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Debt: What It Is and Why We Fight It

David Graeber, Mike Konczal, Sarah Jaffe and Brian Kalkbrenner discuss debt--what it is, why we're drowning in it, why it's a political issue. Moderated by Astra Taylor.

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Another thing we’re trying to do is change the language around student debt. We’re not asking for forgiveness. We don’t believe it’s something we should be forgiven for. There’re a lot of people defaulting on their student loans; there’re a lot of people buried by this debt. It’s an agonizing thing, when you’re making this decision whether to pay, like, this electricity bill, or my student debt bill. And I don’t know if you’ve been up against it, but I certainly have, and I’ve certainly chosen not to pay my student debt bill before, because, well, this other bill is more important. It’s sort of a harrowing experience for a lot of reasons, including feeling morally culpable, but also just helpless. And one of the things about this campaign is it provides a way for isolated debtors to join together in a collective body. And in doing that, in keeping with the spirit of OWS, we’re also not asking for any sort of reforms; we’re not asking for the powers that be to take a certain set of actions. Rather we’re trying to change the landscape of the power structure itself and create a new empowered body, political body. If you’re interested, our url is The three pledges are there, there’s a lot of other information about it, and I’m sure more will come out as we talk.

Taylor: I wanted to talk a little more about just how punitive student debt is. Because when you say you default on your student loans, it almost sounds like maybe you default and get out of it. I know from experience that—I was very poor for a while, and I just stopped paying my student loans. And some months went by and I got a phone call, and they said, “You have not been paying your student loans, so we’ve added 19 percent to your principal.” Suddenly overnight, like $12,000 more. So in other words, I couldn’t pay, and they said, “You owe us more!” I don’t know if that was defaulting or what, but it definitely scared the shit out of me, which is why I never advise people to not pay their student loans. But what—you know, they can garnish your Social Security—what does it mean to default? What can they do to you?

Kalkbrenner: They can do all kinds of things to you, I guess. The most important thing is that there are all sorts of traps built into the system so that if you miss a payment or fall behind—this number just grows exponentially. And you find that a lot of the programs to, for example, reduce payment, you know, deferment and hardship programs—they’ll reduce your payment, but what they don’t really tell you or don’t emphasize is that in doing so, they do a kind of calculus which then increases your principal. Right? [Some laughter.] Yeah, see, some people know.

In garnishing wages, they can garnish up to 15 percent and that won’t count toward any of your interest principal. So the consequences are real, and this is part of the campaign, trying to mobilize this body. Again, we’re suffering the consequences in isolation, but, in coming together, it’s not that we’ll suffer these consequences together, it’s that we will be a voice for change. And because such a sizable portion of the population has this kind of debt, there’s a real radical potential, I think.

Taylor: Next up is David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years. He’s going to take us in his time machine to the beginning! And it’s perfect to pick up on this word, “forgiveness.” We’re not asking for forgiveness, because one thing David discovers in his book is that morality and debt are always deeply entwined, and that it is a kind of vacillating concept. Maybe you could talk about the issue of primordial debt—are we all indebted, just because we exist and we speak, we owe everything to everybody? Or is debt something that controls us and is connected to violence?

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