Crooked Timber has an interesting piece that discusses the situation of our “debt-enslaved” youth. I think he makes some good points, although I also think he is somewhat sideways to the issue.
Malcompharris, Out of the Crooked Timber, 23 February 2012 (Hat tip: MR)
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 reason I believe he is sideways to the issue, is that I think he is miss-framing the problem. It is not that we have a working system that has become unbalanced. A system where the parent (society) hands an invoice to our children (society’s youth) at the age of 21 and says “pay us back.” What we have is a society that cannot maintain its current economic wellbeing.
Look at it from a highway infrastructure point of view. We currently do not have enough money to maintain our bridges and highways in adequate condition.
1. We can choose to cutback on the highways and bridges that we currently have to the point where the current repair budget is adequate (asset reduction).
2. We can borrow money to pay for repairs and shift the general spending into the future (future wealth reduction)
3. We can take the money from some other area of spending to pay for the repairs (service reduction).
4. We can borrow money to pay for the repairs and pay for them with toll roads that require specific end-users to pay for their upkeep.
The first option is analogous to cutting off all student loans and having a pay-as-you-go system. The cost of education would likely go down, but it is none-the-less true that less people would be getting themselves educated.
The second option is pretty much what a debt jubilee on education does. Transfers the cost of education to the general public. As we do not have enough money to pay for all this on an ongoing basis, the net result would have to be either the first (less education) or third (less something else) options eventually.
The last option is what is being done with the student loan situation. We can no longer afford to educate our children gratis, so we have them pay a toll.
The problem is that we do not recognize the danger that the future outcomes may not be sufficient to pay for the inputs. What if the receipts are not enough to cover the costs, and what if that toll booth is at the end of your driveway, not only on specific roads.
And there is the trap. You get on the toll road to get to work, but the toll takes half of your income. You get yourself educated, and the loans eat up half your income.
Now it is all very true that you can abandon your car and walk everywhere, and you can abandon your education and live in a little trailer on junk land to keep your costs close to zero. These are choices.
But these are all choices of people who are poorer than we believe ourselves to be.