(Songs for) Debt Servitude

I have read a lot lately about the spiraling forces of income inequality: student-loan debt, new possible mortgage fears, and the breakdown in the basic social compact of which education is a central and collapsing piece (Thomas Frank, why do you have to make me so sad?). During my sister’s recent visit when we got to celebrate the Red Sox’ most recent World Series win and even during the good news of my brother landing a real teaching job, discussions have been sobered by the reality of crushing student loan debt.

So, before the pretty lights of the holidays distract us, here’s a re-post and reminder that we live off tomorrow’s wages today.

My brother recently wrote about one of the influences on the pervasive depression–the seasonal affective disorder–in our hometown and similar regions. I think there is more to be said about it. But I want to warn you before you start reading: this post is one of those times when I am going to start ranting. I will definitely get political and personal.

Yeah, I am getting up on it

Yeah, I am getting up on it

I will talk about music, but I will mostly talk about something that should concern all of us: the widening gap in prosperity in our country, the broken promises of the American dream and a system that really can bear no better name than debt servitude.

(Ok, ok. I originally wrote “debt slavery” but the younger j thought that this was historically insensitive. In my mind, I countered that this is a big deal too, but words mean a lot. I’ll save the histrionics for the end.)

What does this have to with music? A relatively small amount, if you think about the issue directly—yet, it has to do with the hopes and fears that fuel our music and give it its themes (both high and low), the twisted values that dominate the commercial end of music in this country, and the real-life effects that send many of us rushing to our headphones for escape or with the fragile hope that someone else may communicate what we’re feeling in a better way.

Here’s the dramatic pitch. There is something really, really wrong about our system. We all buy into a series of values and promises that turn out to be worse than empty–they are filled with negative space.

“Payday”, Mississippi John Hurt

The vast majority of Americans don’t even live paycheck to paycheck anymore. We live paycheck loan to paycheck loan. Mr. Hurt sings a sweet song that reflects on the connection between money and love. Did you know that in our current financial era a bad credit score is like having herpes? So, if you’re poor or unlucky you’re screwed (or not) when it comes to dating.

Over the past few months these three themes—the widening prosperity gap, broken promises, and debt servitude—have been foremost in my mind as I have talked to friends and family and have witnessed the empty rhetoric of the presidential cycle, the absurd fiscal cliff debate, and the lingering but insistent bogeyman of socialism. (Full disclosure: I am pretty much a socialist.) Here’s why I get really pissed off.

Two basic facts: first, the American taxpayer pays less in income tax now than during the Reagan administration (really, a Wall Street Journal fact) even as we have waged two foreign wars, given generous tax cuts to oil companies, and bailed out the auto and finance industries. (During WWII, the US government made it patriotic to cut back and give money to support the war. Should I be depressed about our era?). Where’s this money coming from? Can no one in the government balance a budget? If I want to buy more for my household, I need to find more money. That’s simple, isn’t it?

Second, the American worker is more efficient and more productive now than at any time in the past 50 years, yet wages for the average American have stagnated  (also facts, check it out). Now, I don’t want to sound like some crazy conspiracy theorist, but if we are paying fewer taxes and producing more but wages barely keep pace with inflation, there is a large piece of the economic pie that is just missing. (Ok, it isn’t missing, the top echelon of economic life gobbled the fucker up.)

“Minimum Wage”, They Might Be Giants

Did you think I could go two months without talking about They Might Be Giants? My record might be a week. I like this song because it has two words and then the sound of a whip.

So, we clearly have a state of increasingly out-of-control inequality which, some will say, is historically extraordinary. And it is. But what adds to this toxic horror is the broken promises. See, not only are the jobs that do exist paying less, but there are fewer jobs to be had and higher ‘entry’ costs to get to the front door. And, to make matters worse, an entire generation of men and women worked happily along thinking that the rules they were playing by were the right ones (and would be honored).

A few simple stories. Our parents, the children of the children of immigrants, went to college on student loans and ended up with a grand total of about 10K in student loans for two college degrees. My mother trained to be a teacher and got a job in her field. My father got a degree in history and became a salesman. We had a nice, secure middle-class life for most of our youth(s). I think my brother was too young to remember the beers my parents tipped to paying off that last loan.

Our grandfathers on both sides used the GI Bill to take their families into the middle class. We were raised with the (probably apocryphal) line attributed to my paternal grandfather that if you go to school to get a job you’re missing the point. We as a family and as a generation never even questioned the idea that education was the key to income stability and class mobility because it was part of the promise of the American Dream.

“UMASS”, Pixies


This great track may not mean to address the issue I want it to, but I like the lines “we got ideas to us that’s dear / like capitalist, like communist / like lots of things you’ve heard about”. These words are vague and accurately point out the cluelessness of both student and university about the current era. I also love the wailing chorus line: “It’s Educational.”

I went to school and then graduate school and ended up with 49K in student loans and then got a job in my field where my starting salary was only a little more than my total loan bill. My wife went to school, graduate school and then even joined the army to defray the costs, yet still ended up with 100K in student loans. She has a job in her field. We are, I might mention, success stories, right? We went to good schools, got good grades, never got in trouble with the law and my wife even served her country.

Yet, let’s look at this more closely. At 120 payments (10 years) at 5% interest (a lowball estimate), the monthly due is 1580.17 which leads to an additional interest cost of 40654.14. Yes, nearly a third of the value of the initial disbursement. That money doesn’t go to the university that provided the education. It doesn’t go to the person who got the education. It goes to someone whose only qualification and effort in the entire process was just  having the money to start with. (And I say someone because the US Supreme Court now defines corporations as people.)

But, let’s focus on the success. This post isn’t about evil bankers. My wife immigrated to this country when she was 4 and is now a retired Army Officer and a working professional in her field. I am a tenured professor. We worked hard and we were rewarded with jobs. And a starting negative 150K in our banking account. (There is something beyond empty. Really. Because nothing wouldn’t need attention.) But, please don’t take this as complaining. By all the standards we were raised with and the pacts we signed, we are living good lives.

“Mo Money Mo Problems”, Notorious B.I.G.

I don’t think that the Notorious B.I.G. had our lives in mind when he came up with these lines. But, more money means more responsibility, more things and, yes, more problems. But the way things really work for most people in this country is that you get things and responsibility, but you don’t get money, you get debt.

We were both lucky enough to have the right education and experiences to put us on a clear path to professionalization. The average student loan debt in this country is 27K ( no one I know owes just the average). At the average interest rate of 6.8% paid over 10 years, the average graduate (and we don’t graduate everyone from college: millions have student loan debt and no degree) pays 310.71 a month for a grand total of 46607.00. Now, this may sound fair enough until you consider the fact that there are now hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans aged 23 to 30 for whom there have been no jobs, much less those that pay enough to be able to afford that extra 310 a month.

(And, defer all you want, the interest gets capitalized. Payments get larger and larger the longer you wait.)

Yet, this is not meant to be a jeremiad against student loan debt. It is the amount of debt in total and the lack of decent jobs at the end that is the real problem when someone is getting fat off of increased American productivity, retained tax liabilities, and all of that interest. Let’s take my brother (if he will forgive me) as another example. He did everything ‘right’, like me, except he was born 7 years later. He went to high school, graduated college, he went to graduate school for a professional degree (as a teacher) and has spent the last three years landscaping and bartending.

“Career Opportunities”, The Clash

The Clash had it right back in the day: “The offered me the office, offered me the shop / They said I’d better take anything they’d got”.

The bill for my younger brother’s American dream? 100K in debt. If he repaid it over 20 years (at 6.8% interest), he would have to pay $763 a month and would end up paying 83201.48 in interest fees. Here’s the real kicker: a popular website suggests that the minimum annual salary to ‘handle’ these payments is 114.5K.  No high school teacher makes that. Few make half that.

Now, you might wonder why you need to make 114K a year to ‘manage’ what amounts to just under $10,000 dollars a year. Here’s what gets me really fired up. See, if you’re not born with money, if you can’t have your education financed by your parents, a house bought by them and a car handed to you, you don’t need to finance your education alone. You need to buy a car (at 2.9% interest, if you have good credit). You need to buy a house (at historically low interest rates of below 5%). Shit, you can buy an iPod, groceries and fucking toilet paper on credit (8.9%-22.9% APR).

“Sixteen Tons”, Johnny Cash

Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong

I have known this song since I was a little kid. I don’t know why you would have first graders sing this song, but it has stuck with me all my life. The first line is bitter, but true.

By the time you’re a ‘success’ story, you owe on your education, your cars, your home and, unless you’re very smart, money here and there on furniture etc. And, if you have the misfortune of suffering some sort of medical issue, a home repair emergency, or even worse, a death in the family, you can end up owing even more and without an income.

Now, you can object that many of these things are just the cost of doing business and that they are out of control. But the truth is that these are products of American lifestyle decisions that are legislatively and administratively subsidized by our government. Education receives less federal and state support by percentage now than at any period in recent history.

More insidious? We invest in highways and subsidize oil companies instead of public transit. We give better tax breaks to suburban sprawl than smart urban living. We have been building a tax and zoning code for the past two generations that nearly requires you to have an automobile and purchase a home just because the other options mean moving to one of a very few cities (where housing is outrageously expensive) or accepting a standard of living that is below that of our grandparents.

“Suggestion”, Fugazi

Again, we do bear some responsibility in this individually. We don’t choose to opt out of an out-of-control consumerist society. We let ourselves be sated and distracted by fast-food, the newest iPhones and more and more elaborate types of in-home entertainment. But what can most people do when they spend their lives inundated by the basic message that a consumerist, suburban, car-driving existence is the only one that indicates success and vindicates your life choices?

This may sound dramatic. But it is the situation that is dramatic not the declaration of its fact. I know so many students who have worked hard and have no career prospects. Because they have no money, and only debt, their prospects in friendships, love, and happiness are limited. Work and earning potential should be about more than having the requisite worth to enter into the consumerist suicide pact. From a simpler perspective, it is about dignity and the vindication of the proposal that you should be able to earn an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work.

“Maggie’s Farm”, Rage Against the Machine

This Bob Dylan original is not just about working on a farm. I love the final lines “Everybody wants you  / to be just like them / they say sing while you slave and I just get bored”. Bread and Circuse,s my friends. The Rage Against the Machine cover expresses a fury that is also appropriate. I thought about the standard “Little Boxes”, but we’ve talked about that one before.

So, what do we do? Can we ‘opt out’? Not really and not with ease. My brother was ambivalent about the Occupy Wall Street movement last year and I shared some confused feelings but mostly because I was frustrated with the inability of the movement to articulate a coherent goal. After another political cycle and some time to think about it, I understand the movement better as a the raw paroxysm of frustration and anxiety over a system that offers mostly broken promises and then charges interest on everything else.

Because, here’s the real frustration, as Americans, we value our ‘freedom’ the most. Yet, my brother and I, who did everything that was asked of us, are anything but free. My wife and I have literally thousands of little chains tied to us each month for the next 20-30 years. I know, I know. We freely chose to sign all of the papers that led to this enslavement. But it seems strange that this is what we worked so hard to get.

(And we are the lucky ones.)

So, when my brother raises his eyes at the fact that we put everything away we can for our children—that we work harder than we would because we don’t want them to have student loans—all I can say to him is that this is about freedom and dignity. We weren’t born rich, but I still believe this ridiculous promise that I can work really hard and maybe my children will be better off.

How sad it will be if I’m wrong. How wrong it is that the vast majority of us don’t have even this to hope for. I don’t know what the solution is, exactly, but I do know that we don’t talk honestly about this enough, about the toxic combination of expectations of low taxes, heavy consumerism and no responsibility for the success or failure of our fellow citizens.

Here’s an angry song about the topic. Check out the double bass-drum pedal and thrashing bass.

“Age of the Debt Slaves”, Alphakill

And so, my brother (and our friends who are in the same straits) have I characterized the situation right or did I get some things wrong? Even as important, are there other songs that help us to make sense of this world?

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