Convergence is pleased to announce the launch of our new podcast Indebted. In this opening episode, a most unexpected first piece of mail addressed to his newborn son is the catalyst that sets host Maurice BP-Weeks off into exploring the world of debt and how it’s leveraged against Black Americans. After exploring the landscape of his own debt and his experiences with it, Maurice talks with Debt Collective Co-Founder Hannah Appel, an economic anthropologist who is an associate professor and the associate director of the Institute on Inequality + Democracy at the University of California Los Angeles. Together they walk through the history of debt as leverage against minority groups and how organizations like Debt Collective are fighting back today.
Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition, the 2020 book co-edited by Hannah and others from Debt Collective, is available from Haymarket Books.
Support this show and others like it by becoming a Patreon supporter at Patreon.com/convergencemag
Maurice Weeks 00:00
In 2021, my wife Shandra, and I welcomed our first child, Charlie, Charlie came into the world after years and years of my wife’s planning to do what seems like the impossible of raising a child. Bringing a black child in to the world, especially in America is a really scary proposition right now and one that my wife Shandra and I agonized over before undertaking this journey, I have that parental instinct to keep your child out of all of the dangers that being black in America has, but I also know it’s impossible. The first few months as a parent are filled with expenses that are impossible to blame for. We bought every single thing that we could from every possible list online, we even got dozens of new and hand me down gifts from relatives. But as they say, every baby is different. And we were destined to need to pick up more things, really, if only to keep ourselves clothed, fed and alive. My wife and I had lived with debt for years, even though we both have been lucky enough to make decent salaries for most of our working life. We completed graduate school a few years back and tuition and school expenses grew significantly. But, you know, it was a norm that like most Americans, we were both accustomed to for pretty much our whole lives. So I was expecting a wave of expenses to increase with another tiny mouth to feed and clothe and keep alive. But I certainly wasn’t expecting one particular bill that we received about two months after Charlie was born. As Charlie napped, I went downstairs to grab a quick bite and check the mail. The only item was a single envelope address from our hospital. It was for Charlie, his first piece of mail. It was a $4,500 bill for his own birth and hospital stay. Hi, everyone, and welcome to the first episode of indebted, a podcast about debt and rates in America. My name is Maurice BP weeks. I’m a lifelong economic and racial justice organizer, and I’m so excited to take this journey with you. Each episode of this show tackles a different aspects of debt. We explore how it works and why that spills bad news for black people in our entire economy. We tell stories of black and brown folks struggling with debt, the financial entities that control our economy through debt, and hear from experts, activists, campaigners, and organizers about efforts to fight back against debt. By the end, hopefully, we’ll understand not just how debt works in America. But why I can’t wait to dig deeper with you. Since this is our first time meeting, why don’t I tell you a little bit about myself. I was born in North New Jersey to a working class black family. My parents put our education above basically anything else. And that means that our debts growing up were pretty significant. I went to some pretty good schools and had all the extracurriculars you could dream about. And not until later did I realize this was all made possible by my parents wringing up hundreds of 1000s of dollars of debt. I didn’t exactly pick the kind of career that would make the family rich and wipe our debts away. I did a lot of organizing and activism in college. I mean like a lot a lot. Like more than my schoolwork a lot. My Grades reflect that I’m pretty proud of that. I ran campaigns with the environmental justice org the student Labor Action projects, Students for a Democratic Society, if there were people fighting back against something unjust I wanted in pretty soon I found myself committed to making in the words of the late civil rights activists, John Lewis, good trouble. I remember in particular making enemies with the board of directors of my school when they attempted to build a non union hotel and me and a few friends ran a campaign to block their acquisition of a liquor license unless they agreed to make the hotel union. an op ed in the local city paper the next week accused us of extortion. I suppose we hit a nerve. I have that article framed by the way. After college, I moved to the Bay Area and worked as an organizer at the tail end of the foreclosure crisis helping people fight back against banks trying to take their homes. The group I worked with taught me so much about the power of corporations in the wealthy, but also the power that people can have when we fight back. We did some really amazing and courageous actions. Big Bank foreclosing on someone’s home. We filled their lobbies with neighbors demanding that they stop all of those proceedings. They don’t listen. Maybe we move in some furniture and stay well. Literally. I saw some of the greatest organizing victories i could possibly imagine in really the most impossible circumstances. Later on, I co founded a national racial and economic justice organization called the Action Center on race in the economy or acre. acre does a lot of exciting work at the intersections of racial and economic injustice, everything from police accountability to environmental work, I’m really proud of building out an organization that’s filled with brilliant folks who give it their all every single day trying to dismantle economic and racial injustice. I left that job in 2022, and started on this journey to learn more about debt and race. Throughout my organizing career, I focused on work with black folks working class folks and others at the margins. Nearly all of them cited debt as a major issue. It may have been a homeowner at the tail end of the foreclosure crisis struggling to deal with housing debt, or a working single parent cycling through credit cards to keep their house afloat. Or me getting out of school and looking at six digit student loan balances with basically no idea of what to do. For the most part, my solution was to ignore my debt as much as possible. There’s something really ominous about debt, especially if you’re black and poor. Ignoring it doesn’t work for very long, though, and you’re forced to deal with it eventually. It’s such a universal experience for black folks, and really most people in the country. But it’s also something that for the most part, we don’t really take the time to think about. No one wants to think about what feels like an overwhelming burden. No one wants to be forced to figure out how they’re going to pay something back that they almost definitionally do not have. And a great deal of shame comes along with debt. The shame can be so intense that some people go into full financial ruin before seeking help. Most people have their first personal understanding of debt at a very small and simple scale. Imagine where two kids at a corner store, you forgot your allowance and can’t afford your chips, but I just got my allowance. So I pay for the both of us two bags of chips $2. Next time we hang out, you’ve gotten your allowance, and you give me back my dollar. In this time between hangouts you are in debt to me by $1. The government, at least in one important way also defines debt. This simply, a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for instance, says debt is money you owe a person or a business, it’s when you’ve borrowed money that you’ll need to pay back. But is that how most debt works? You’re probably saying to yourself, of course not. Our reality with debt is totally different. Sure, you may have borrowed money to buy your house from one bank. But then that bank sold your debt to another bank, who sold it to a third bank, who bundled it into a package of debt that was purchased by a financial firm, that then sold it to a pension fund, and so on, and so on, and so on. Making money for some financial entity of the interest that you pay every single step of the way. This type of complication famously led to the housing market crash 15 years ago, but it’s not uncommon for non housing debt either. The world is $322 trillion in debt, that’s 322, with 12 zeros behind it, nearly impossible to comprehend. I’ve thought about ways to make it more conceivable. It’s three times as many dollars as there are cells in the human body or enough to put every single person to ever have lived from the beginning of humankind until now in debt by $2,750. But nothing can really help us conceptualize something so massive. It’s a full blown crisis. I want to uncover what happens under the hood of most debt that we may be familiar with. I thought the easiest way to do that would be to start with my debt. So I pulled my credit report. Okay, we’re gonna look at how much we have in total debt. All right, I’m gonna get a credit card to do. Your credit report is in theory, the list of all the debts you have on your books. We’ll talk a little bit more about the scores later on this season. But for now, I just need the information. I should say before I get into it. I’m a relatively responsible guy financially, you know, I like my share of Jordans and bougie food but generally I’m not buying the bar go into Vegas or anything like that. Okay, so as I pull this up, the first thing that hits me is a very, very big number. Like very, very, very big. Oh, here we go. Okay, well, that’s a big number. For you to see. Let’s go deeper and better than what it was. And I feel like this student loan we’re about to pay off according to our combined credit reports, Our debt is spread out and a few different ways. We both went to undergraduate and graduate school. So we have student loans from that. We financed a nice, safe car when our child was born two years ago. So there’s an auto loan there. We’ve been on our lovely house in Detroit for seven years. So we still have a mortgage there. And then the credit cards for some things like taxes that we couldn’t afford to pay or clothes or starting a new job. None of it really seems outrageous. But I gotta tell you, it’s rough to look at a balance of six figures staring back at Yeah, our debt is higher than average because of our student loans, house and car. But Americans in general are quite familiar with high debt balances. American households have about $16 trillion in debt with my age group, the washed up Millennials owing the most at 1.1 7 trillion. In fact, the average American household is $102,000 in debt if you add everything up. Perhaps equally alarming is how this number compares to the median income of $71,000. That’s a $31,000 gap between how much debt we owe, and how much money we take in. This seems well, bad. I spoke to Professor Hannah Pell who is the Faculty Director at the Institute on equality and democracy at UCLA is Luskin School of Public Affairs, and also one of the founders of one of my favorite organizations of all time, the debt collective, about how we got here and why it’s a problem. I can’t think of a better person to have as our first guest on this podcast about debt and race. Thank you so much for joining me, Hannah.
Hannah Appel 11:43
Thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here. Yeah,
Maurice Weeks 11:45
I’m looking forward to catching up. So we’ve been talking a little bit about debt. So far, I told you a little bit about my story of how I got into this and why this is such an interesting area for me. Can you talk about how you got interested in in debt and issues of debt?
Hannah Appel 12:01
Yeah, absolutely. So I got a PhD in economic anthropology back in the day, I finished my PhD in 2011. And the first job I had after my PhD was in New York. So I showed up in New York in the fall of 2011, after having just kind of studied anthropological approaches to capitalism for seven years. And one of the things that happened in the fall of 2011, in New York was the beginning of Occupy Wall Street. And of course, the late great, David Graber, who is a colleague of mine and economic anthropology was there. And I was actually out at a bar with David graver and Yachty Mata Bonilla, and Michael Ralph and a whole bunch of other super dope anthropologists who you should all look up if you don’t know who’s
Maurice Weeks 12:46
gonna say these are like luminaries for folks who haven’t heavy hitters names. Yeah.
Hannah Appel 12:51
And David, was like, oh, there’s this thing going on, you know, down in Wall Street, and you guys should come through and check it out. And all of us, and I say this with so much love, or like, whatever, David, because David always had so much going on. But then the very next day, the cops kettled, you know, hundreds of protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge. And as so often happens in situations, when police respond to civil disobedience like that, they really kind of escalated Occupy Wall Street and allowed it to really flower and so many more 1000s of people, including me, went down the next day. And that was really the beginning, you know, having finished my PhD have a have a re education for me, or a new education for me in you know, I have my family had student debt of our own, it wasn’t like I didn’t know about it. But what it meant to think about collective action and collective organizing within against and beyond capitalism is very different than what it means to like, sit around and discuss Karl Marx in a seminar room, you know, that was 2011. And it’s 2023. Now, and I feel like I’ve been getting re educated ever since. So that was really the the origin story was my involvement with Occupy Wall Street and my, my direct supervisors were very generous. And I was actually able to spend full time almost that entire year in and with Occupy, which, of course, is also the genesis of the debt collective.
Maurice Weeks 14:14
Yeah, I was gonna ask that next. Can you talk a little bit about how the debt collectors started from there?
Hannah Appel 14:19
Absolutely. So during Occupy Wall Street are one of the preoccupations that some of your listeners may remember kind of in the wake of the great financial crisis in 2008? Was this question of what is the relationship between Wall Street which and you can have scare quotes there and Main Street right, also with scare quotes? In other words, okay, we see this huge financial system that’s clearly making billions of dollars for a very small handful of people. And we see everybody else again, the wake of the great financial crisis, losing their homes to foreclosure, right, unable to pay for their own medical care. Going into student debt. It was really the first time you know, student debt was statistically too small. To measure before 2000. So 2008 was really like people were first, those of us who are graduating with it, were first starting to say, Whoa, like I’m holding this huge debt burden, and it’s a 7% interest. So there were all of these kind of threads that were really about household debt. And I have to, during Occupy Wall Street, there was also a really big caucus around Stop, stop and frisk, right, which doesn’t on the surface of it sound like it’s about household debt. And of course, it’s about far more than household debt, but also the ways that carceral debt, right, and the criminal punishment system was kind of getting into people’s pockets and getting into people’s financial livelihoods. So there were all of these threads, that looking back, it’s easy to see that they’re about household debt. And I’m sure we’ll talk about this. But at that moment, it was hard to connect them as all part of a similar system that is actually a system of predation and extractive capitalism and predatory inclusion that happens when Wall Street and Main Street come together in very specific ways. But during Occupy over the kind of couple years that it was really active, this one group started that was called Strike debt, student debt hit one T $1 trillion, in 20 1200s of people show up in the streets for one tee day, the press comes out because there were hundreds and hundreds of people in the streets and they do ride us they say these people, they want their debts canceled, and they think college should be free. Which is funny, because most of those reporters were from the generation when public college was free, but there’s so much historical amnesia around it. But some of that group in strike debt, wanted to think about what does it mean to actualize the provocation and that name strike debt, which is of course inferring a debt strike, right, which is saying that debtors alone, were isolated, we’re individualized, we’re shamed. We’re told that it’s our fault that we’re financially irresponsible. But debtors collectively, arguably have a tremendous amount of leverage over the system. We can talk more about what that leverage is and how it works. So there was a group of us who were participating in strike debt. And by this time, I had actually moved home to Oakland and I had started striped at bay area, who actually wanted to make good on this, what would it mean, to start a debtors union? How do we do it? So we met in LA where I had by then taking the job in 2014. I’m kind of skipping over years, right? We’ve been talking about it bicoastal in New York, Oakland. One of the things that strike that did also was this effort called the rolling Jubilee. And the rolling Jubilee, we got certified as debt collectors. And you can buy deaths on secondary markets after hospitals sell them off after for profit colleges sell them off, you can buy them for pennies on the dollar. Again, I’m happy to explain how that works. So in this case, the rolling Jubilee which was an initiative of strike debt, crowd sourced a bunch of money, and one of the debt portfolios we had bought was tuition receivables for students who were indebted to these totally predatory, totally racist for profit colleges. And the vast majority of them were located in Southern California. And one of the kinds of ways that we thought about starting a debt strike is to find people who are kind of already organized, but pursuing strategies in this case, they were trying to pursue a class action lawsuit for having been defrauded by their schools for pursuing strategies that in this case, they had signed away in their loan paperwork, all of us signed away our ability to file a class action lawsuit and their loan paperwork. So a group of us came out to California where I already was I had just started my job at UCLA to meet with a group of folks who held debts from Corinthian colleges, and to say, hey, we’re the ones who bought up your tuition receivables. But we want to talk about an escalation Are you guys down? And so that was the beginning. That was the Corinthian 15. And we had kind of a retreat in Gosh, that was summer of 2014, here in LA, and we decided, you know, what are we going to call ourselves? Are we going to call ourselves a debtors union, or we’re going to call ourselves debt collective right with a play on debt collectors. But that is the not too short story of how the debt collective got started. No,
Maurice Weeks 18:59
it’s beautiful. And it’s yeah, it’s just so fun to remember back and some of those things watching from afar and sometimes up close. And yeah, thank you so much for walking through that. And okay, so now fast forward 10 plus years. And, you know, we were saying earlier on the show that the world is in a tremendous amount of debt, overall trillions and trillions and trillions, hundreds of trillions of dollars in the US is $16 trillion in debt, all of the individual household debt. And, you know, there is this question that comes up for me like, does that really matter at all? Like what at what impact does that have and why does that matter?
Hannah Appel 19:45
So in our organizing at the debt collective one of and your question kind of brings this up right and provokes that’s one of the things that we try to do is think about debt at different scales, and how those debts go intersect with one another at different scales and why the specificity of the different scales matters. So there’s sovereign debt. Right. So that’s the debts that countries owe sometimes other countries or sometimes international financial institutions. So when we think of, you know, debt crises in the Global South, often we think of that in terms of the IMF and structural adjustment and kind of the intentional torpedoing of anti colonial independence projects in Africa and Latin America. So the second scale of debt from which I’ve learned so much from you and the folks at Aker, and I mean, I’ve learned a lot from acre folks about everything. But you know, this question of municipal debt, right? So debt that’s held or issued, and that’s owed by smaller entities, entities smaller than entire country, so often cities, right, how do you fund your water infrastructure? How do you fund your public school infrastructure? How do you fund your roads? Very often, that’s municipalities issuing bonds, right? So going into pretty deep debt. And then this third scale, where the debt collective works most primarily, is at this scale of household debt. And I think that’s the that’s the statistic you gave to me at the beginning of this question. And indeed, the New York Federal Reserve just came out and said there is more aggregate household debt in the United States, adjusted for inflation than there has ever been, than there was before the great financial crisis than there was in the height of COVID. Like, we’re in some trouble. Okay. So that’s a that’s a big background to your question of, but does it matter? I mean, here’s what I would say yes, is my answer. I think it does matter. Some people, you know, when they reach out to me about deck collective stuff, they’re like, Oh, the deck collective shows us that, like, dead is all made up, and it’s just imaginary. And you can just like not pay it, and it’s going to be fine. Like, yeah, no, not exactly. There is that aspect that’s kind of imaginative and breaking those chains of the way that we so often see it, and yet so much of it is materially forceful, and consequential in deeply uneven ways. So that burden of household debt is systemic, and that almost everyone has it. But it is also deeply unequal. And it affects people in deeply unequal ways. So if we think about the histories of enslavement, and then Jim Crow, and then de facto and de jure segregation in this country, right, if we think about the kind of intergenerational ways that wealth building, mostly for white white folks, certainly not all white folks, but certainly the kind of upper echelons of white folks how wealth building works, and how wealth stripping or theft, intergenerational theft works for indigenous folks, for black folks, for migrant folks, right? That household debt really matters. It’s the difference between your incarceration and your not incarceration, it’s the difference between you accessing medical care and not accessing medical care. It’s often the difference between you accessing education and not education, housing, and not housing. So it really matters maybe in the ways that we’re more accustomed to thinking in that it kind of unevenly oppresses us, not only in our own lifetimes, and not based on our own finance, personal financial choices as consumers, but actually based on deep intergenerational again, transfers of wealth and transfers of seft of that wealth. And so that’s the way I think, especially those of us who are kind of more attuned to like critical orientations toward the world. That’s one of the ways that debt matters. But here’s the provocation that a debtors Union offers that the debt collective offers, which is a kind of inversion of that story, or a potential inversion of that story is like, yes, it absolutely matters in that way. But what that also means is that we can think of all of that accumulated household debt as potential leverage. And it matters in that way, too. So just to give you one example, so we’re almost at $2 trillion of outstanding student debt alone, that student debt is a burden. It’s terrifying. Our payments are about I mean, my family has a lot of it, I was about to swear, but I’ll try to stop myself. Our payments are about to turn back on. That’s really scary, right? Alone, we’re vulnerable. We’re isolated, we’re afraid we’re ashamed. We have kids, we’re trying to just like, oh, can our kids still do this extracurricular activity if we go pay, right, like making all of those choices. But together, that $2 trillion, arguably, is a form of collective leverage over the system. rich folks, they have known this for a long time. So we often trot out this phrase by John Paul Getty who says, you know, if you owe the bank $100 That’s your problem. You got to pay the bank back. But if you owe the bank $100 million, which rich folks often do, that’s the bank’s problem, because you actually then have power over the bank to say well, the terms in which I’m gonna pay this back to you are right or we see this in PPP loans, folks who already own businesses get a canceled for it. So in that way, debt also matters because we You at the deck collective think that alongside all other kinds of organizing, I don’t want to accept analyze debt, but debt, leveraged together by organized debtors has the potential to move us through this system. Because it’s not just about debt cancellation. It’s about renegotiating how the things that matter in life are resourced in the first place. So it’s about winning what we call reparative. Public goods. So yeah, cancel the student debt. But then public college has to be free. Yeah, cancel the medical debt, but then medical care has to be free on the other side. So that is the way that I would say, all that debt matters.
Maurice Weeks 25:37
Yeah. And you’re kind of touching on? What is a really great segue to my next question. So I’m a millennial. I feel like my generation and subsequent generations, I mean, as we said, are just dealing with the most debt ever, and increasing problem with that. And I guess the question maybe is overly simplistic, but why is why is that happening? And yeah, we’re just starting to touch on some reasons. But I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about why
Hannah Appel 26:09
the easy answer to this question, and one I will get to in a moment, but the easy answer to this question is to start with this word, neoliberalism, right, or to start with this phrase financialization. And I’ll talk a little bit about that in a minute. But the problem with that answer, and something we actually talk quite a bit about in this book we wrote it the debt collective can’t pay won’t pay, is that when we start answering this question from the 1980s, and Reagan and Thatcher and stuff like that, even though there’s a lot to that answer, that’s true. We miss those longer histories of wealth accumulation, on the one hand, both in the United States and outside of the United States that are based on settler colonialism that are based on enslavement, that are based on that intergenerational transfer of land that intergenerational transfer of wealth to some people, right to those wealthier white folks, and the intergenerational theft of land to intergenerational theft of labor, from other folks. So the very first thing I want to say in answer to this question is, it’s really important to understand the deeper intergenerational histories of wealth transfer or extraction transfer, because those really set the ground for where we are today, and what happened starting in the 1980s with neoliberalism. So let’s start there with those longer histories. So what happens is in the 1980s, you’re coming into a nation that is already profoundly economically unequal, not only by class, but also by race, also, by gender, also by you know, there’s so many ways migration status, right? So profound ly unequal access to asset accumulation, access to homeownership access to higher education, access to good jobs, right, that’s already radically unequal. In the 1980s. Starting in the late 1970s 1980s, you have a body of thought, that has come into the mainstream, both in academia and in government, and also among really rich folks, especially well connected, you know, the folks we would talk about now, like the Koch brothers and people like that, that version of those people, you know, back in the day in the late 70s, and 80s, that the best role of the government is to step back so called and let markets do their work. So things that the government had provided mostly to heterosexual, white, male headed households, right. So they didn’t even provide these to everybody ahead of time. But what folks called the social safety net, right. So, you know, the ability to access, subsidized medical care, the ability to access subsidized housing, the ability to access public education, right, anything that the government had, subsidized or taken partially off the market, right, some utilities, all of that should be pushed into the so called private sector and the government should keep its hands off. This is what those folks said, this is the kind of their ideological language, what that in fact means is the government should do a tremendous amount of work and make a tremendous amount of laws on behalf of super rich people who are then going to go own those things privately, and the rest of us because we can’t finance them. We’re going to debt finance them, which is to say, Oh, you want a college education. Conveniently after schools, like the one I teach at the UC system, right, has been wracked by protests throughout the late 60s and 70s. Black potential students brown potential students, right. I mean, the Black Panthers, the Brown Berets. This is like Oakland’s Community College System saying like, these are historically white institutions. Not only do we want in as students, but we want to see our histories taught we want to see professors who look like us. We’re going to use your college campuses to protest the Imperial Vietnam War. Right Reagan, Ronald Reagan was the governor of California at that time and he literally says before he becomes president, he says a Oh, if these kids want in, and they think they’re going to use these public grounds as the grounds for protests, well, then we’re going to charge them tuition. It was tuition free before that. But precisely because of those intergenerational histories that I said at that time, right? More black kids, more brown kids are enrolling in these schools, and they’re starting to have to debt finance them, which is why now we start to see that debt is radically disproportionately held by black families, by Brown families by indigenous families, and that is across the categories of household debt. It’s student debt, it’s medical debt, it’s carceral debt. But so that what I just the story that I just described, that happened in student debt happened kind of across the board, right, which is to say, Now families have to debt families communities have to debt finance, basic needs. So one of the things that we say and can’t pay won’t pay is you know, people aren’t in debt. Because we live beyond our means. That’s what we’re often told, right? You live beyond your means you bought seven pairs of sneakers, and not just the one you needed, you bought five flat screen televisions, and not just the one, we’re not in debt, because we live beyond our means we’re in debt, because we’re denied the means to live. So you have to go into debt, just to be able to live. So that is both a slightly longer and slightly more recent history of why we find ourselves in this situation we do.
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Maurice Weeks 32:03
Specifically, you know, on this podcast, we focus on the effects of on black folks and how race plays into it as well. So yeah, just so poignant, that that’s just such a centerpiece of how we got to where we are. And it makes me think of, you know, when I’ve organized with as you know, I’ve been organizing with folks around debt and other economic justice issues for a long time. And I feel like one of the main things that usually comes up is this feeling of shame, and especially with black folks where, you know, you got into the situation. And you’re right, you do hear that it was because you’re irresponsible is because you bought nice sneakers. And there’s just this this foundation that’s been built up over many years of messaging and narrative really, that that black folks, as a rule live beyond their means. I think of welfare queens, and I think of other things that that sort of push that forward. One, I just want to I want to hear your reaction to that generally, but as the debt collective and and you know, another person who organizes around these issues, how do we sort of get over this wall of shame and and start to break down some of these messages and strong narratives like that?
Hannah Appel 33:24
First, this question around black people, black families, black women in particular, right? So you bring up this trope of the welfare queen, why and how black people black communities have been so central to this horrific problem of household debt. And when I say so central, I mean, so central, in what is really a kind of like an ideological and economic war waged against black people, by mostly the vast majority right by white people in power. It’s kind of a perfect example of a Francis Lee Annesley version of white supremacy, right, like, yeah, there’s the kk k folks in hoods. But there’s also just kind of the daily fact of white power and white leadership and white ownership of resources and trying to kind of maintain that right, like, Keep America Great, make America white, always that kind of vibe. Okay, so I’m going to address that part first. And then I’m going to address this shame part second. So I think it’s so important for anybody who cares about these issues, to understand how fundamental debt and debt relations have always been to the foundation of this country and to sort of racial capitalism as the foundation of this country’s economic and social system. So I’m actually going to shout out my good friend and really rad colleague que su Park, she wrote an extraordinary article about the use of the mortgage instrument to dispossessed Native American folks of their land, right. So the ways that these folks horrible economic systems that serve white settlers have been used again, and again, to kind of entrap people into paying whatever assets they may have, or into turning something that they didn’t even see as an asset right land into something that is an asset and accumulates wealth for somebody else and strips them of wealth, right. And of course, you can see this not only in the theft of labor from enslaved African Americans, but in the in the theft of family and the theft of community, all of that. So it’s so crucial that we start from those moments, not because it happened a long time ago, but precisely because wealth accumulation asset accumulation is literally something that passes generation to generation. So if I, as a white kid, don’t have enough money to go to college, because now college is so extraordinarily expensive, even the so called public ones, it is likely it’s not necessarily the case, but it is likely that I have one relative who I can reach out to and be like, you know, can you help me with this? I don’t want to have to go into $100,000 of debt, maybe I can only go into 50. If you can give me right, that is far less likely if I come from an indigenous family if I come from a migrant family, and certainly if I come from a black family, precisely because of that act of intergenerational wealth stripping, that might have started with enslavement, but it goes on through Jim Crow, it goes on through housing segregation, right, we can see it in Canada, the amount of Taylor’s work, it goes on through the way that black majority cities and municipalities, their bonds are structured, right? You acre. I’ve written so much about that. So then let’s fast forward to 2008 There’s so many things to say about it. But there’s just one magazine cover that I want to remind folks of and if you haven’t seen it, look it up. I think it’s still on the internet if Mike Bloomberg hasn’t successfully been able to scrub it completely off. But Bloomberg Businessweek sometime in 2009. So this magazine cover Bloomberg Businessweek. It’s like there’s a there’s a big house, but it’s cut in half. So you can see who’s inside each room. Each room has a kind of ambiguously brown to black person in it. And each of one person is like gambling with cards. One person I feel like is maybe in like a bubble bath with candles. All right. I mean, it’s meant to be like these people exactly what you said, Maurice, these people are living beyond their means. These people are profligate these people are irresponsible. I mean, it was literally a you know, 30 years later recycling of the welfare queen trope. I’m when
Maurice Weeks 37:27
I just looked this up again. I mean, I remember seeing this and it’s I think we’re gonna put a link in the show notes because it is the most It’s unbelievable that this ran in 2009. And as a magazine cover, like just picks for listeners picture, like just the most cartoonishly racist depiction of what Anna’s describing and that is, what this cover is, and more. Yeah, yes, yes.
Hannah Appel 37:51
I mean, and if we actually do or read the rigorous accounting of what happened in that crisis, what do you see, right? It’s the perfect example, like mortgages, stripping indigenous people of their land, it’s Wells Fargo, it’s Bank of America, going out and finding the people who didn’t have access to the housing market on fair terms, and saying, Hey, do you want to buy a house, we know how to get you into a house, right? With ballooning Adjustable Rate Mortgages, with horrible subprime terms, and selling all of these mortgages to people who don’t have access to credit and debt markets on fair terms, right, knowing that that’s going to blow up. In other words, it is literally predatory behavior on behalf of bankers on behalf of creditors, who should be shown it should just be that Bank Tower right sliced in half, and they should be there with whatever. So blackness in general indigeneity in a different way, that hasn’t come up as much, because I think there is this kind of myth or misunderstanding that indigenous people aren’t around anymore, right. But blackness really has appeared both kind of ideologically, as you see in that magazine cover, but also really materially as we will rob from you, any chance we get. And of course, if we look at who loses their homes disproportionately in the wake of the mortgage crisis that is black and Latinx communities, that is the kind of basic fact of radical mistrust, distribution and intergenerational theft that we’re working with. But as you say, and the question is focused around this idea of shame, and personal responsibility, and even though it has quite literally been an systemic practice for hundreds of years at this point, to not only Rob black communities, but then also blame black communities for being robbed. The kind of surface ideology is, if you’re in debt, you’re financially irresponsible to the point that when, when Stacey Abrams in Georgia first ran for office, she had to write an op ed in Forbes that explained why she was $175,000 in debt for law school because all these white people that have occupied office before have never had to go into debt for law school because their families were already rich, right? I mean, it’s so shocking. That’s another thing that folks should look at. If you know it, Stacey Abrams, basically like explaining intergenerational white wealth and intergenerational black asset stripping and how many people she was responsible for having gone to Yale Law School, etc, in Forbes, because people were saying she was unfit to run for office, because she helped. So then to the organizing question, which is one that you and I have worked in for a long time, and it’s always an open question, I’m gonna give an answer. But of course, it’s always it’s always a practice, right. But one of the things that we’ve done at the deck collective and even before the deck collective at strike debt is, yeah, so you’re trying we always use the you are not alone. So you are not a lone LOA N trying to get folks to see these more kind of unevenly systemic conditions that bring us unevenly to where we are. So we run debtors assemblies, often in those debtors assemblies, you know, you have those classic red and white name tags that say, Hi, my name is we get them custom printed to say hi, my debt is and encourage people to like write the number in there. And then, you know, do a series of questions for folks that aren’t about we show them that they’re not about individual financial decisions or decisions? Like, did you go to college? Because you wanted a better life for yourself? Did you go to college because you wanted a better life for maybe other folks in your family? Right. So helping people see that they’re in similar conditions. But I will also say, over the last 567 years, it’s been increasingly clear to us at the deck collective, we’ve had some really great leadership around this and think of, of our organizers, Dr. Rochelle Brooks, Shimelle, Bell, Fred bell to also Bell bricks and Brewington. Like we have a lot of really great black organizers who are like, we need black spaces. Not that all black folks should only go into those black spaces in the deck collective, but we need like, so we have a black women’s dream space. Fred has run this really great black Praxis book project, where black people can come together with other black people who are in debt, and really talk through some of that without feeling that they may be under the gaze or under the eyes of people who don’t share similar experiences. And not even to say that all the folks who join that group share similar experiences. Of course they don’t, right. But we’ve really tried to militate against this idea that like, Oh, we’re all in debt. So it puts us all in the same boat. It’s been a problem on the left for a long time, especially it kind of marks influence left. And so to really try to make spaces opt in spaces, right. So it’s not like you have to go here because you are this, but make those spaces available. So for example, we have a debt and disability caucus for people who identify as disabled, we have a 50 over 50. So folks who are over 50, and hold student debt. So it’s not just for black people, but make spaces where people who may share certain kinds of identities, make those available so that they can talk about the specificity of that experience that maybe other people don’t share. And of course, they’re involved in all of our other organizing, too. But I’m really thankful to our black organizers, in particular, for really kind of pushing to have those spaces available. Because I think, you know, it’s one thing to work out our shame and stigma. And you know, that all the ideologies around financial irresponsibility kind of together across class across across race, across ability, or disability, or whatever. And it’s another thing to at least have the opportunity to see folks who may have shared some of our same experiences and feel like we might be understood in a different way, especially even like as an onboarding, right, you may decide to join the bigger thing eventually. But so I think that’s some of what we’ve done.
Maurice Weeks 43:23
Yeah, that’s wonderful. Okay, my last question, I’m going to try and play a little bit of devil’s advocate here. So do it, I think you presented a really interesting solution to, you know, the massive debt that we all hold and the inverse of the reason for it, which is that we don’t have the safety net or guarantee of things that, you know, generations before may have, or that maybe, you know, morally we should, if I were not me, and I were someone else, I’d say okay, so they’re calling for free college, free housing, free childcare, free food free. So that’s just unrealistic. Of course, we have to have debt because people are going to always buy things that are more than they make. We can’t guarantee all of these things. There’s not enough money for that. I’m just curious what the response to that would be. And then like, what is our end game on our side? Like, what do we what do we actually need to build and to not, you know, just constantly have people indebted for generations?
Hannah Appel 44:36
So, again, the frame we use, and I think it answers a couple pieces of this question is reparative public goods. So right, not universal public goods, as we saw kind of trotted out during the New Deal, but reparative public goods that acknowledge the necessity of reparations that acknowledge the necessity of land back and that by putting black communities putting indigenous communities Putting migrant communities first, that that is literally the only way that this is going to extend universally, right? It’s the same kind of logic that goes into why do you say black lives matter? Even if you actually believe that it more than Black Lives Matter, right? It’s understanding that it has to be reparative. First, because programs for so called universal public goods have really only ever favored white folks, hetero led households, etc. But yeah, this question of, well, how do we resource it, right? You want public college, you want social housing, you want medical care for all you want freedom for all, we just say incarceration for none, which is also very resource intensive, right? Because the absence of incarceration is the presence of housing, it’s the presence of startups, it’s the presence of healthcare. So I think the question of how to resource it is that crucially, important one, and in fact, this is the work that I tried to do in my academic job in the future of finance at the Institute on inequality and democracy. It’s like, well, how do you resource it? And I think there are a lot and so we’re going to turn a little bit into nerd land. But hopefully, it’ll be like an opening for some of you. And some of your folks probably know all about this stuff already. But I think there’s some very powerful economic thinking that has been coming out of schools of economic thought that for a long time, especially during this neoliberal era that we’ve been talking about has been considered heterodox, which is to say, have been considered kind of against the grain even though they’re very mainstream, compared to some other like harder left versions of economic thinking, that that are coming out of modern monetary theory, right, that say, the US government, as the maker of the US dollar, which is the currency of last resort for the entire planet, is not fiscally constrained in the way that households are fiscally constrained. If Biden wanted to use the legal powers at his disposal to cancel student debt right now, you know how much it would cost taxpayers $0, that money is already out the door, all he has to do is cancel that debt and there is no expense incurred by the US government. Now, I wrote a piece, it’s a little piece, it’s called reparative public goods in the future of finance, in which I address the problem that MMT is very us focused, and it doesn’t sing about kind of transnational racial capitalism. So if folks want to go there, check out that piece. You’re welcome to I’ve written about that elsewhere. But I think it’s really important to think capacious ly, about what we can do with the resources in this world. And so one classic example that modern monetary theorists always give Stephanie Kelton, who worked as a Congressional Budget Officer, so she’s giving it from experience, right? When the Pentagon comes and says, We want a budget of $99 billion, because we want to go bomb all these countries and stage all these coos and do whatever. Congress bipartisan Congress is like, Oh, you want 99? Here’s 200, no big deal. The American even really, really Yeah, without debate, and is the American public ever told, like, Oh, your taxes are gonna go up for this? No, we run a deficit for it. Right? The US government runs a deficit for it, we deficit spend, and all that money goes to the Pentagon without debate. But when we say we want a fraction of that amount of money to fund medical care, we want a fraction of that amount of money to fund education. We want a fraction to fund public housing or social housing that’s not just policed into oblivion, right? We’re told, Oh, no, your taxes are gonna go up. Right? So yeah, we run a deficit, but for whom? For whom is the deficit run? And for what is the deficit run? So I think, really a profound shift in how we understand austerity and how we’ve been kind of schooled into this idea that there’s not enough, there is enough, the question is where and to whom do we allocate it, and debtors unions, alongside labor unions, alongside all other kinds of organizing formations can build that power that says, This is where we allocate it. And then I guess one last thing I’ll say is I there’s a lot of disagreement inside the debt collective that’s, I think, interesting and productive about the role of debt. I am not a person who is like there should never be any credit and debt relationships. I think credit and debt can be if they are arranged in socially productive ways, useful ways to smooth spending over time, right. So I’m not the point to me is not all debts should be abolished. The point to me is debtors have a tremendous amount of latent power to change, who are the creditors? What are the terms to whom does that money get extended over time and on what terms? And so I think this is where you come to the kind of real systemic, revolutionary, you know, what does it look like to have a series of public banks? What does it look like to have an international currency? What does it look like to have social housing that is actually tenant owned? Tenants unions are arguably the best known form of a debtors union right the the leverage that collective organ Nice tenants have over their landlord is leveraged to say we’re not going to pay you unless and until. And one of the major shifts in the political economy of housing, you know about more than me, but I’ll just say it because I’m on the mic right has been that there are way more renters now than there have ever been in the history of this country. And again, kind of counter intuitively, that means that tenants organized have a tremendous amount of power. And you’re starting to see some of that, and like the KC tenants and homes guaranteed demanding that there has to be, you know, rent caps federally, because as landlords scale up to be these huge national and even international entities, regulation has to meet them where they are. So I think that that’s me kind of talking out some of the end game, which is both about building the grassroots power of debtors alongside other folks. Again, I’m not trying to accept, analyze what debtors can do, building up that grassroots power of debtors, but also really expanding our minds around where resources come from, where, where they’re allocated. Now, how that economic system actually works, and how in fact, even with what we have now, those resources could be allocated elsewhere, if we could just get the same kind of common sense around where they should be allocated. Yeah.
Maurice Weeks 51:14
Well, that’s such a great note to end on. And I’m going to be sure that we link both the reparative public goods for the future and the future of finance. And the homes guarantee, since you’ve mentioned that, since it’s a great example of, you know, the the type of dreaming that we can do, and we recognize the power of folks who are indebted or have a financial stake in folks who are wealthier and currently in power. Hannah, thank you so, so, so much for chatting with me, this was great. I really just such a great way to kick off. This podcast is such a pleasure.
Hannah Appel 51:49
Yay. Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled that you of all people are doing this. I can’t wait to be like your number one fan.
Maurice Weeks 51:56
Thanks so much, all right. It seems clear that this is a problem. And there’s some real predatory actors invested in driving up the total household debt. But believe it or not, it’s worse for some people. I couldn’t help but notice as I was looking into the household debt statistics that while the debt to income gap for the country was $31,000, it was even higher for black people. And I mean, way higher, black median household debt is $48,000, meaning the gap is a whopping $54,000. You know, it shouldn’t be shocked at this point to find new ways that the economy is worse for black folks. But here I am still shocked. And that’s what makes debt such an interesting topic. For me. It’s the sight of so many things that are descriptive not just of how our economy works, but how our society works. We’re awash in debt, and that’s to the benefit of a wealthy few black folks get hit harder. And that’s the result of systemic racism. And all of this is just a policy choice. I went back to look at my own debt, schooling, transportation, taxes, housing. You know, there are ways to provide all of those things without my household going into debt, free college, public housing, robust transportation. The question is, why did we choose not to pay you Tuesday, today. Thanks again to Professor Hannah appel, and my wife Shandra for joining me this episode. Indebted is produced and published by convergence magazine for radical insights. You can help support the show and others like it by becoming a Patreon member of convergence for as low as $2 per month at patreon.com/convergence mag. You can find a direct link in the show notes. The show is produced by Josh l Stroh. It’s written and hosted by me, Maurice, VP weeks. Until next time, let’s keep fighting for the world we all deserve.