Student Debt: The New Involuntary Servitude

From colonial times, enterprising Americans have used a tried-and-true method to enslave immigrants: You find desperate people in some other country and offer to pay their passage. When they get here, they owe you and they have no jobs. But that’s OK because they can work off their debt in your mines or sweatshops or brothels. Naturally, you set the wages in those places, you control the cost of living, you keep track of the interest on the debt. And somehow (no matter how long or hard they work) the debt never clears.

Now picture the professional class as a destination and college as the way lower-class young people immigrate into it. See the resemblance?

IOU $1 trillion. In March the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported that student debt now tops $1 trillion. This happened because (through a decades-long process) the Powers That Be decided things should be this way.

Half a century ago, in-state tuition was zero in the University of California system and negligible at most other state universities, but the Powers pushed the state legislatures to cut university support and raise tuition. At the federal level, the agreement that ended last summer’s budget showdown significantly cut Pell grants, and here’s the latest idea:

The plan proposed by Ryan (R-Wis.), who chairs the House Budget Committee, would chop away at Pell grant eligibility, thereby reducing total Pell grants by about $200 billion over the next decade; allow the interest rate for federally subsidized Stafford loans to double; end student loan interest subsidies for those still in school; and make Pell spending discretionary — instead of mandatory — allowing further cuts down the line.

Put it all together, and even a student who works part-time and attends a second-rate state university can easily graduate owing over $100,000.

Welcome to the professional class, kid. Just don’t expect to keep any of the money you make. And I almost forgot to mention: We’ve let public transportation go to hell, so you’ll need to buy a car. (Here’s another loan.) We’re letting public schools fail, so if you have kids and want them to stay in the professional class, you’ll need to send them to private schools (Here’s another loan.) And we’re going to toss that national-health-care idea out on its ear, but don’t worry, if you get sick you can put it on your Visa.

Oh, and since you’re so far in debt, you can’t be choosy about what you do. I know you had thoughts about making the world a better place and yadda, yadda, yadda, but you’re in debt. So screw all that stuff about ideals and morals. You need money, so you have to do whatever Corporate America wants and thank them for letting you do it.

The justifying half-truths. Anyone who objects to this new form of involuntary servitude is bound to hear the usual collection of half-truths: Nobody’s forcing you to borrow that money. Nobody owes you a living. And (David Graeber wrote a whole book about this one): People have to pay their debts.

All these statements are true in some other context, and that’s what makes them so dangerous.

It’s not just the rich who say these things. They’ve pounded those ideas into everyone’s head for so long that the indebted young grads even repeat them to each other. A few weeks ago I participated in a Facebook conversation about the proposed Student Loan Forgiveness Act. A recent graduate made what sounded like a very common-sense comment:

we all agreed to the terms of these contracts, and now we have to pay back what we borrowed. You can’t just have free money. We all knew what we were signing up for, nobody forced us to borrow $100,000 and go to college.

Half-truth 1: Choices. Here’s the thing about choices: The you-made-your-choice argument doesn’t have any moral force if all your options were bad.

Say you’re a bright kid whose parents have no money. You can do what exactly? Take your chances in the unskilled job market, where wages will always be low and jobs disappear at the whim of the 1%? Join the Army and hope you don’t have to kill anybody who’s innocent or die in a war you don’t believe in? Or you can try college and start your life massively in debt, with no guarantee that the skill you bought will still be marketable by the time you have it.

Did I miss the good choice? What were today’s debt-to-the-eyeballs 20-somethings supposed to do?

Half-truth 2: Owing a living. But of course, that’s not something Society needs to worry about, because “Society doesn’t owe anybody a living.”

Yes it does. Not in the peel-me-a-grape sense, but in the sense that everybody has a right to what Pope John Paul II called “a seat at the Great Workbench”. (Don’t tell anybody, but Karl Marx had the same idea and called it “access to the means of production.”)

I’ve explained this at length elsewhere, but let me summarize here: The private property system is a tremendously efficient way to organize production, but it’s based on a fundamental injustice (in religous terms, an original sin). We’ve all grown up with that injustice, so we take it as the natural state. It isn’t.

Morally, every child comes into the world with an equal claim to the world’s natural riches and to the intellectual legacy of the human race. For many, being born with a special claim to a small portion of the Earth instead of a vague claim to a share in all of it is a good deal. But if you’re born without property, it’s not a good deal.

It also was not a deal you consented to. Other people seized title to the Earth before you were born. Fait accompli. Tough luck.

The way modern society repays a child for the usurpation of its inheritance is to give it access to the means of production in other ways: by maintaining a broad-based economy with many opportunities, and by providing education to allow it to take its place in that economy. With that repayment, a private-property system once again becomes a good deal. “We may have stolen your inheritance, but we have no practical way to give it back, so we offer you something we think you’ll like better.”

That’s the deal we’re reneging on when we make education an expensive luxury. Instead, property owners usurp the inheritance of the unborn, then bind them into the servitude of debt.

Half-truth 3: Debt. No matter how we got here, though, we can’t let the students off the hook because “People have to pay their debts.” The book-length answer to that half-truth is David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

The quote from that book that sums it up best:

There is no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt — above all, because it makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.

Think the reference to “violence” is over the top? Then go claim your share of the world and see how long it takes the police to show up.

Summing up. Working-class kids who borrowed money to go to college should be let off the hook. They had no good alternatives, and Society put them in that situation by usurping their equal claim to the World. Now they’re in debt slavery.

We need to free them. And stop the process that enslaved them.

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  • KimV  On April 2, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Help me understand here. Enlighten me please! Surely, we all agree that education costs money, whether it’s 1st grade or grad school. We have to pay teachers. We have to have materials, books, resources, facilities, water, electricity, etc. Right? Someone is going to pay, & in the end, it is ALWAYS the citizens of the US, whether through private pay or tax dollars. I sure hope the rich evil ones never quit working, or we’re in trouble! Oh wait, we’re already in trouble. With this school of thought, we will never be out of debt & this nation will collapse. Water & electricity will then be the luxury.

    I am one of those poor little souls that is still paying for her college education. And a woman at that! Crazy, isn’t it? I worked through college & graduated with honors. Now, my salary is plenty sufficient to pay my school loans AND live a comfortable life, including raising 3 children & saving for their college. I was able to choose my college, classes, everything! Imagine such opportunity!! I will forever be grateful to all of those rich, corporate bastards. You liberals are clueless!

    • Kim Cooper  On April 2, 2012 at 11:33 pm

      Yes, education costs money, but it is an investment in the future of our country, and therefore an advantage for all of us to educate as many of our people as possible. It makes a better place to live for us all. What a democratic government is for, is that we all throw some money in the pot, and it gets spent on things that are for We the People, but are too big for each of us individually to do. A college education is too expensive for many people to afford reasonably, so we subsidize it for some people. It makes a better world. But you conservatives wouldn’t understand about that.

      • KimV  On April 4, 2012 at 9:38 am

        If one wants to go to college & does not have the money, they can get a low interest rate loan & work. We are creating debt that is unsustainable to our children & grandchildren. Individual responsibility is key here. We do not need big government & trillions of dollars in debt to educate our children. Otherwise, America will collapse & that education will not matter! The only thing that has kept our head afloat in past years is social security surplus, & with the baby boomers arriving at retirement age, this will be in the red as well. We can all do our part individually before this happens. Government assistance via the tax payer must go away. This country is built on individual liberty, so claim it & own it!

    • weeklysift  On April 5, 2012 at 2:11 pm

      As a 50-something, it seems strange to me that the America I grew up in — where state universities were easily affordable to the children of factory workers, who could graduate (as I did) without debt — is now talked about as if it were some Marxist fantasy world.

      The main difference between that America and this one is that the rich and the corporations have decided they don’t want to pay taxes, and have realized that it is much cheaper to pay politicians to drastically cut their taxes.

    • Allison  On April 19, 2012 at 2:33 pm

      I’d encourage you to look at your alma mater’s current tuition rates and compare them to when you were in school. If you went to a public school you may be surprised how much it has increased.

      I graduated with an excellent education from my state school about ten years ago, and in-state tuition at that school has almost doubled since then. The situation has become much more difficult for college students even than when I was in school, and I’m still (fairly) young!

  • velvinette  On April 2, 2012 at 11:55 pm

    You can attend community college and live at home the first two years of college, at a cost of about $10,000, some of which may be offset by a job or scholarships or aid. If you get a certain grade point average you are guaranteed a spot in a UMass school, in Amherst or Lowell or Boston or wherever. The last two years would cost about $50,000 total if you live there or only about $20,000 if you stay home. You can also work part-time and go to school part-time, or even work full-time, which is how most students go through college, btw. A full 75 percent of college graduates do not go through four years consecutively, and the large majority attend while working. Universities like Northeastern offer a study/work combo option, which allows you to earn money and get valuable experience and connections in your field to go right into a job at graduation, often. Other schools offer credit for work done, and there are the volunteer programs that include forgiveness of loans, or Teach America or whatever it is called, and also employer-paid education in one’s field once one is working in a company. There are training-to-work programs, adult ed courses that Technical high schools are required to offer adults in their area that train people for many jobs, management training programs, etc. Most people will have many jobs in their lives, and beginning doing one thing and ending up doing something else at a more interesting and lucrative level is not uncommon. So there are many options.


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