The American Debt

In a country that conditions us to avoid conversations about social class, given that it would expose the Dream that keeps us all locked in a miserably imbalanced system, this NYTimes opinion piece was refreshing.

In it, Lee Siegel describes his experience with purposefully defaulting on his student loans, which was in a way his personal backlash against a poisonous, paralyzing economic system that favors the rich and necessarily exploits everyone else. Like in Westeros, in America, there is only the climb, and if you’re too low on the ladder, don’t waste your energy. There’s nothing at the top for you even if you get there.

Moneyed stumbles never seem to have much consequence. Tax fraud, insider trading, almost criminal nepotism — these won’t knock you off the straight and narrow. But if you’re poor and miss a child-support payment, or if you’re middle class and default on your student loans, then God help you.

Beholden as we are to the American Dream and our predatory myth of meritocracy, it’s easy for us to view Siegel as a delinquent for not paying his debts, and yet we’re responsible for supporting a system that demands his indebtedness. As he says so beautifully:

Am I a deadbeat? In the eyes of the law I am. Indifferent to the claim that repaying student loans is the road to character? Yes. Blind to the reality of countless numbers of people struggling to repay their debts, no matter their circumstances, many worse than mine? My heart goes out to them. To my mind, they have learned to live with a social arrangement that is legal, but not moral.

Why do we continue to isolate the majority of our population by making them live in such dependence, always feeling like they owe Big Brother something? It’s not just money that you end up having to pay back; you sacrifice your life. You turn that over to your lenders. Thinking of pursuing something you love? Better do that shit outside the system, because once you start to play the game, there are rigid rules.

It struck me as absurd that one could amass crippling debt as a result, not of drug addiction or reckless borrowing and spending, but of going to college. Having opened a new life to me beyond my modest origins, the education system was now going to call in its chits and prevent me from pursuing that new life, simply because I had the misfortune of coming from modest origins.

In America, you’re not really allowed to want more than circumstance initially credits you. It’s a chaotic system, incredibly sensitive to these initial conditions. And yet, you’re also not really allowed not to want more than circumstance initially credits you. You’re supposed to dream big, to do whatever it takes to get there, even if it means giving over everything.

 

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