Rolling Jubilee: thinking through the objections

by Emily

A day before the official kickoff I wanted to collect yet more Rolling Jubilee links, but at this point there are enough basically similar summaries (like the New York Times’) that I’m not going for comprehensiveness. On a practical level, the issues are whether the forgiven debts will be counted as income, i.e. taxable, and whether the entire movement will “work.” The major topic of discussion today on an ideological level seems to be why debt would be chosen as a rallying point.

According to Bloomburg Businessweek, IRS policy on forgiven debt could prove a problem, since it is considered income the debtor receives. The IRS provides a very unhelpful one sentence guideline saying that gifts are not counted as taxable income, but doesn’t specify the legal definition or proof of gift in this case. Presumably the Rolling Jubilee will try to record its actions as gifts, so as to not make its beneficiaries subject to taxes on their debt. I will relieved to see this verified though.

Now for the more principled critiques. Doug Henwood’s, for instance. He asks,

But why the intense focus on debt and its relief? Debt could be an excellent point of entry into a discussion about many other things. Why so much personal debt? Because wages are stagnant or down, unemployment is high, yet the cost of living continues to rise. Why so much mortgage debt? Because until sometime in 2007, housing inflation (meaning tax-subsidized homeownership) was practically the American national religion. Why so much student debt? Because higher education is too expensive—in fact, it should be free. Etc. But Occupy has inherited a lot of American populism’s obsession with finance as the root of all evil, without connecting it to the rest of the system.

He has a point – our economic system runs on debt, but it’s a tool, not the root of the problem. The inequality that makes debt a means of increasing one’s wealth for a company like Bain Capital or an individual like Donald Trump, and an tightening shackle for millions of less famous people, isn’t necessarily the fault of banks. It has to do with wage stagnation, the casualization of labor (a phrase I hate because it makes it sound fun to have your hours, benefits, pay, and security reduced), out of control medical costs, predatory lending practices, and the rising cost of higher education, to name just a few factors. Given those realities, Henwood asks, is it radical enough?

Seth Ackerman and Andrew Ross discuss the same question of whether attacking debt is really the best direction in Strike Debt, the Debate. Ackerman, playing devil’s advocate to Ross’s full-throated support, points out that Strike Debt doesn’t have a clear policy end point – in fact, he’s not sure of it’s point in the first place:

Strike Debt essentially takes the form of an open-ended propaganda campaign, with no defined end-goal.

And I have to confess to being a little unclear even about the fundamental message of the propaganda: is all debt illegitimate, or just some debt? Should only some debts be cancelled, or should all of them be—in which case, wouldn’t we also lose most of our savings? Should there be a permanent end to the existence of debt; if so, what kind of system should replace it?

Maybe open-endedness and ambiguity are useful, though. If the clear purpose of the Rolling Jubilee were to completely overthrow our banking system, I would object to it as impractical in reality but destructive and ill-thought-out in theory. If it were a complete rejection of the concept of debt, I wouldn’t support that either; debt can be incredibly useful for bridging insecurity.

On the other hand, if left ambiguous, we are free to interpret the Rolling Jubilee as a goodwill effort of peer-to-peer support, and as a small scale protest against inequality. If left open-ended, it can inspire ideas that are more grassroots and culturally based than specific policy demands, which is something I think a lot of critiques of the Occupy movement miss.  How do you measure if something like that “works”? Doesn’t the publicity this experiment is getting mean that in a cultural sense, it already “works”?

Both articles are correct that Rolling Jubilee doesn’t identify sources of common struggle that everyone shares, since debt is widespread but not inevitable. In fact, Ackerman and Ross’s discussion brings up the point that consumer, mortage, medical, and student loan debt all exist for different reasons and because of different choices and circumstances. Medical debt is generally viewed much more sympathetically than credit card debt. Again, I think that this may be a feature, not a bug. By refusing to distinguish between types of debt as “good” or “bad,” “accidental” or “chosen,” Strike Debt proponents may be missing nuance, but they’re also refusing to buy into the association of money with virtue.

This is a big deal. The idea that having “bad debt” means you deserve any suffering it brings you is all too closely tied to the idea that our incomes reflect our work ethics and our values, and that if you are in bad financial straits, you must be lazy or misguided or otherwise at fault. Sometimes, perhaps, this is true; we all make mistakes and some of them relate to money. But poverty doesn’t exist because all poor people screwed up, and five minutes of Mitt Romney’s time is not actually more productive than my entire year’s work. If we credit ourselves for our good fortune, and blame others for their bad luck, we are less willing to help each other. Refusing that entire line of thought is a exercise in empathy, and a good reason for joining in an effort of mutual aid.

Disagree? How come?

Now let’s see how this thing starts rolling….