The Micawber Solution
David Harvey
August 6, 2014

“Something,” the endearing but eternally indebted Mr Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield was fond of saying, “is bound to turn up!” “Welcome poverty! Welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary!” said he, “Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end!” It sounds like an opening chorus for a Broadway musical called “Austerity Politics,” featuring Paul Ryan and George Osborne dialoguing across the Atlantic backed by a chorus of Republican governors of the United States and IMF officials, with a walk on role for Angela Merkel dressed as Medea poised to sacrifice the children of Europe rather than surrender to the fire-breathing paper dragon of inflation. The collective austerity budgets designed to cure all economic ills would provide a wonderful décor for a cacophonous second act. But in the final act Mr Micawber will stride upon the stage to save the day, with an ingenious solution to the problem of universal indebtedness.

He announces his solution “with much solemnity,” says Dickens, but only after consuming “two glasses of punch in grave succession.” Seeking to clean up his affairs as he readies himself to migrate from London to Australia, here is what Micawber proposes:

‘My friend Mr. Thomas Traddles has, on two several occasions, ‘put his name’, if I may use a common expression, to bills of exchange for my accommodation. On the first occasion Mr. Thomas Traddles was left – let me say, in short, in the lurch. The fulfillment of the second has not yet arrived. The amount of the first obligation,’ here Mr. Micawber carefully referred to papers, ‘was, I believe, twenty-three, four, nine and a half, of the second, according to my entry of that transaction, eighteen, six, two. These sums, united, make a total, if my calculation is correct, amounting to forty-one, ten, eleven and a half. My friend Copperfield will perhaps do me the favour to check that total?’ I did so and found it correct. ‘To leave this metropolis,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘and my friend Mr. Thomas Traddles, without acquitting myself of the pecuniary part of this obligation, would weigh upon my mind to an insupportable extent. I have, therefore, prepared for my friend Mr. Thomas Traddles, and I now hold in my hand, a document, which accomplishes the desired object. I beg to hand to my friend Mr. Thomas Traddles my I.O.U. for forty-one, ten, eleven and a half, and I am happy to recover my moral dignity, and to know that I can once more walk erect before my fellow man!’

With this introduction (which greatly affected him), Mr. Micawber placed his I.O.U. in the hands of Traddles, and said he wished him well in every relation of life. I am persuaded, not only that this was quite the same to Mr. Micawber as paying the money, but that Traddles himself hardly knew the difference until he had time to think about it.

Copperfield notes the “dramatic and salutary effect” this solution had upon Mr Micawber. He “walked so erect before his fellow man, on the strength of his virtuous action, that his chest looked half as broad again when he lighted us downstairs. We parted with great heartiness on both sides…”

Being far wiser to financial ruses and surely less gullible than Mr Traddles and even David Copperfield, we can all have a hearty laugh at the ingenious absurdity of Micawber’s proposal.

But, alas, the laugh is on us. For what is it that the Federal Reserve is doing if not wholeheartedly adopting Micawber’s solution? The Fed simply takes all the excess debts of banks, consolidates them into one vast IOU and effectively locks the IOU in a cupboard. And when anyone asks: what does this portend, the only answer we get from the virtuous banker is that “something is bound to turn up.” Until it does, we are told, it is essential that we maintain that “mutual confidence” that can sustain us to the end of poverty, misery, houselessness, hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary.

So welcome to the Micawber solution to universal indebtedness! Indeed, it could be said, we live in a Micawber economy. But that is a good thing. After all, we can sleep easy of nights in the certain knowledge that “something is bound to turn up.”

I thank Katharina Bodirsky for alerting me to the relevant passages from David Copperfield.

David Harvey is a Distinguished Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center. His most recent book is Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism.