Anyone who complains that Occupy Wall Street protesters don’t have “demands” is dumb and impatient. There are various OWS working groups in the process of coming up with proposed remedies to various grievances. The media may want to know what the OWS “demands” are NOW so they can put them on their TV shows and conduct a poll to see if “regular Americans” agree with these Marxist hippies. But anyone who thinks that way has no respect for the democratic process and for the long-term undertaking that OWS really is.
I joined the Student Debt Working Group as part of OWS. The other night I attended a session on Wall Street, across from the Stock Exchange.
The event started with Andrew Ross, a Professor from NYU, who gave a short talk about the economic and personal devastation that student debt has wrought in the lives of millions of people. Feeling crushed by the student loan monster? You’re not alone. Here are some fun facts:
- Student debt in the US has topped one trillion dollars. Americans now have more student debt than credit card debt or any other kind of consumer debt. This is not just a problem for private college students. Sixty-two percent of those enrolled in public colleges leave school with debt.
- College tuition has risen to insane heights, and it just keeps rising. Tuition has gone up more than 400% since the 1980’s, an increase that has far outpaced inflation or family income. Check out the Project on Student Debt for some scary stories from people overwhelmed by debts they cannot repay.
- Default rates on student loans have also gone through the roof in recent years. Default rates may be as high as forty percent when for-profit college figures are included.
- All this is happening when degrees, especially degrees from low-status colleges, are becoming less valuable. Economist John Schmitt explains that “for a surprising share of college graduates, the large price tag may actually not pay off” because graduates don’t end up in jobs that pay enough to make college worth the time and money. Yep, when it comes to education as the pathway to a “good job,” the American Dream is dead, everybody!
Professor Ross described student loan debt as indentured servitude because many millions of people will be working to pay off these loans for the rest of their lives. Think about that for a minute. Unlike other kinds of debt, you cannot get rid of student loans by filing for bankruptcy. The banks will find you. Oh, and if you die, they will come after your momma and her pension. Seriously. There is no protection for the borrower who might take out tens of thousands in loans for a degree that doesn’t lead to a decent job (hello all you semi-employed PhDs!). For the bank that distributes the loans, Ross pointed out, there are all kinds of safeguards. There is very little risk to the lender because the government guarantees student loans. Lenders can’t go wrong! They always get their money back, while unemployed college graduates are left to wander aimlessly around their about-to-be-foreclosed-upon homes feeling broke, alone, and knowing they are indebted for life.
After we learned all these dreary facts, Ross suggested that we actually do something about this. He said, “millions of people are indentured, but they experience the suffering and shame in isolation.” He proposed that OWS work to make student loan indentured servitude a collective experience with a mass remedy: refusal to repay.
Isn’t that scary and exciting to think about?
Ross brought a draft of a Pledge of Refusal. The idea is that the pledge would go online in the coming months. It would say something like this:
“We, the undersigned, agree that after one million (this number is still under discussion) people sign this pledge, we will all stop paying our student loans on [insert date].”
Some folks at the meeting were a little uncomfortable with an outright refusal to pay back loans (even though the people who distribute student loans are the same people who crashed the economy, which is why there are fewer and fewer jobs for indebted borrowers). There were various amendments to Ross’s proposal from the OWS crowd. Some suggested we should not refuse to pay but declare a moratorium on loan repayment. There were others who thought we ought to use the rent strike as a model, in which case the loans would still be paid, but the money would go into an escrow account until a fair repayment process could be worked out.
I don’t know what the proposal will ultimately look like. The idea is that there is strength in numbers. And there are millions of us out there. This is not about trying to get out of paying something that we owe; it’s about the threat of millions of people not paying back their loans all at once as part of a nationwide protest of nefarious financial practices, out-of-control college tuition costs, and mass unemployment.
What would happen? How would the authorities respond to that kind of collective action?
I am going to another Student Debt As Indentured Servitude event tomorrow, so I’ll have more to report about how all of this is coming together. I will say, though, that I got the distinct impression that Stuff Is Happening at OWS. This proposal is going to go live, in some form, in the coming months. What happens next is anyone’s guess.
(Some people at the working group discussed how to counter the “personal responsibility” narrative that will definitely emerge in response to any Pledge of Refusal to pay back student loans. I can hear it now: “people shouldn’t take out a loan they can’t afford to repay!” We did discuss this inevitability at OWS. In my next post, I will have some thoughts about it.)