— Allen Ginsberg, Howl
I am supposed to be paying something on the order of $2,500 a month in student loan repayments. I currently make a shade over $55,000 a year which, after taxes, comes out to a tick under $3,200 a month. Please don’t mistake me for a braggart, dear reader, as I am a man much like yourself. I get up every morning and slip my cheap suit on one pant leg at a time. Just like you! It’s just that, after my threadbare suit is hanging from my gaunt frame, I have dozens of dollars to my name. Dozens.
If you are reading this website, you are well-acquainted with the state of student debt in this country. Above The Law, once a bastion for bottles, models, bonuses, and benefits, covers the hangover now too. The hangover is a useful start for any consideration of debt in this country, as it turns out. Shot through with the morality that only the descendants of Puritans can muster, debt in this country is treated not unlike a sexually transmitted disease or pleated pants: it’s moral turpitude that led you here.
Remember kids, banks will never ever ever forget your student loans. They may forgive them, though. As if they’re handing out papal dispensations from on high, banks are passing moral judgment even when your duties as a debtor may be discharged.
This is the moral universe we currently reside in. And it’s one that has seriously warped consequences.
This story is about Nazis and sex slavery…
The New York Review of Books published an essay that took the history of debt by Robert Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (affiliate link), as a jumping-off point to discuss debt issues of more recent vintage. The beginning of Graeber’s book sets the tone for our moral reality:
Graeber, an American teaching at Goldsmiths, a part of the University of London, begins his book with an anecdote. He is attending a garden party at Westminster Abbey. The guests are international activists and do-gooders, corporate liberals as well as antiglobalization radicals. He falls into a conversation with a lawyer for a foundation and explains his involvement in the campaign to stop the International Monetary Fund from imposing austerity on third-world nations. He mentions the biblical Jubilee, in which Hebrew kings periodically proclaimed debts forgiven.
“‘But,’ she objected, as if this were self-evident, ‘they’d borrowed the money! Surely one has to pay one’s debts.’”
Surely one must! I don’t know who this lawyer is. Perhaps she is a composite character, made up of several different horrible people. Or maybe she is a foul fiction, created to teach kids a lesson. Like the boogeyman or gingivitis. Whatever she is, she’s terrible and should be disbarred post-haste. Her fellow lawyers drown in a sea of debt and she hangs out on the beach, wondering what all the thrashing is about.
Of course, perhaps us debtors are wrong to ask for forgiveness. Surely what we’ve done — borrow money to attend school — is so abhorrent that we could never possibly hope for redemption. The grace conferred by debt forgiveness is reserved for only the most worthy. Only the most righteous:
Germany, today’s enforcer of Euro-austerity, was the beneficiary of one of history’s most magnanimous acts of debt amnesty in 1948. The Allies in the 1920s made the catastrophic error of helping to destroy Germany’s economy with reparations and debt collection policies. In the 1940s, after a brief flirtation with World War I–style reparations, the occupying powers agreed to behave differently: they wrote off 93 percent of the Nazi-era debt and postponed collection of other debts for nearly half a century. So Germany, whose debt-to-GDP ratio in 1939 was 675 percent, had a debt load of about 12 percent in the early 1950s—far less than that of the victorious Allies—helping to produce postwar Germany’s economic miracle. Almost every German can cite the Marshall Plan, but this larger act of macroeconomic mercy has disappeared from the political consciousness of Germany’s current austerity police. Whatever fiscal sins the Greeks committed, the Nazis did worse.
Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, at least it isn’t crippled by debt.
The macroeconomic rationale for debt forgiveness was forged in the fires of World War II. All it took was a genocidal madman hellbent on world domination to change our minds about sicking the collection agency on Germany.
But what of the individual debts we are burdened with? These things we carry? Well, we may have found our own madman. Or woman. Whatever.
In Maryland this week, a woman was indicted on charges that she had sold her daughter to a man in order to pay off a $5,000 debt. The man, Benjani Rivas, was also charged with, well, raping a child. Here are the ugly allegations:
The sexual abuse allegedly happened several times at a Georgian Colonies Clubhouse in Silver Spring, and a few times at the Germantown home the teen shared with her mother and little brother. After each encounter with Rivas, the mother was allegedly given $100.
According to the documents, on one occasion when the girl begged not to go with Rivas, her mother said, “I’ve done bad things to make you have a good life. Go with him.”
The sex abuse ended after the teenage victim told another relative. The two of them went to Montgomery County Police.
An unconscionable debt will make you do crazy things. Or, make this lady do crazy things, I should say. Because I would never sell my daughter into sex slavery in order to pay off $5,000. First, that’s only two months worth of payments for me. Further, I don’t have a daughter.
But this story provides a sobering choice for those in power who decide such things like student loan forgiveness. From this vantage point, I see only two options for policymakers. Either you forgive our student debt and allow us to renounce our Nazi pasts, or you don’t. And we sell our children into sex slavery. Your call, chief.
The Debt We Shouldn’t Pay [The New York Review of Books]
Md. mother accused of offering daughter up for sex to pay off debt [MyFoxDC.com]
Earlier: Student Loan Bailout. Just Do It.