I Too Am a Debt-Peon


by Justin E. H. Smith

In 1994 I was admitted to a few Ph.D. programs, but only two of them were not from my back-up list. One of these was UCLA, where I was admitted with full-funding for the doctoral program in Slavic linguistics, and the other was Columbia, where I was admitted to the doctoral program in philosophy, without funding. I chose Columbia, because at the time the area-studies approach to learning seemed to me too narrow, and I wrongly thought that philosophy represented an opposite tendency (I now understand, also, that being admitted to grad school without funding effectively means that one is not really seen as a promising student at all, but primarily as a source of revenue).

In spite of all the good reasons to go to LA, I simply didn’t want to write a dissertation on the semantics of the verbal prefix vz- in Old Ruthenian or something like that. Now I think that would have been kind of cool. Also, I hated California, and thought New York represented the opposite of that. Here my convictions haven’t really changed.

So anyhow I ended up taking about $45,000 in federal loans for my first year of graduate school, 1994-95. Fortunately, for all subsequent years, from 1995 to 2000, I had funding from some source or other, and so my debt is not nearly as large as it could have been. I began making monthly payments in 2001, and at present I still owe around $30,000, to both the US Department of Education’s Direct Loans program, as well as to ‘Sallie Mae’, whatever the hell that stands for.

This debt puts me in a peculiar position: I am at once relatively high in the academic hierarchy (well, in fact, in this era of pauperized adjuncting as the new norm in university teaching, I am very high in the hierarchy), and at the same time I continue to struggle with this monthly payment. I know I will get little sympathy from all the adjunct part-timers out there, and I am not looking for any. I am simply noting that even when one has it good, there may well be compromises one had to make over the years to get there, compromises that make the good less than great.

Over the years there have been many occasions when I found it difficult to pay. There have been some occasions when I did not pay. I will not list here all the other financial commitments with which this one has been in competition; it is enough to say that at times all commitments could not be met together. In the United States, I have a likely permanently blemished credit record, which makes me very grateful for the new start Canada has provided for me. One of the implications of this commitment is that, in whatever country I happen to be, I cannot not work. Most likely until I am 55 or 60 I will have to continue to produce a minimum amount of money to give to the US government every month. 

Over the years, I have trained myself to not give into the temptation to verbally abuse employees of the USDE over the telephone. They are very clearly not well paid, and they are certainly not paid to understand the entity for which they work. They are also not expected to be aware of the existence of Canada, and I have struggled, literally for what now amounts to hours and hours, to communicate to them that I have a six-digit alphanumeric postal code, and not a five-digit numeric zip code. The field for the zip code on their computers only permits them to enter five characters, and they consistently short-circuit (the human beings I mean, not the computers) when I insist upon a sixth. I tell them I live in ‘Montreal, Quebec’, and they ask, ‘What state is that in?’

This is just a small taste of the maddening nature of my interaction with them, all compounded, of course, by the fact that I am talking to them in the first place in order to arrange to give them my money.

My most recent conversation with the USDE occurred yesterday (you should have heard how they had to struggle with my new postal address, which is on a street called the ‘chemin de la Côte-Sainte-Catherine’). I had called to arrange a ‘compromise pay-off’, in which I offer them a lump sum, and we consider the debt acquitted. I had $15,000 to give them, which, if I had gone to UCLA, I could now be using for a modest down payment on a condo. The woman on the phone said told me the USDE abolished the ‘compromise pay-off’ program last year. I asked her why. She said: “They didn’t tell us why. The USDE just told us they weren’t offering that program anymore.” “But you are the USDE,” I said. “Shouldn’t you know why?” “I only work for them. They do what they want.”

I’m gonna keep my $15,000, then, I said, and perhaps my debt will be acquitted when the bubble bursts instead. She said she didn’t know anything about that.

I don’t know if it will burst or not, or whether there will be a massive revolt of debt-peons in the coming years. One thing that has shifted in me over the course of the past few months, though –clearly as a result of the Occupy movement and some of the arguments coming out of it (I wish I could say I’m lucid enough to grasp these arguments on my own, but the truth is that it required a major historical shift for me to get a clue)–, one thing that has shifted is that I regard this whole racket as being a good deal less legitimate than I used to. They’re going to squeeze as much as they can out of me, and I’m going to resist as much as I can.

They forked over some money 17 years ago, and there might be some grounds for claiming that I am morally obligated to give it back. But I am finally starting to appreciate the force of the ‘Education Is a Right’ slogan, a slogan that used to seem questionable to me (to the extent that rights-talk in general seemed questionable); it now seems to me that I was simply availing myself of that right in 1994, and the expectation that I should spend the bulk of my life paying for this seems at least disproportionate. Moreover, it has come to seem to me that usurious interest on a loan, while advantageous to the creditor, frees the debtor up of any need to think about the debt in moral terms. They’re doing something sleazy, trying to squeeze out what they can; I’ll go ahead and be wily in response, and try to hold onto what I can.

But man, I hate having to work. I want to work because I want to work.

I once knew a woman from Warsaw, who came to visit me when I had an apartment in Pigalle for a summer. We went down to the Boulevard de Clichy to change money, and she commented on how fitting it was that the bureaux de change were squeezed between the many peep-shows and sex-toy shops. This is what money is really all about, she said.

She got some of it, and we went back to the apartment to make lunch. For some reason I put a stack of bills on the table while we were eating. She nearly spit out her food, and asked me, visibly disgusted, to remove them.

My friend was trying to maintain the illusion that life is not sustained by money, that life is not ‘monetizable’. She was trying to maintain a beautiful life: a project that is at fundamental odds with the system of debt-peonage.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website