Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Why I Am Ambivalent About the Education Debt Jubilee

September 24, 2014 By: Mel Category: Inequality

Students at Oxford UniversityJust about every Monday for a little over four years I have been going to the library and meeting D to read (mostly) books about black history. D is a lovely man with a couple of decades on me who didn’t have the opportunity to finish school and who made it to adulthood without knowing how to read. D is not alone. A 2007 report found that 36% of DC adults are functionally illiterate.

Every year the organization I volunteer with has a recognition ceremony. Many learners stand up and tell their stories during the event. The room is filled with people who have been failed completely by our society and, especially, our school system. After all, while more than a third of adults in this town are functionally illiterate, only 60,000 of them do not have a high school diploma. One gentleman in particular I have never been able to forget.

The man was in his fifties or sixties. He stood up and described what it was like to grow up not knowing how to read. He told us how ashamed he was to tell anybody. How he was able to graduate from a DC high school without being able to read. After graduation, not even having the ability to fill out an application, he couldn’t get a straight job. So he sold drugs. Then he did drugs. Then he became addicted to drugs. He ended up in prison. Lost his family, his freedom, and decades of his life. And there was this “hardened criminal” crying as he laid it all out for us.

DC may have some of the lowest literacy rates in the country, but according to the National Adult Literacy Survey, millions of people in the US demonstrate the lowest literacy skill levels. Some of them are immigrants learning a new language. Many have disabilities. Many are from older generations who had even less access to schooling. Some are just poor and ignored. All of their options are limited because of their literacy barriers.

Now, if you know me at all, you know that I do not put much stock in the education certification system. The system is not the answer to poverty. Going to a university is about continuing to be one of the privileged few. Promoting education allows us to ignore race and class and other accidents of birth. It is pretending like we live in a meritocracy and that a meritocracy is a good thing. It is about believing that the uneducated deserve their terrible fate so that some of us can enjoy our good lives guilt free.

They must just suck, right? Can’t read. Can’t eat. Not my problem. Should have been “smarter.” Should have worked harder. (As though we don’t all know lazy asses who have had everything handed to them on a silver platter and tireless sacrificers who have never caught a break.)

I started writing this post when I found out that this week is Adult Education and Family Literacy Week in DC. But shortly after I started, articles started coming out about the education debt jubilee. And I found myself feeling incredibly ambivalent. I’m happy for those people who are free of their education debt. It would be great if millions of students insisted that they no longer be shackled by debt before their life even really begins.

But I cannot get excited about a campaign that focuses on college debt when I spend every week focused on people who will be incredibly lucky if they get a GED and a stable job that pays more than minimum wage. Education debt campaigns are about less than 7% of the world population. As bad as education debt may be, we are not the “wretched of the earth” by any stretch of the imagination.

Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel recently wrote an important article about the scam of for profit colleges. A business that charges people tens of thousands of dollars for a product that is virtually worthless and markets itself to the people who can least afford it is repugnant. Sucking resources from those who can least afford it is how our system works – mortgages, payday loans, legal fines – and we should be taking down the institutions that do it.

But focusing on for profit educational institutions while accepting the stratification that higher education was meant to enforce is not helpful. It is like getting your drawers in a bunch about private prisons, but being fine with the rest of the racialized caste system of social control that relies on mass incarceration. We need to get much more basic than that.

In their article, Taylor and Appel wonder if it is “time to ask whether education alone can really move people up the class ladder.”  With all due respect, that is the wrong question. It is time to ask whether or not there should be a ladder. And the answer is no.

In the end, we all have to ask ourselves some questions. Can there be justice in a society that has ladders? Should we be fighting for affordable higher education or should we be battling against the social hierarchy that considers those with education “higher”? Do we put our energies into fights where the immediate benefits would be felt by the most privileged third or tenth? Or should we focus on those people who are struggling the hardest for mere survival?

I don’t know what all the answers are, but I feel fairly certain that fixing “higher” education is not one of them.


A note about literacy: Literacy is hard to measure. What skills you need depend on your community and culture. The literacy survey sets the following framework – “Using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” The lowest levels of literacy that I refer to above would include people who may be able to do routine tasks (make out a check, sign their name, identify a meeting time on a sheet) and some that don’t even know the alphabet.


Car Contracts 101

March 22, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc

A recent post over on Aretae got me thinking about the law.  Considering that I worked in it for ten years, it’s a bit odd that I don’t spend more time on it.  So let me dive in with a little 101 on my experiences with contract law.

For about four and a half years, I worked for a collection attorney.  Mostly, we collected money on car contracts, specifically on the balance left over after the car had been repossessed and sold.  Our biggest client was Ford Motor Credit Company.  We also did some work for Chrysler Credit and a few minor players.  Here’s what I learned while on the dark side.

Let’s say someone decides to buy a car.  They head off to the friendly Ford dealership.  The huckster salesperson up-sells them to a lovely vehicle that they can’t really afford.  Amazingly, even with crap credit and an $8 an hour job, they are approved by the finance company.  According to my old boss, quite a few dealerships had arrangements with Ford Motor Credit Company (a separate business from Ford Motor) wherein the credit company had to approve a certain percentage of submitted loan applications, no matter how bad the applicant’s credit was.

Faced with a contract written in legalese by a team of finance company lawyers, the buyer turns to the salesperson for clarification.  (That is assuming they can read the contract at all.  I never realized how many illiterate people there were in the U.S. until I worked in collections.)  The salesman explains things, but doesn’t really have any reason to be clear.  After all, he gets paid even if they buyer defaults.  There is no outside advice or witness to what is said by the dealership.

The dealer gets paid by the finance company.  The salesman makes their commission.  Meanwhile the car decreased in value the minute it was driven off the lot and the car contract is at 24% interest (uncommon, but not unheard of).  Escaping that interest is not an option as the contract most likely precludes paying the car off early to avoid interest payments.

If the buyer misses several payments, the finance company will repossess the car.  It will be sold at auction where the person who buys it at a bargain basement price might be with the repo company who took the car or with the used car side of the dealership where the car was purchased.

That money made at auction is applied to the total contract amount owed and the purchaser then owes the balance.  For an over simplified, made up, and slightly exaggerated calculation:

  • Car Cost   25,000 + Interest  @ 24%  6,000 = Total Contract 31,000
  • Less the Auction Price of 15,000
  • Balance owed for the car you don’t have 16,000

(Back in the early 90s, most of the files I worked on owed more like $5,000 – $7,000 on their contracts.)

The finance company tries to collect directly.  When that fails, they send the file to an attorney.  The attorney files a lawsuit and serves the purchaser.  If they do not answer within a certain amount of time, the attorney gets a default judgment for the entire amount.  That’s what happened to most people.

For those that did file a response, we submitted a motion for summary judgment and set it for a hearing.  Can’t get off work to go to a hearing?  No show meant automatic judgment.  Rarely did cases go to trial.  And I can’t recollect a single one that involved a jury.  I’m not even sure people could request a jury.

Coincidentally, I’m reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.  In it he talks about how the law was changed in the 30 years prior to the civil war in order to better suit capitalist development.  Specifically, he mentions that “judgments for damages against businessmen were taken out of the hands of juries, which were unpredictable, and given to judges.”  I suspect a little digging would find similar roots for contracts in general.

I should mention here that collections is a real paper mill.  The firm I worked for was working on file numbers in the forty thousand range for one client alone.  Everything is automated and automatic.  There is no way that the courts could handle the influx of cases if people actually started to respond to these things.  So the sheer volume of cases would surely make jury trials an impossibility.

Once a judgment is entered against you, it is recorded.  In Florida, it can be re-recorded for twenty years.  It will also accrue interest annually.  In the early 90s, in Florida, interest was about 12 percent per year.  A recorded judgment is a lien on your property.  It doesn’t have to be property that you owned when the judgment was put in place.  It is a lien on any property you have.

One poor shmuck was selling his house.  During the closing, a last minute lien check discovered an old car loan he had not paid off.  It had been sitting around collecting interest for 19 years.  He had to pay it off before he could sell his house.  Bet that took a chunk out of his earnings.

The finance company really cannot lose. In our previous example, they paid the dealership the price of the car 25,000.  They received 15,000 from the auction.  That leaves them at negative 10 grand.  (In reality, most people made a few payments before defaulting – sometimes years of payments.)  Even if you don’t pay, they get to write off the entire $16,000 as a loss.  That’s $16,000 of income somewhere else that they won’t have to pay taxes on.  And even after they write it off, there is still a good chance they will collect eventually (with the additional interest accumulated on a judgment).

Of course, this whole process starts before you actually decide to go to a car dealership.  It is next to impossible to live in many areas without a car.  And if you think that car companies didn’t use their influence to see roads built with your tax dollars, there is a lovely bridge in Brooklyn that I’d like you to see.  Every zoning ordinance and city project that promoted urban sprawl benefited car companies at the expense of public transit and (I would say) our quality of life.

There is so much wrong here, it is difficult to know where to begin.  In the interest of length, I’m going to stop here and post my thoughts on the problems and maybe even some solutions on Friday.