The Dangers of Pricing the Infinite

by malcolmpharris on February 23, 2012

“The notion of infinite debt comes in when this logic slams up against the Absolute, or, one might perhaps better say, against something that utterly defies the logic of exchange. Because there are things that do. This would explain, for instance, the odd urge to first quantify the exact amount of milk one has absorbed at one’s mother’s breast, and then to say that there is no conceivable way to repay it.” – David Graeber, Debt

“Could all of this be thought ‘a normal upbringing’? Everyone seemed to think so and my parents, bless them, paid for it. So much that my father proudly presented me with a complete set of receipts on my twenty-first.” – Derek Jarman, At Your Own Risk

It’s worth stating from the outset that this seminar and the rest of the deserved attention this book has received in all likelihood would not have occurred if we weren’t in a sequence of global debt crisis. David’s status as an “out” anarchist and the role that alignment plays in his theory and practice would most likely have (continued to) exclude his ideas from these kinds of forums under more stable circumstances. But these are not more stable circumstances. For that reason I want to leave the scholarly refutation to the scholars, and put the book to work.

In April of last year I wrote an article for N+1 on the astronomic growth of student debt in America since the 70s. At the time, student loans had just passed credit cards as the largest source of consumer debt at $800 billion. Less than a year later, the total has topped $1 trillion with no real signs of slowing, while the other measures I referenced, including youth unemployment, have increased to new record levels as well. The conclusion that “the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt” is more valid than ever.

But what does it mean to be the “most indebted generation is history?” One of David’s biggest contributions to our current discourse is the comparison and contrast between different kinds of debt and the emphasis he puts on the point that money is “first and foremost the acknowledgment of a debt that cannot be paid.” (emphasis in original) He goes through a number of typologies, showing lots of different kinds of debt relationships that can and/or should not be terminated through a finalizing payment. Debts between friends work like this, but the infinite debt relation par excellence is between the parent and child. The revulsion we feel at the sort of parenting bill that Jarman describes in the opening quote is a key mechanism keeps society reproducing itself. To turn what ought be an infinite debt that maintains inter-generational obligations, both to the elderly and future children, into a monetary sum, is to ask that it be paid and the relation ended.

Consider this cartoon:

But of course the parents didn’t start out with nothing, they started out with infinitely less than that. They began with a supposedly unending obligation inconceivable in terms of monetary exchange. But over the last thirty-odd years, the nature of this inter-generational debt has changed to something measurable, even if the total sum if seen in one place would render the currency more or less meaningless to any observer.

The monetization of these kinds of debts can be dangerous for the social orders built on top of them. As David writes on Hindu conceptions of hierarchy and debt, “to have imagined their responsibilities as debts would have been profoundly subversive, since debts are by definition agreements between equals—at least in the sense that they are equal parties to a contract—that could and should be repaid.” He finishes the section with the book’s most useful conclusion:

Politically, it is never a particularly good idea to first tell people they are your equals, and then humiliate and degrade them. This is presumably why peasant insurrections, from Chiapas to Japan, have so regularly aimed to wipe out debts, rather than focus on more structural issues like caste systems, or even slavery . . . Debt peonage, it would appear, is far more likely to inspire outrage and collective action than is a system premised on pure inequality.

Eeconomist and blogger Mike Konczal has parsed the data from the “We Are The 99%” tumblr that became a digital catalog of the individual motivations behind (the overwhelmingly young) Occupiers and their supporters, and concluded that “The overwhelming majority of these statements are actionable demands in the form of (i) free us from the bondage of these debts and (ii) give us a bare minimum to survive on in order to lead decent lives (or, in pre-Industrial terms, give us some land) . . . these are the demands of a peasantry, not a working class.”

As of 2009, 37 percent of American households headed by someone under 35 have more debts than total assets, which doesn’t even count over half of those under 24, who live with their parents. That’s a recipe for social instability, an organization less structurally sound with regard to popular uprising, Graeber would argue, than most slave societies.

There’s a particular affect that David identifies with “the debtor who feels he has done nothing to deserve being placed in his position: the frantic urgency of having to convert everything around oneself into money, and rage, and indignation at having been reduced to the sort of person who would do so.” It’s not just the humiliation and dispossession endemic to inequality and hierarchy, but a particular feeling of being reduced to what Evan Calder Williams has called “meat on the hoof.” The feeling of walking on rented legs that always threaten to wander back to their true honors.

The critic and novelist John Berger described the desperation in Pig Earth, the first in his Into Their Labours trilogy of peasant stories. Marcel is a peasant resistant to mechanization and the erosion of his self-sustaining way of life. But what drives him over the edge is two inspectors who try to levy a tax on his pressing and brewing apples he grew into gnôle. He kidnaps them at gun-point, and holds them in a small room full of sheep, where he rants;

“You are worried, he said. I regret to have to tell you that there is a tax to pay on worry! There’s also a tax to pay on pain and a tax on shivering! A thousand francs a shiver!”

Beneath the monetization of human relations is the force, the gun holding it all together. As David puts it, “Any system that reduces the world to numbers can only be held in place by weapons, whether these are swords and clubs, or nowadays ‘smart bombs’ from unmanned drones. It can also only operate by continually converting love into debt.”

But the more love you convert, the more guns you’re going to need.

{ 95 comments }

1

reason 02.23.12 at 9:43 am

Followed the we are the 99% link.

Yes, yes and yes.

Basic income – free (or at least much cheaper) tertiary education – (the idea of a graduate tax is a good one). Reducing land prices by tighter credit rules – and infrastructure investment to increase supply (not mentioned – but necessary – see “bohemian life style no longer affordable”.)

2

Alex 02.23.12 at 11:17 am

But of course the parents didn’t start out with nothing, they started out with infinitely less than that. They began with a supposedly unending obligation inconceivable in terms of monetary exchange.

This does not sound like an accurate characterisation of the post-war welfare state? I suppose it’s true that higher education paid for from general taxation means you never actually stop paying for it, but it’s not like income tax disappeared with student grants.

3

Freddie 02.23.12 at 12:38 pm

Yeah, when I think of those most oppressed in today’s America, I think of the college educated.

4

Harald Korneliussen 02.23.12 at 12:50 pm

Freddie: The argument being made, as far as I understand, isn’t that they’re the ones most oppressed, but that their oppression is of a particularly explosive sort.

One thing I don’t understand is why student loan debt had exploded in the US. Has all education become that much more expensive, even the less prestigious community colleges? Or are there changes to the degree parents pay for their children’s education?

5

Freddie 02.23.12 at 12:58 pm

Both.

6

robotslave 02.23.12 at 1:06 pm

@3

To be fair, revolutions in general seem to succeed at least as often when undertaken by and for the middle (or even upper middle) classes, rather than the peasantry. So why not agitate there?

Also, let’s keep in mind where we’re typing— this is a collegiate blog, for the most part, so it makes perfect sense to call for student loan jubilees here before tackling payday loan reform.

And snark aside, what’s happened to college prices and the student loan industry in the US in the past couple-few decades (and the UK more recently) really is rather alarming, particularly for those of us who think that state schools, at the very least, ought to be free of charge for students. Like they used to be.

7

Matt McIrvin 02.23.12 at 1:11 pm

I’m not sure it’s best to think of student debt as a monetization of intergenerational obligation; I think it’s something else, more like a high barrier between classes. If anything, to complain that the obligations of children to their parents have become monetized and dischargeable is a conservative argument for the abolition of Social Security and Medicare. Do we really want to go there?

8

Freddie 02.23.12 at 1:32 pm

I have no problem with advocating for the needs of the privileged when that advocacy is righteous. I have said, recently and in print, that we need to stop the rise of college tuition and help those in significant debt. But let’s be clear: this is intra-class conflict, not an inter-class.

9

Marc 02.23.12 at 2:01 pm

@8: It removes an important mechanism for social mobility. It used to be the case that a working class kid could go to a public university and leave without debt, or with little debt. (The cost to attend the University of Texas at Austin 30 years ago was ~300 dollars a year including fees.) We’ve now switched to a mode where the “cheap” public universities cost ~12,000 dollars a year, and of course it’s much more than that for most. This acts as a severe barrier for those without family resources.

10

Mandos 02.23.12 at 2:06 pm

I don’t agree that it’s an intra-class conflict. Those who can’t easily buy their educations are practically by definition not in the same class as those who can. It’s a really bad sign of stratification, actually.

11

Jonathan Monroe 02.23.12 at 2:10 pm

This makes me think that the three most powerful stories in American politics at the moment are all about apparently unpayable debt:
- The Occupy story is (mostly) about unpayable student debt in a world of falling graduate salaries
- The Foreclosure Crisis story is about (mostly) unpayable mortgage debt in a world of falling house prices
- The Tea Party story is (mostly) about (mostly) unpayable government debt in a world of falling tax revenues
This looks a lot like Fisher is right about debt-deflation</a<.

If everyone is indebted up to their eyeballs, the solution is to ensure that there is enough money to pay the debt – so the graduates and homeowners can repay the banks who can repay the government bailout money so the government can invest in the infrastructure that creates jobs for the graduates and homeowners who… Of course, this is inflationary. Inflation is Jubilee on the installment plan.

But the only person who seems to be shouting about money from the rooftops is Scott Sumner and he is doing it as a wonk and not an activist (and certainly not a lefty activist). Why is it that nobody since William Jennings Bryan has talked to voters about money and meant it?

12

stubydoo 02.23.12 at 2:25 pm

@Johnathan Monroe – a couple of months ago Rick Perry was talking to voters about money. Thankfully his campaign died out so we don’t have to worry about whether he meant it.

13

Steve LaBonne 02.23.12 at 2:26 pm

Why is it that nobody since William Jennings Bryan has talked to voters about money and meant it?

All Serious politicians and pundits are inflation hawks, because they’re on the payroll of the creditor class. Who are too short-sighted to see that an explosion is going to come if the burden is not eased by allowing higher inflation for a while.

14

Alex 02.23.12 at 2:42 pm

Also, does anyone else think the Derek Jarman quote is probably really the work of our prolific friend, Ben Trovato?

15

ajay 02.23.12 at 2:43 pm

“Why is it that nobody since William Jennings Bryan has talked to voters about money and meant it?”

Ron Paul and his goldbug friends?

16

malilo 02.23.12 at 3:13 pm

@4: Yes, it has become more expensive. As it says somewhere on “actuallyyourethe47percent.tumblr.com”, you used to be able to pay for a college education (or a good chunk of it) with a part-time/summer job delivering pizzas. My own small example: When I matriculated in 2001, I had saved several thousand dollars from working part-time in high school. Along with a bit of student aid I managed to pay in full for my first year at Surprisingly Affordable Good University in the South (about 16K). Then, things went downhill, because you can’t make 8k/yr while double majoring in the sciences, especially going to a top-15 school. The aid was decreased, mostly converted to loans rather than grants, and tuition had just started it’s huge rise. By the time I finished it was 22K/year, and now in 2012 it’s about 36K. Of course I was in the unique situation of being judged by the financial status of my non-involved parents, which should have dictated “Get Thee To A State School”… but alas, who is wise at 17? I had planned on a few K per year in debt, and instead am stuck with 40. It could have been worse, of course. I got a great education. But a big factor is the price tag on the university education is now regularly 30 – 40K per year, and aid is generally in the form of loans. At my school, which had formerly been “affordable”, the administration saw the low price tag as a liability: it doesn’t scream “Ivy League” to be affordable to the middle classes (and they desperately, stupidly want to scream Ivy League). Then there’s the easy availability of student loans: in what other universe do you give an 18 year old who waits tables a 40K loan? I think most of the rise in tuition was a direct response to the availability of loans to cover the higher costs.

17

robotslave 02.23.12 at 4:04 pm

“…allowing higher inflation for a while…”

This definitely seems worth a shot to me, but by what mechanism?

The Fed rate has been at 0.25% for three years now, and has pledged to keep it there through 2014, hawks be damned. Krugman has been banging away at the fact that the US tripled its monetary base between ’08 and ’11 without any noticeable effect on prices, and that ought to give one pause when planning to boost inflation, whether one believes in liquidity traps or not.

Do you just print up more cash, hand it to Congress, and let them do what they do best?

18

malcolmpharris 02.23.12 at 4:47 pm

Freddie,

Mike K thought the same thing about the issue of student debt being inter-generational but intra-class, which is why he at first opposed forgiving all student loan debt. Then I cajoled him into doing the numbers, and that’s not what he found at all: http://rortybomb.wordpress.com/2011/11/09/a-first-look-into-some-distributional-student-loan-data/

So the meta-thought question becomes: what made you think that wasn’t the case in the first place? How many more people have the same incorrect assumptions? And what are the consequences if they continue to allow themselves to write off this powder keg?

19

Matt Nelson 02.23.12 at 5:21 pm

I think there needs to be a clear distinction between what college is portrayed as versus what college is. College has been portrayed as the means of advancement through class, and while it does help somewhat, the far greater predictor of class preservation, attainment, or advancement, is parental wealth, or at least it was when Herbert Bowles and Samuel Gintis were doing research, and based on the way states have slashed funding for education and the re-structuring of universities happened in the 80s, I would imagine that’s even more true today.

20

Freddie 02.23.12 at 5:34 pm

I just want us to confront this question while being clear on two major points: first, that the problem has to be solved for moral as well and practical reasons; second, that the problem is one that largely afflicts those who have major demographic advantages. Advantages like access to health care, chance of being the victim of a crime, odds on being incarcerated, lifetime earnings potential, political representation, life expectancy…. The numbers tell us that American college graduates (like me), even those with significant debt, are among the safest and most advantaged people in the world.

That is emphatically not a reason to ignore this problem, and I’ve been writing about it for a long time. But we do need to be frank that this is largely a problem of an overclass, and that while representing the petit bourgeois can be righteous, it isn’t revolutionary. Perhaps that’s an immaterial distinction, I don’t know. A movement to Occupy, from my perspective, has to avoid the temptation to be about expanding the ranks of the winners, or changing the composition of the winners. It has to subvert the contest altogether.

21

Steve LaBonne 02.23.12 at 5:44 pm

If you think you can overthrow the overclass without enlisting the petit bourgeoisie on your side, well, good luck to you.

22

chrismealy 02.23.12 at 6:05 pm

Freddie, college costing $100,000 is clearly a problem for the people who would have gone but can’t afford it. It is definitely not a problem for the overclass. Health care is too expensive too, does that make it a bourgeois issue as well?

Also,everybody who goes to college is the overclass now? 29% of Americans?

23

Freddie 02.23.12 at 6:15 pm

If you think you can overthrow the overclass without enlisting the petit bourgeoisie on your side, well, good luck to you.

I didn’t even remotely suggest a thing. Read carefully and respond honestly, please.

Freddie, college costing $100,000 is clearly a problem for the people who would have gone but can’t afford it. It is definitely not a problem for the overclass. Health care is too expensive too, does that make it a bourgeois issue as well?

College graduates, in both an American context and an international context, are by any reasonable consideration of demographic metrics a socioeconomically privileged group. Those lacking health care is not in any meaningful sense an equivalent demographic group. (But you knew that.)

As I said, quite plainly, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t solve the problem. Our critical orientation has to be sober and honest. This is an important problem that has to be solved. From an egalitarian standpoint, it is not one of the top three or five most pressing issues. College graduates protesting their debt are, in overwhelming proportions, not among the poorest and most disadvantaged in our country, and that is where our clearest moral duty lies.

24

Antonio Conselheiro 02.23.12 at 6:15 pm

As far as the increase on student debt goes, to the extent that it’s the result of decreased public support (switch from grants to loans, decreased state subsidies for schools) you can just think of it as a switch of public resources from universities to prisons and the military by people (voters and politicians) who resent the universities, admire the military, and think more people should be in prison. That’s simple-minded and you can’t really find a direct link, but that’s what happened and why. (Of course, there’s been a lot of shenanigans within the universities too, all at the expense of students and their parents.)

You can also think of it as being motivated by those who like hierarchy and do not want public support to be dedicated to increased social mobility. Every time someone moves up into the top quintile, after all, someone else has to move down out of it.

25

malcolmpharris 02.23.12 at 6:16 pm

First point: you don’t have to graduate to have student loan debt.

But once again, these aren’t the demands of a working class. The representative organs of the American working class as classically constructed aren’t particularly revolutionary at the moment, in fact they haven’t been able to engage in offensive mediation between workers and capital for around half a century. The whole point of the piece is that the debt relation provokes a certain range affect that happens to be historically more intolerable than other form of inequality or unfairness.

Freddie, if Mike couldn’t convince you that we’re not dealing with liberalism or “good life” fantasies here with all those numbers (“body” occurs more on the 99% tumblr than “house” “home” or “car”), then I’m not sure I’ll be able to. But I think you’ll still be quite mistaken. I don’t know if you looked at the distribution numbers that I linked to, but they show, for example, the proportion of black and latino families with student debt sky-rocketing over the past decade and surpassing the proportion of white families.

The demographics of student debt have changed a lot, it’s time people’s thinking caught up.

26

Antonio Conselheiro 02.23.12 at 6:25 pm

School debt also ensures that even the successful will enter their careers as the slaves of the money power. An MD who owes $150,000 — $400,000 (normal range, they say) is pretty much at the mercy of HMOs.

Koch and Paul populists are the diametrical opposite of actual Populists. They rep[resent creditors, probably mostly small-time creditors. Paul is a goldbug, and the Koches grandfather represented Texas railroads in the era when the railroads were the Populists’ worst enemies (he moved to Quanah, Texas in 1888). Link

27

Steve LaBonne 02.23.12 at 6:26 pm

So, Freddie, if you’re not saying that, then you must think you WILL get them on your side by dismissing their problems as being not particularly pressing. Well, that’s even more brilliant. With that kind of ability as a political strategist, how can you lose?

28

Brett Dunbar 02.23.12 at 6:29 pm

The student loans in the UK aren’t really comparable. They are not commercial loans nor are they structured like commercial loans. In practice the student loan functions as a graduate tax, you pay an extra 9% on earnings above £21,000 pa the threshold is indexed so remains constant in real terms and any outstanding balance is written off after 30 years. Only very high earners will actually repay all of the loan within 30 years, for everyone else it works out exactly like a graduate tax. If you earn enough to pay it all off significantly earlier you can save a bit compared to those high earners who just about pay it off in 30 years. The bonds issued by the Student Loan Company carry a state guarantee so are effectively as secure as gilts. Effectively the SLC is a way of paying for higher education through off balance sheet borrowing.

29

malcolmpharris 02.23.12 at 6:31 pm

Revolutionary politics isn’t about finding the most oppressed person and helping them, that’s the impulse for self-indulgent charity work that late night commercials for missionary services prey on. Nor is it about finding the demographic population that’s most oppressed and innovating ways to improve their lot, that’s gooey-hearted paternalistic liberalism. Revolutionary politics is about, to quote Berger once more, “the struggle to the death against what is.” The proletariat isn’t the working class, it’s the class that abolishes the class system.

Insofar as your critique is literally that people who have student debt are not the most oppressed people in the world, I don’t think it’s a very serious one.

30

Antonio Conselheiro 02.23.12 at 6:43 pm

The student debt problem is usually framed in terms of the graduates of the best schools who have the biggest debts, but it’s really a school-financing problem, and it pinches the people in the Tier 5 schools (like my alma mater) even worse. A poor kid with no real family support or connections, bright normal but not outstanding abilities, and a good but not great HS record will go to a lower-ranking school, borrow, and work while they’re in school, and this kind of kid rarely graduates in 4 years and often doesn’t graduate at all.

Framing it in Ivy League terms is destructive, because the successful Tier 5 kid who fought his way past the barriers is going to say “That guy has all that debt because he wanted a better degree than the one I got. And I have debt too.”

31

Freddie 02.23.12 at 6:43 pm

What percentage of the people protesting Wall Street because of their student loan debt would immediately cease their protest if they were offered a job at the self-same firms that they are currently protesting? I’ll understand if you can’t answer honestly.

The “revolution” you write about is driven by anger at the outcomes of the system, not the system itself. I’m not interested in rearranging which particular person gets to work at the investment bank. Sorry. If that’s your concern, fine. But when someone stamps around at an Occupy protest with a sign that laments the fact that they didn’t get the job that they felt they were entitled to, they aren’t trying to subvert the system. They are asking the system to perpetuate itself in a way that happens to include them. “I went to school and was not handed the job of my dreams” is not a rallying cry that could ever improve the situation of those on the bottom. And yes: despite your obvious disdain for a genuinely class-based politics, that is what I’m interested in. There is one and only one political orientation that matters to me, orientation towards power as such, as materially experienced. I recognize no superior commitment. When your current co-protesters are working in the banks they are currently protesting, 10 years from now, maybe you’ll feel the same way.

You fit in very well here, incidentally.

32

Antonio Conselheiro 02.23.12 at 6:48 pm

“By international standards” — the median Mexican is the median human, roughly speaking, so anyone better off than the median Mexican is relatively privileged. But 90-95% of Americans are better off than the median Mexican. Therefore, 95% of Americans are privileged and should suck it up. QED.

(Note: “Mexican” is not a slur. It’s the word used to indicate citizens of Mexico.)

33

Phil 02.23.12 at 6:49 pm

for everyone else it works out exactly like a graduate tax

Except that (a) it will be possible to pay it off early, for those who can afford to (a possibility initially excluded under Lib Dem pressure) and (b) it won’t literally be a tax, it’ll be an unpaid loan – which is bound to have some effect on those people’s financial position in later life. Admittedly I wouldn’t expect credit rating agencies to look at an unpaid student loan and think “whoa, look who’s borrowing money that he’s never going to be able to repay”, but equally I wouldn’t expect them to think “just like a tax, tax not a loan, nothing to see here”.

34

Trevor 02.23.12 at 6:51 pm

Isn’t the dialectical reversal of this simply just: arrive at “jubilee”, get debt free, become bourgeoisie? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWlx9MRvWTc

Boltanski and Chiapello cover a lot of this. This “powderkeg” doesn’t turn out to be so explosive, it’ll suffice to placate a potential disruptive social actor with “jobs”, land, or simply erasing debt. If only a generational analysis got to the heart of the inertia of the world-system, this might constitute actual political economy. Instead, this is one small selective facet of analysis that merely valorizes the participation of white, upper middle class college students and their future prospects, as if it is the straw that will definitively break the camel’s back, or something.

Analogously, say its 2006 and the author is arguing that subprime mortgage derivatives may *possibly* be a “powderkeg” of social disruption because many will now be a rentier class and/or be underwater with their homes. Rhetorically extrapolating away from material development and hypostatizing some political or social consequence because *now* the former middle management class is in trouble and could possibly, maybe, potentially see little stake in continuing to cooperate with an exploitative system.

35

malcolmpharris 02.23.12 at 6:55 pm

I’m sorry, but what sort of mental gymnastics does it take to turn “the struggle to the death against what is” into “rearranging which particular person gets to work at the investment bank”? That’s just bad faith argumentation. I’m talking about the abolition of capital and the state, which are the central political orientations that matter to me, but far from the only ones.

As for the reconstruction of hierarchy along new lines being mistaken for revolutionary, I wrote something about that once too: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-loser-wins/

If you’re sure there will be banks 10 years from now, you’ve already conceded.

36

malcolmpharris 02.23.12 at 7:06 pm

Yes, if the US could/would write off a trillion dollars in student debt and give everyone under 30 land and the ability to subsist, they could stabilize our society a lot. I think the chances of this happening are roughly the same as an asteroid destroying the earth in the same time frame and significantly lower than a deeper revolutionary sequence.

And Trevor, read the damn thread. A higher percentage of blacks and latinos have student debt than whites.

37

chrismealy 02.23.12 at 7:12 pm

Freddie, if you’re going to play that game then all we should care about is global warming. Let me be the first scold: none if this is going to matter if we don’t have a habitable planet. Are you happy now?

38

Dave 02.23.12 at 7:14 pm

Freddie, it’s frustrating that you seem to have precisely one idea about student debt forgiveness, i.e. that you dislike the people demanding it, which you trot out again and again pretending that you have a “moral” argument about it. You don’t have a moral argument; you just think the people complaining aren’t screwed enough to be complaining. I think you’re wrong. I think that for such a safe, advantaged class of people (if they are that), people with student loan debt are remarkably screwed.

But are they who you say they are? I doubt it. I doubt you know anyone who directly participated in Occupy, or what percentage of those people have ever been college students. I also doubt you have any idea what percentage of the most disadvantaged people around themselves have student loan debt. Isn’t it possible that student debt forgiveness might help those people? I teach a lot of them, and I suspect it would.

39

Substance McGravitas 02.23.12 at 7:18 pm

What percentage of the people protesting Wall Street because of their student loan debt would immediately cease their protest if they were offered a job at the self-same firms that they are currently protesting? I’ll understand if you can’t answer honestly.

If we imagine 100%, the problem of student debt is not gone. Let me go further and imagine everyone with crushing student debt was in fact offered a job that could pay off their loans…

40

malcolmpharris 02.23.12 at 7:37 pm

This misses the point though, capital can’t offer everyone with college debt a job that will allow them to pay it off: youth unemployment is at its highest rate ever recorded. A big part of the condition I’m describing is the absence of these jobs combined with the high debt. I thought that was clear. Changing either of those conditions would change the situation, but I don’t predict either is likely to occur.

41

Substance McGravitas 02.23.12 at 7:46 pm

This misses the point though, capital can’t offer everyone with college debt a job that will allow them to pay it off: youth unemployment is at its highest rate ever recorded.

Right. It was a joke at Freddie’s expense. Obviously if you can make the bad thing go away it will then go away. I don’t personally believe there’s going to be relief for quite a while, but obviously there should be.

42

J. Otto Pohl 02.23.12 at 7:58 pm

Well students could follow CT advice for Greece and go the ‘Full Argentina.’ Since you can not legally discharge student loans through bankruptcy court in the US this presents some problems. But, would not at some point simply not paying the loans back become a better option than continuing to make payments for some people? Or is there no point at which a de-facto default is the better option?

43

Marc 02.23.12 at 8:18 pm

I’m curious whether it’s possible to reverse the generational transfer for undergraduate education. We made a decision to switch from tax-supported public universities to tuition-supported public universities; in principle this could be reversed.

I suspect that the current generation of college students will be the ones mostly strongly opposed to this. They had their loans (and had to struggle to pay them off); why should the younger generation get a free ride?

44

elm 02.23.12 at 8:19 pm

malcolmpharris @ 25

First point: you don’t have to graduate to have student loan debt.

This bears repeating. Students at for-profit colleges have higher debt burdens than students at not-for-profit (public or private) institutions and for-profit colleges have pathetically-low graduation rates for their 4-year programs.

45

Steve LaBonne 02.23.12 at 8:27 pm

I suspect that the current generation of college students will be the ones mostly strongly opposed to this. They had their loans (and had to struggle to pay them off); why should the younger generation get a free ride?

That’s the “wonderful” thing about regressive policies of that kind. Human nature being what it is, once instituted they create their own constituency for retaining them, among the very people they harmed. From the point of view of the 1% this is obviously a feature.

46

js. 02.23.12 at 8:33 pm

Students at for-profit colleges have higher debt burdens than students at not-for-profit (public or private) institutions and for-profit colleges have pathetically-low graduation rates for their 4-year programs.

This, and this again. People who think college debt is some kind of White American middle-class problem need to stop reading this, and start reading about the for-profit college industry.

[What happened to the comment preview feature, btw?]

47

Barry 02.23.12 at 8:38 pm

Freddie: “second, that the problem is one that largely afflicts those who have major demographic advantages. Advantages like access to health care, chance of being the victim of a crime, odds on being incarcerated, lifetime earnings potential, political representation, life expectancy…. The numbers tell us that American college graduates (like me), even those with significant debt, are second, that the problem is one that largely afflicts those who have major demographic advantages. Advantages like access to health care, chance of being the victim of a crime, odds on being incarcerated, lifetime earnings potential, political representation, life expectancy…. The numbers tell us that American college graduates (like me), even those with significant debt, are among the safest and most advantaged people in the world.

I see right-wingers using this ‘better off than the vast majority of people in the world’ argument against helping people in developed countries.

I’ve never seen it used to support taxing the elites, even though frankly punitive taxes would still leave them “..are among the safest and most advantaged people in the world.”

“What percentage of the people protesting Wall Street because of their student loan debt would immediately cease their protest if they were offered a job at the self-same firms that they are currently protesting? I’ll understand if you can’t answer honestly.”

If people were graduating into and living in a world with plentiful, well-paying jobs, there’d be far less anger.

And you consider this to be an argument?

“The “revolution” you write about is driven by anger at the outcomes of the system, not the system itself. “

The system *is* its outcomes.
Fr

48

Substance McGravitas 02.23.12 at 8:38 pm

But, would not at some point simply not paying the loans back become a better option than continuing to make payments for some people? Or is there no point at which a de-facto default is the better option?

If you’re an individual just “not paying the loans back” isn’t an option because payments will get deducted out of whatever other income you have. The only way to avoid paying would be to have no income. You can still get the loans discharged through bankruptcy but it’s a rare exception.

49

Salient 02.23.12 at 8:46 pm

But when someone stamps around at an Occupy protest with a sign that laments the fact that they didn’t get the job that they felt they were entitled to, they aren’t trying to subvert the system.

What a weird thing to say. The undergrads who come visit after class mostly show up for solidarity reasons, not (just) because they’re unemployed, and student loan debt only comes up occasionally. We talk a lot more about regulation, trust-busting, and bullshit.

People posting signs in the “we are the 99%” blog are following the pattern of the meme, which is very self-oriented. In a world in which their own lot in life improves, yes, they would cease to post such signs.^1^ That doesn’t necessarily that mean their interest in justice would cease, and I see nothing wrong with using this time to cultivate allies that might assist us in building a better world once their own suffering is sated. I am not jaded enough to believe that the average person automatically becomes hostile to issues of justice as soon as their personal situation improves. That response, the aggressive othering of suffering persons, is artificial and cultivated. Given that we aren’t in a position to alleviate the suffering, we may as well use this opportunity to connect with people.

If they don’t hear our voices, they’ll hear others.

But, would not at some point simply not paying the loans back become a better option than continuing to make payments for some people?

I’m pretty sure this is literally not an option, since automatic wage garnishment for student loan repayment is baked into the bankruptcy cake.

^1^Though it’s beautiful and amazing, to me anyway, how many of the 99% signs declare sympathy for the plight of others.

50

robotslave 02.23.12 at 8:53 pm

to the extent that it’s the result of decreased public support (switch from grants to loans, decreased state subsidies for schools) you can just think of it as a switch of public resources from universities to prisons and the military

Sure, if we can fix that to replace “the military” with “medicare and social security.” Let’s be honest about which expenditures have shot up over the period that university funding has plummeted, yes?

I am not fond of the “intraclass” argument, but I seem to be putting my foot in it here.

51

malcolmpharris 02.23.12 at 9:10 pm

Worth noting that students being forced to take out loans at much higher rates than the government gets to support medicare and social security is exactly an intergenerational transfer.

52

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.23.12 at 9:15 pm

It’s not a switch to medicare and social security, because medicare and social security are financed separately, by their own taxes.

53

John Emerson 02.23.12 at 9:33 pm

Social Security and Medicare Spending.

From 1970 to 2010 the total amount spent went from about 4% to about 8.5%. Only 2% of the increase is Social Security. As Dean Baker keeps pointing out, the problem with entitlements is that medical care is twice as expensive in the US as it is anywhere else. Between Medicare and the VA, government spending on medical care is already almost enough to pay for socialized medicine for all, at a normal cost.

Cost of incarceration multiplied about 4 times 1982-2008. The difference is more than 50 billion dollars a year.

Those wars we just fought did cost money, you know. Don’t have a dollar amount right here, but it was lots.

I understand that you have your reasons to believe thaTt The Real Problem Is Entitlements, but no one else has to look at it that way.

54

Substance McGravitas 02.23.12 at 9:47 pm

Cost of incarceration multiplied about 4 times 1982-2008. The difference is more than 50 billion dollars a year.

The funding being largely supplied by the states, who fund their state universities. So sure, prisons instead of education. Kind of a logical path.

55

robotslave 02.23.12 at 10:21 pm

@53

I’m not suggesting that entitlements are “the problem.” I’m suggesting that if we’re thinking about this as a transfer away from education and into other things, that we be honest with ourselves about what those other things are, and that “prisons and the military” is dishonest.

Personally, I believe that insufficient and insufficiently progressive revenues are “the problem.”

56

Don Levit 02.23.12 at 10:25 pm

Henri wrote that Social Security and Medicare are financed separately, by their own taxes.
Correct.
And when cash income exceeds cash outgo, everything is fine.
It is when the cash outgo has exceeded the cash income, in which Social Security and Medicare’s funding problems become more transparent.
Every dollar of principal and interest not needed to pay for current beneficiaries has been lent from the trust fund to the Treasury, spent for current expenses, amd lowered the deficits.
While the trust fund is separate from an accounting perspective, it is united with all other expenses from a cash perspective.
The cash perspective is more accurate than the accounting perspective, don’t you think?
Don Levit

57

Mandos 02.23.12 at 11:12 pm

I’m pretty sure this is literally not an option, since automatic wage garnishment for student loan repayment is baked into the bankruptcy cake.

Yes, that is the “awesome” thing about this whole idea. Why would our elites think that creating a continuously-growing class of educated debt-peons was a good idea in the long run? Yes, yes, I know the answer…

58

Antonio Conselheiro 02.24.12 at 12:26 am

Robotslave, I think that I hedged my #24 well enough not to be accused twice of dishonesty. I said “you can just think of it” and “you can’t find a direct link” and I granted the simplemindedness of what I said. You seem to prefer to think of it in terms of increased entitlements and reduced revenues, which is OK too if those are the things you’re trying to highlight. 1970-2010 we’ve moved away from education toward incarceration and war, and military spending remained high after the collapse of the main enemy a couple decades ago and increased 81% dueing the first decade of the 21st c.

Don’t try to tell me that the recent military increases were a response to a threat.

59

Helen 02.24.12 at 12:33 am

Also,everybody who goes to college is the overclass now? 29% of Americans?

Can I just point out, too, that in the Western world (I’m in Australia, not the US, but the same thing appears to be happening) a tertiary degree is demanded for entry-level places which in the 1960s-70s would have been given to people out of high school, and training conducted on the job? Part of this is that employers now refuse to provide the training but instead force the employee to pay for it his/herself in the form of higher education. I think that someone who thinks that graduates are all an overclass is ignoring the cubicle jockeys like us.

60

Brett Dunbar 02.24.12 at 1:07 am

Actually as the UK student loans do function exactly like a graduate tax across most income levels the expectation is that the banks and other lenders will treat it like they would have treated a graduate tax. It means that the net income resulting from a given gross income is a little lower which has some effect on the size of ordinary debt a graduate will be able to service, which is exactly what a graduate tax would do. Normal repayment is solely linked to income levels, not the level of outstanding debt. Only if you have a high income and would actually pay off the loan (roughly top 10% of incomes) does it make sense to pay off early.

61

BillCinSD 02.24.12 at 1:22 am

Sure, if we can fix that to replace “the military” with “medicare and social security.” Let’s be honest about which expenditures have shot up over the period that university funding has plummeted, yes?

As colleges are primarily state funded while medicare and social security are funded nationally, there is little connection between them at all. This is true of non-National Guard military as well.

62

robotslave 02.24.12 at 1:33 am

“1970-2010 we’ve moved away from education toward incarceration and war”

This is a lie by omission. The biggest dollar and percent spending increase has been on health care. If you keep making dishonest statements, I will keep calling you dishonest.

1970-2010 we’ve moved away from education, mass transit, nuclear weapons, basic science research, and other things, and toward health care, war, social security, incarceration, roads, agricultural subsidy, and other things.

If you’re not particularly interested in government spending on health care, that’s fine. But don’t expect everyone else to ignore it, if you want to talk about budgetary changes over the past four decades.

63

robotslave 02.24.12 at 1:50 am

@61

I would add to this that even at the state level, health care has been an increasing percentage of spending, at a minimum to provide health insurance for state employees. Prison spending has increased at both state and federal levels, as well.

States have suffered more on the revenue end, too, as a result of the tax revolt exemplified by California’s prop 13.

64

Antonio Conselheiro 02.24.12 at 1:50 am

Oh, fuck you, you quibbling moron. I didn’t claim to have described the whole governmental spending history of the seventies, eighties, nineties and aughts in ten words. Is that hard to understand? Do think that was what I was trying to do? Did I claim to do that? Would anyone do that?

I said “You can look at it this way”. You can also look at it in other ways! At times I myself talk about healthcare spending! But you can’t really say everything all at once, and I wanted to make the particular point I was making.

So fuck off, you insulting piece of shit. If you call names, so will I.

65

Antonio Conselheiro 02.24.12 at 1:56 am

I didn’t actually think that it would need underlining, but anyway: college, jail, and the military all disproportionately impact 18-to-20 year olds, whereas farm subsidies and medicare spending do not. So our spending on that age group has been changed.

66

Marc 02.24.12 at 1:56 am

@62: You are aware that state governments in the US fund different things than the national government, correct?

http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2783

Note that there is considerable variation; California spends more on prisons than on higher education. Also note that in many states it’s local governments that primarily fund K-12 education. Your particular hobbyhorses are not the entire story.

67

Substance McGravitas 02.24.12 at 2:02 am

http://prospect.org/article/education-vs-incarceration

Nearly 75 percent of imprisonment spending happens at the state level, where dollars are drawn from a general fund that is meant to pay for a range of public needs, including health care, housing, public assistance, and education. Whether we look back over the last two decades, or just the last two years, education, in particular, has become a casualty of state budget battles. Analysis by the National Association of State Budget Officers shows that elementary and high schools receive 73 percent of their state funding from this discretionary fund; colleges and universities count on the fund for half of their budgets. However, $9 out of every $10 that support imprisonment come from the same pot of money. With tens of billions of dollars in prison spending annually, states are finding that there is simply less discretionary money available to invest in education, especially in these lean economic times.

Indeed, as the economic downturn limited all state spending in the fiscal year 2008-2009, the share of general-fund money going to incarceration grew as expenditures in every other category — -save public assistance — declined. States still spend more of their general-fund dollars on education than on incarceration, but the percentage of dollars being used for incarceration is increasing, while the percentage for education is decreasing. In 33 of 50 states, corrections — related costs made up a larger proportion of the general fund than in the previous fiscal year, while spending on K-12 and higher education decreased.

68

Substance McGravitas 02.24.12 at 2:03 am

Strikethroughs are of course CT software failures.

69

robotslave 02.24.12 at 2:16 am

@67

Thanks, that clears the air nicely, I think. Can we all agree to “revenue shortfalls have led to cuts in education funding while prison and public assistance spending increase?”

70

UserGoogol 02.24.12 at 9:32 am

Antonio Conselheiro: Military spending has gone down as a percentage of federal spending since 1970. There was a Cold War going on back then, after all. You could quite rightly say that it should have gone down more, (and it’s gone up in absolute terms) but it isn’t really right to say that the trend has been to move more money to war.

71

Eli Rabett 02.24.12 at 9:40 am

As an early participant and a later observer, the increase in university costs and loan burden on students and their family has been interesting to watch. The entire movement is driven by the two groups that benefit, banks and faculty. What is surprising is that the reaction has been so slow in arriving. It has also been somewhat dispiriting that the European countries are following this awful path, driven by the illusion that foreign students will bring an extra pot of gold with them.

72

Eli Rabett 02.24.12 at 9:49 am

There two issues underlying this argument that need to be examined. First, that all parents are owed a debt. Anyone with experience of the real world knows too many parents/children where the parents should have been shot, and if there is any debt it is owed to the children for the damage that the parents did to them.

The second is that being underwater is a new thing. It is a new thing in the last fifty years, but again, previously it was the normal thing. Many/most of us have grandparents that fled to escape futility. Some immigrated internally, others to new countries. Some succeeded. It is exactly the welfare state that changed this balance, and which we are in the process of forgetting at our cost.

73

J. Otto Pohl 02.24.12 at 11:03 am

It is not that difficult to get around wage garnishing. The usual way is you take a job that pays you under the table in cash and do not report the income. There is a huge underground economy in the US that operates in this manner with employers not really caring about certain legal details. How do you think illegal aliens are able to earn money to live off of and even send back home? So the garnishing does not mean that there is no way to avoid payment. So at what point is it worth it to take a job that pays in unreported cash to avoid the garnishing? Or does it never reach this point for any individual with student debt as against other forms of payment obligations?

74

Eli Rabett 02.24.12 at 11:09 am

#73: the cash economy is not limited to wages. It is well known that small businesses under-report cash income.

75

Marc 02.24.12 at 1:05 pm

@69: It’s a combination of starving the states for revenue and shifting the spending priorities. If you’re outside the US it may not be apparent how enormous the prison system is and how much it has grown over the last 30 years. (California prison spending grew from 600 million in 1981 to 9.6 billion in 2011 according to resources that I could find, and imposed a 21% tuition hike last year.)

76

Barry 02.24.12 at 1:09 pm

UserGoogol 02.24.12 at 9:32 am

” Antonio Conselheiro: Military spending has gone down as a percentage of federal spending since 1970. There was a Cold War going on back then, after all. You could quite rightly say that it should have gone down more, (and it’s gone up in absolute terms) but it isn’t really right to say that the trend has been to move more money to war.”

Last I heard, 1970 was during the Vietnam War, so this is comparing spending during a major conventional war to spending after that.

77

Barry 02.24.12 at 1:12 pm

J. Otto Pohl 02.24.12 at 11:03 am

” It is not that difficult to get around wage garnishing. The usual way is you take a job that pays you under the table in cash and do not report the income. There is a huge underground economy in the US that operates in this manner with employers not really caring about certain legal details. How do you think illegal aliens are able to earn money to live off of and even send back home? So the garnishing does not mean that there is no way to avoid payment. So at what point is it worth it to take a job that pays in unreported cash to avoid the garnishing? Or does it never reach this point for any individual with student debt as against other forms of payment obligations?”

In other words, ‘you can always sink into the underground economy, so quicher bichin!’.
I’m getting tired of the idea that if you can still sink lower, you’re not really in trouble.

78

tax 02.24.12 at 1:27 pm

IMHO a debt jubilee is grossly unfair. Many teenagers, when faced with the high cost of college, chose to go to cheaper colleges or not at all; they chose to get jobs or second jobs; and so on.

The past is water under the bridge; choices have been made, and the fairest, most just solution is to keep the status quo, or at best twink it at the margins. If you think a generation has been treated unfairly in the past, give everyone of that generation 20k or 50k – not just the ones in debt. And by all means, going forth, do the equivalent, such as make all colleges free, so that individuals going forward have better choices. But to do it in the past is an insult and an injury to all of us who chose not to go into debt and took the less easy paths.

79

Alex 02.24.12 at 1:49 pm

But if you moved to Ghana, you’d be able to live like a viceroy for pence, because everyone else is so much poorer, and endlessly bore people on the Internet about the combination of material comfort and moral superiority such a plan provides!

80

guthrie 02.24.12 at 2:04 pm

Eli #71 – whilst you are probably correct about the fee inflation in the USA, here in the UK it is a little more complex. The first lot of tuition fees was partly introduced because the previous expansion of higher education had been underfunded, and also becasuse new labour worshipped business and markets so stole all their old useless ideas. Meanwhile, universities found they could charge foreigners much more to do degrees here. Unfortunately, that peaked 6 or 8 years ago, and numbers of students have been dropping ever since, as the developing countries find their own universities have grown and improved.

Meanwhile though, universities have had an increase in bureacratic staff, partly related to an increase in management thinking and empire building and a re-orientation of university administration from supporting the the research and teaching to ruling over the research and teaching. And also with more students from non-university traditional backgrounds come to uni, they need more support which means more staff and more costs.

But then, as an additional problem, the tory scum government and their liberal accomplices wants to make the UK more like the USA, by privatising everything in the most inefficient and expensive way possible. Hence further increases in tuition fees.
Of course someone actually working within the sector may tell me I’m horribly wrong.

81

J. Otto Pohl 02.24.12 at 2:37 pm

Barry:

I am not sure how you managed to completely misinterpret my question. But, I will restate it here. My question is at what point if ever does student debt cause an individual to go the ‘Full Argentina.’ The answer people have given me is that such an option was not possible because the creditors would just garnish their wages and therefore under no circumstances was it ever possible to ever avoid paying them back. I was merely pointing out that garnishment is not something that can prevent 100% of people from making their debt payments forever. There are ways to avoid it. People do avoid it regarding other forms of debt. So is there a point when student loans become so onerous that people in effect default on them? The impression I am getting from CT commentators is that unlike Greece there is no point in which an individual should default on student loans. Instead they should complain about them on blogs and such.

82

J. Otto Pohl 02.24.12 at 3:11 pm

My guess is that the garnishment is probably going to be at a level that totally defaulting is never attractive. That is if they take 10% of your income every month forever it is preferable to the ‘Full Argentina.’ An extra 10% is burdensome, but it is not that burdensome even if it is forever.

83

Barry 02.24.12 at 3:22 pm

I wasn’t misinterpreting your comment.

Your follow-up about keeping the garnishment is good – the problem is when jobs are either not available, or at an imiserating level. When one is pulling down $8/hr, a 10% post-tax take really, really hurts.

The other problem is that there’s one thing which is proven not to be Wall St’s strong suite, and that’s restraint.

84

robotslave 02.24.12 at 3:48 pm

@76

I am not entirely convinced that we ought to count the middle eastern warmaking on this end of the timeline, but not the southeast asian warmaking on the other.

I am open to fudging a bit and attributing cold war spending to warmaking, without knowing where you might want to go with all this.

85

Sebastian 02.24.12 at 4:04 pm

“That is if they take 10% of your income every month forever it is preferable to the ‘Full Argentina.’ “

I think you either don’t understand “Full Argentina” or I don’t. The reason no one does the “Full Argentina” with respect to student debt is because it isn’t legally possible. You can kill someone by being a drunk driver, get a large civil judgment against you, and discharge it along with all of your non-student loan debt in bankruptcy.

But student debt is non-dischargeable. Unlike countries, which make their own laws, a person can’t discharge their debt outside of the law. So if the law says you can’t discharge the debt, you can’t discharge the debt. People aren’t like countries. Countries can say “we aren’t paying this back and you can’t do anything more about it than shut off our credit”.

If individuals try that, they find that the banks can garnish their wages and Social Security checks at whatever level is legal at the time. (at the moment, that is 15%).
Given these facts, I don’t know what you mean by “That is if they take 10% [sic] of your income every month forever it is preferable to the ‘Full Argentina.’” Default with repudiation of the debt *is not available to individuals in the United States*. Individuals don’t make a choice to fail to repudiate the debt. It is legally not an option for them.

Your other suggestions, amounting to the idea that they can/should just illegally hide their income, are true but illegal. Another possibility that you fail to mention is that they could rob a bank and pay back the debt. That suggestion has problems very similar to your other suggestions…

86

Antonio Conselheiro 02.24.12 at 5:26 pm

Yes, considering that the enemy we had collapsed around 1990, we should have reduced military spending. And as a percentage military spending went down, but in absolute terms it increased.

87

mjfgates 02.24.12 at 6:33 pm

Why hasn’t anybody mentioned yet that “doing a Full Argentina” to avoid student loan debt would be completely idiotic, even for people who don’t complete a degree? Yeah, I’m going to college so I can… stand around outside Lowe’s hoping to get picked up for day labor? Share a house with a dozen people? Feh. Even a minimum-wage job with a quarter of it taken out by garnishing pays more than any kind of work you could get in the “cash economy.” (Yes, that includes professional work done under the table. I’ve done that. Hourly rates are lower than if you do it the legal way, and jobs are few and far between.)

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Barry 02.24.12 at 6:51 pm

And if somebody stiffs you on an under-the-table job, you’re flat out SOL.
If they stiff you in an above board job, you might be able to do something about it.

89

robotslave 02.24.12 at 8:16 pm

US National Defense spending, 1989-1999, millions of dollars:

 1989: 303,555
 1990: 299,321
 1991: 273,285
 1992: 298,346
 1993: 291,084
 1994: 281,640
 1995: 272,063
 1996: 265,748
 1997: 270,502
 1998: 268,194
 1999: 274,769

I believe these are nominal, non-inflation-adjusted dollars, but I’m not 100% certain.

Source. From the Office of Management and Budget Historical Tables. War spending is included in the OMB numbers.

Three charts built fromanother file on the same page:

Outlays by superfunction in millions of dollars, 1940-2011

Outlays by function in millions of dollars, 1940-2011

Outlays by superfunction as a percentage of total outlays, 1940-2011

Projected spending through 2017, which anticipates significant decline in total dollar amount of Defense spending, due to drawdowns in (idiotic) foreign wars, is not included in the charts. They show only what has actually already happened.

You are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.

90

Jenna Moran 02.25.12 at 4:38 am

IMHO a debt jubilee is grossly unfair. Many teenagers, when faced with the high cost of college, chose to go to cheaper colleges or not at all; they chose to get jobs or second jobs; and so on.

The past is water under the bridge; choices have been made, and the fairest, most just solution is to keep the status quo, or at best twink it at the margins. If you think a generation has been treated unfairly in the past, give everyone of that generation 20k or 50k – not just the ones in debt. And by all means, going forth, do the equivalent, such as make all colleges free, so that individuals going forward have better choices. But to do it in the past is an insult and an injury to all of us who chose not to go into debt and took the less easy paths.

I don’t know. I think that you’re imagining someone who’s just like you, only weaker and more self-indulgent—this person who stood at your place of branching paths, and chickened out. And it hurts to think of someone else handwaving away the sacrifices you made by leveling the two paths’ outcomes out. But the thing is—that other person you’re imagining is just a mental construct. There weren’t two yous, a weak you and a strong you. There isn’t someone out there undoing your decisions or leveling them out. The people who’ll be helped or hurt by the policies America chooses aren’t hypothetical alternate yous; they’re people with their own stories. The choices you’ve made were either right or wrong, wise or foolish, strong or weak, and if they were strong and right and wise and good then that means something completely separate from the financial position where you ended up.

Looking for ways to validate your sacrifices shouldn’t be necessary. In the end, any time you put yourself square against the lightening of burdens, you’re doing bad work in the world. The only reason not to forgive a debt, ever; not to help someone, ever; not to take pleasure in someone having a good thing happen, ever—is the ways in which forgiving the debt, helping them, seeing that good thing happen hurts someone else.

If they were fools and you were wise, you’re going to do better at life, be happier, be saner, be more productive, be healthier. If it’s the other way around, keeping them stomped down isn’t going to help. Life’s just not *like* that, resenting people for the possibility of respite isn’t going to map accurately onto any kind of truth. There’s no such thing as a lazy, worthless clone of you out there whose success would make your choices dumb; it doesn’t even work as a hypothetical unless your choices were dumb already, which it doesn’t sound as if they were.

Every day, every moment, everyone in the world is doing a mix of things that are hard for them that take a terrible courage and things that betray their terrible weakness, moral laziness, and sloth. Zoom in, zoom out, look at their life and brain and choices at different levels of resolution, I swear you’ll find multiple examples of both. Nobody’s good enough to skip out on the willful ignorance and you’d have to be dead to lose out entirely on will and courage.

If you crawl out of a burning building with your own strength, and you’re hurt, and the emergency services don’t have the spare people to help you because they’re too busy rescuing the children trapped on the third floor still inside, that legitimately sucks, but it’s not a reason to resent the children on the third floor of a burning building or the firefighter who’s in there trying to get them out instead of making sure you’re OK. It may feel pretty awful that because you were strong you get less help but only if you don’t really like being the kind of person who can get out of a burning building on their own, only if that’s valueless to you, only if you’d rather be the kind of person in the kind of circumstances who’d needed the help. And in the end that’s silly; it’s always better to be able to look up when they save someone else’s life and smile because that’s good.

I guess. I don’t know. That’s just what I think. ^_^

91

Jenna Moran 02.25.12 at 4:40 am

(The first two paragraphs were supposed to be a cite, and the dash at the end is meant to be an anime smiley. I’m not sure how that failed.)

92

Antonio Conselheiro 02.27.12 at 5:51 pm

Dead thread, I suppose, but when your main enemy disappears from the face of the earth a very substantial decrease in military spending would be expected, just as a very substantial decrease in military spending would have been expected after the Vietnam War ended. But instead it was decided to keep the mobilization permanent. This was a decision. And at the time it was very loudly stated by the Republicans that there would be no “peace dividend.” This is to say nothing about the years 2000-2012 which you failed to report.

The US now spends more on its military than the next eight or ten nations combined. It was decided that we would do this. It was also decided during the same era that we would let education spending decline.

And again, go fuck yourself. The factual point you’ve made is correct and doesn’t contradict mine, but the word “dishonest” set me off.

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robotslave 02.27.12 at 8:12 pm

to say nothing about the years 2000-2012 which you failed to report

And during which there was a distinct absence of “peacetime.” Which is the circumstance under which you suggest military spending ought to decline.

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Antonio Conselheiro 02.27.12 at 9:06 pm

The Iraq war was a discretionary war chosen as part of the permanent war policy. Part of deciding to spend a lot of money on the military is deciding to look for wars to fight.

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Substance McGravitas 02.27.12 at 9:25 pm

The insane profligacy of the Iraq war makes you think that Dick Cheney was right to talk about deficits not mattering, at least for those who print the money. When Americans want to go crazy spending cash they can always do it. Makes me pine for a reckless free-spending left.

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