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.