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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.

Photo Credit: Sarah Jaffe


A panel discussion held at the Occupy! Gazette‘s Occupy Onward Conference, December 18, 2011, at the New School for Social Research, New York City. Transcript from Occupy! Gazette Issue 4.

 David Graeber, Debt, The First 5,000 Years
Mike Konczal, The Roosevelt Institute
Brian Kalkbrenner, Occupy Student Debt 
Sarah Jaffe, AlterNet
Moderator: Astra Taylor, Occupy! Gazette
Transcribed by Elisabeth Asher

Astra Taylor: Hello, everyone. Welcome to our hastily arranged conference. It’s really nice to see you all here.

So, debt. It’s nice to talk about this subject here at the New School, the institution responsible for my debt, the institution I have begrudged for the last decade, every month when I pay $400 in interest.

One of my favorite moments of Occupy Wall Street was the second or third night. I walked up to Zuccotti Park—it was early on, I was shocked that there were so many people there—I’m walking along the corner of Broadway and Liberty, and there’s this guy, he’s playing a carnival barker, and he says, “Step right up! Write down what you owe to the bank; write down what you’re worth to the 1%!” He had these huge sheets of paper, and he had probably two dozen markers, and people were writing down what they owed and what type of debt. I actually walked by and went into the park and had this weird hesitation about putting that number down—because I would have to think about it. I would have to think about how much money I owed. But, as we were leaving, I went and took the marker and I wrote it down: $42,000. I felt sick to my stomach. Behind me, a girl who couldn’t have been more than 22 or 23 writes down $120,000 of student debt. And I thought, this is a radical moment, because we are articulating this number out loud, we are putting it in a political context, and this is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Something’s happening. 

I’ll introduce the panelists as they talk. The first is Sarah Jaffe. She’s a reporter for Alternet, where she’s been writing about debt. I want to ask this very simple question: Why isn’t debt a personal issue? I signed those loans. I might’ve been 17 when I signed for the first one, but nevertheless, I signed my name. I took out the debt. It’s my fault. Why is it a political issue?

Sarah Jaffe: Oh, so many reasons. A lot of us are only paying interest on this debt. I’ve got 15 grand in student loans, and I’ve had the same 15 grand in student loans for going on 11 years now, because I’ve just been paying the interest. This is a problem. This is a political problem. The student loan debt alone is going to be a trillion dollars sometime in the next couple of months. That’s a trillion dollars that we’re all paying in interest to Sallie Mae, to Citibank—mine was with Citibank for several years—to Wells Fargo, to Discover Card Services, which bought a bunch of student loan debt recently, and to the federal government. But we’re not paying that into our local businesses. We’re not paying this into the corner store. We’re not paying this to the farmer’s market. We’re not paying this to anything. We’re not buying a home because we have student loans or we’re not going back to school because we have a home loan. 

Debt has been a substitute for wage increases in this country for about the last thirty years, give or take. Real wages haven’t gone up in a really long time. We’re mortgaging our future on credit cards and home equity. And when the housing bubble popped, and the credit markets froze, we suddenly realized exactly how little we had that wasn’t promised to somebody else already. It becomes a drain on the future. My favorite example, about healthcare reform—there’s a shortage of primary care doctors, because primary care doctors make less than specialists. And most people who go to medical school owe a ridiculous amount in student debt. So we actually have a shortage of healthcare providers because of the student loans that they’re carrying.

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