of the individual exchange booths all arrived at the same prejudice. Clearly they were forbidden by a central authority from trading in Renminbi. As was, I was a penniless pauper reduced to borrowing from friends just to get out of the airport.
And then there's Zimbabwe. Who decided Zimbabwe's money was worthless? Why is it now not worthless? No mumbling about Robert Mugabe, something, something. Only banks may declare a currency worthless. Street traders and individual whomevers can only follow along. Fact is - the banks didn't care for Mugabe choosing not to borrow his nation's money from a privately owned reserve bank and so they set their exchange rate phasers to 'starvation'.
And here's the crunch - even when it's not imaginary, money is not a thing. It is just a means of exchange. As such, it is necessary that money be understood as utterly unlike anything else. Instead of viewing it as a commodity or a product, it needs to be viewed as a non-commodity, a non-product. Money's utility as a means of exchange only comes by way of enabling people to exchange real things (which money is not). This money-enabled exchange of real things is a useful activity which will feed, clothe, and house a people. Inversely, tying up the means-of-exchange in the amassing of ever greater sums of that non-commodity is the very opposite of this useful activity. And that is the ultimate truth of usury.
Or as John Whipple, an American Lawyer, wrote in 1836 -
If 5 English pennies... had been... at 5 per cent compound interest from the beginning of the Christian era until the present time, it would amount in gold of standard fineness to 32,366,648,157 spheres of gold each eight thousand miles in diameter, or as large as the earth.
Which is silly of course, but that's the whole point. And that point stands as inarguable: when the medium of exchange is treated as its own commodity it has no future that isn't insane. Never mind 32 billion earths made of gold, long before that point is reached there will be more debt than there is stuff in the world to pay for it with, people as chattel included.
I understand the desire to stick up for interest. Part of it is the temptation to view ethics, or right behaviour if you like, as a democracy, ie. if everyone does it, it can't be wrong. And who wouldn't want to defend such a pretty thing, singing such a pretty song? "I'll grant you something for nothing", it says. "All you need is enough money and you become your own planetary body with your gravity pulling in guilt-free money for the rest of your life." But the singers are sirens and their song a false song, a song of the self.
Besides which there's the simple question - why should someone who already has more than he needs (by definition a lender) be rewarded by someone who didn't have enough to begin with (by definition a borrower)? Best not to argue since there is no argument against the obviousness of this that doesn't end up tripping over itself.
May I make a humble suggestion? In amongst nitpicking arguments over manifold rules, what if we were also to couch that discussion in terms of the simple continuum at the top of the page? Just as a back-up, kind of thing? Would that be objectionable? Or might it be helpful? Then how might we view usury? Would it fall at the right end of the continuum or the wrong end?
How now usury? In a world where everything equals money, and money equals usury, what is a man who wishes to abstain from bringing harm to others to do?