Before I share my story, let me make something unequivocally clear: Western governments are currently aiding and abetting the mass murder of Palestinians by an extremist Israeli government expressing clear genocidal intent. I have very little leverage in this world, but it would be a moral failure to ignore this reality and not do everything in my power to resist the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. Furthermore, I would dishonor my ancestors who put their lives on the line fighting against authoritarian, genocidal violence in the past. Given that the only significant leverage I have comes from my student debt, I want to make it absolutely clear that I will not repay a single penny to a government involved in perpetrating the moral calamity in Gaza. The government can sell an aircraft carrier for all I care, or just save some money by not sending JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) to be dropped on children. I will not acknowledge the moral validity of any debt to institutions committing atrocities and crimes against humanity. Now, you may think I am just using the current conflict to conveniently shirk what I owe after living high on the hog, but you would be wrong. This is what I did with our money.
I gave away roughly $30,000 of student loan money (before interest) as an act of protest against our broken economic and political system. Since the government is only willing to implement taxes and infrastructure programs that funnel money upwards to the wealthiest individuals and companies, I decided to take some of my educational loan money and redistribute it to people and communities in need. Here is a short list of some projects the money helped fund:
- Community greenhouses
- Community gardens
- Tool libraries
- A community center
- Art programs for students in underfunded schools
- A homeless shelter
- Counseling for youth offenders
- Local craft fairs to support independent artisans and artists
- Community art shows
- Education workshops and skill shares
- Local journalism
These are all projects that ranged between $300 – $5000 in funds donated. I also gave away microdonations that are too numerous to recount. This was a conscious act of protest on my part, and something I realized would have significant ramifications for me. My total debt now stands somewhere around $80,000, and quite frankly will never be paid off. Let me explain my story and my decision to sacrifice my own financial security and viability.
I am a reasonably successful academic. Broadly speaking, I research the relationship between social organization and the environment. I believe in the importance of what I study and have a strong publication record. More important to me is my role as an educator. I understand my profession as one that helps young people become independent adults and citizens. I am very good at what I do and have lectured for 4 years at one of the world’s top five ranked universities. My income is also hovering just around the official poverty level, and I have spent 4 of the last 6 years as unregistered homeless (couches, attics, and garden sheds). Part of the reason that I make poverty wages is because of the systemic devaluation and casualization of university teaching. If I am being generous, I am paid for roughly 1/5 of the hours I work, as preparation, marking, meetings, pastoral care and bureaucratic upkeep are not calculated in my contracts. I am actually paid closer to 1/10 of the hours I work when considering other obligations such as publishing, peer review, and conference presentations. This reality, in conjunction with decades of policies that have artificially inflated the cost of housing means that I pretty much live hand to mouth. I have had the complete millennial experience of academia during global crises by finishing my bachelors in 2008 and finishing a doctorate in 2020.
I finished my undergraduate degree just before the Global Financial Crisis exploded. Coming from a single parent family without much money, I worked throughout my entire degree. I graduated amongst the top of my class and came out with zero debt. I had begun to learn elements of construction, renovation, and repair in high school, and continued to become a skilled laborer during my undergraduate. When the financial crisis hit, I was young, and a good paying job was $15 an hour but usually closer to $10. I worked for the better part of five years, basically treading water, and physically taxing my body. I got tired of it and decided to do a master’s at my local state university. I worked 2 jobs during this time and wrote a master’s thesis that got me into one of the world’s top universities with a scholarship. It is during my master’s that I decided to take out student loans and give a large portion of it away (I did have some education related expenses). So let me explain clearly why I did this and why I am willing to accept the consequences.
Over the past two decades, I have watched the United States commit itself to numerous illegal wars (the invasion of Iraq being the most egregious). The country has spent over $8 trillion on disastrous conflicts that have destabilized whole regions and traumatized countless families with only the military contractors and industries benefiting. In this same time, there have been over $6 trillion in tax cuts, of which around 65% have gone to the top 20% of the society (and about 40% to the top 5%). I watched over a trillion dollars of bailouts be given to large financial institutions, as well as numerous other mismanaged industries and government programs. As I witnessed family and friends losing their homes and livelihoods due to systemic fraud, I saw the $831 billion dollars of the American reinvestment act being used for things like repaving tennis courts, planting trees in median strips and generally being distributed as political largess to connected individuals and companies. Likewise, for 10 of the past 14 years federal interest rates have been kept around .25% (and have not gone above 2.5%). Large banks and corporations have used this historically low debt to buy up assets such as housing across the country, as well as purchase their own stocks to artificially inflate their value. Meanwhile, student loan interest ranges between 4.99 and 7.54%. While the ultra-wealthy stash their loot in offshore accounts, nurses, educators, social workers, scientists, and countless others are caught in a morass of debt. In short, our predatory loan system is deeply entangled with a dysfunctional economy that is essentially a mafia racket for the ultra-wealthy.
To be clear, what I am doing is an act of protest against a government and economic system that siphons wealth from the majority and concentrates financial power in the hands of a small minority of elites. Preferential interest rates for corporations and the ultra-wealthy, the privatization of social infrastructure, and the use of social welfare and bailout programs to subsidize large corporations results in elite monopolization of the monetary supply. Likewise, those of us that do not come from financially privileged backgrounds with the talent and desire to go into caring and cultural labor such as education, social work and the arts are forced to go into severe debt in order to receive the degrees required by these (low paying) sectors. The result of these institutional relationships and policies is that our societies are conformed to the whims and desires of a small minority of people that outcompete the working and middle classes for fundamental necessities such as housing. In other words, our financial system and property laws are generating an economy of rentier feudalism. Because our society has become a plutocracy geared towards the ambitions of the elites, not only has our system become democratically unaccountable, but it has become incapable of addressing systemic problems beyond considerations that drive up quarterly profits. However, since elite power and wealth in this society is generated through debt peonage, one of the few ways of bringing the elite to heel is by using that leverage against them. The systems in place are destroying the ecological and social foundations of intergenerational wealth and wellbeing. The only way to feasibly begin to resolve the intersecting crises we face in a relatively peaceful manner is through a full spectrum strike of debt, tax and labor strikes.
In protest against the insane and broken system we are subjected to, I created my own mini-bailout program. I gave away a few tens of thousands of dollars to various communities. Many of the programs and initiatives I helped fund are still running and have even blossomed into substantial community institutions such as urban farms. I am willing to accept the personal ramifications because our collective survival hinges upon creating democratic, economically just and ecologically viable societies. It is shameful that we would be angrier and more vindictive towards young people working to become healthcare workers, social scientists, historians, journalists, engineers, and educators than the incompetent and venal elite who have swindled the country and driven it into systemic crisis for private gain. Now, through their unmitigated hypocrisy over Gaza, our leadership has declared their moral bankruptcy to the world. They legislate against what remains of freedom of speech and assembly while they radically undermine the architecture of international human rights law that was developed to prevent exactly the kind of situation that is now unfolding in Palestine. They shall receive nothing from me but contempt and non-performing loans. Think of me what you will, but I choose to rebel against this broken, cruel, and immoral system by caring for others. What we have is what we give, and in the end, we give everything.