Could Student Loan Debt Spark Insurrection?

240px-Mohamed_Bouazizi_candle The spark that lit the tinder was a series of what began as peaceful protests followed by disproportionate – and uneven – countermeasures by the Tunisian government. Protests began after the public self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor left destitute after harassment by local authorities. Early media coverage was stifled and word of the protests leaked out through social networks and satellite television. Tunisian authorities reacted violently, then backpedaled and granted elaborate concessions (for example Pres. Ben Ali visited Bouazizi in his hospital bed shortly before the latter died and former fled.) The government seemed weak, arbitrary and cruel. People quickly lost confidence.

The United States might seem immune to the miseries roiling Egypt and Tunisia, yet the lack of opportunities and bleak outlook among Arabian youth is hardly unique, particularly to a young American. Unemployment as measured by the number of Americans out of work for over 15 weeks and still looking is at a historically high 9.1 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, yet that number belies deeper pools of unemployment and underemployment among segments of the population. Last month’s tally of job seekers and those “marginally attached and working part-time for economic reasons” was 16.7 percent. Among recent college graduates and minorities the numbers are higher still.

Repression in the United States is not just economic but systematic, according to N+1’s “Intellectual Situation.” By challenging the peculiar American phenomenon of the pejorative use of the word “elite” being directed against “cultural” as opposed to “power” elites (i.e. readers of N+1 as opposed to readers of The Wall Street Journal), N+1’s editors reveal a menacing strain of anti-intellectualism that the “resentful right, under the banner—hoisted by the likes of Beck, Huckabee, and Palin—of common sense, flatters deprivation as wisdom by implying to the uneducated that an education isn’t worth having;” doing “incalculable, unforgivable” violence to the talents and capacities of millions of people.”

The root of this astringent claim is that the Right “not only brands higher education as an instrument of class domination, but… ensures the educational system increasingly functioned in such a way as to make the accusation stick.” The Right achieved this by appropriating (perhaps unwittingly) sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that educated taste is a marker of “cultural capital,” and that taste functions as an index of social status, thereby enforcing class distinctions. N+1 argues that a “truly Democratic America” would instead hew closer to Ortega y Gasset’s argument that there are two classes of creature, “those who demand much of themselves and assume a burden of tasks and difficulties, and those who require nothing special of themselves, but rather for whom to live is to be every instant only what they already are.” Thus empowered the unwashed masses would admire rather than sneer at the achievements of cultural elites, and aspire for greater achievement.

A laudable goal, certainly, and one shared by both sides of the political equation, at least their more sensible members. Crudely put the Left would prefer to marshal the resources of the state to nudge people along in their self-improvement, while the Right would rather let them do it on their own, pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and presumably succeeding in a more business-like fashion. Perhaps the “cultural elite” gives themselves too much credit. Suspicion toward cultural elitism might not stem from culture itself, but rather its self-appointed stewards, the bastions of power and wealth sitting on the boards of elite universities and august cultural institutions.

Chrystia Freeland’s “The Rise of the New Global Elite” in January 2011’s Atlantic Monthly is set against the backdrop of an increasingly stratified American economy. Wealth is concentrated in the upper echelons of society, while wages for the working and middle class have remained stagnant or declined in real terms since the 1970s. Gains are particularly high among the wealthiest Americans, where “between 2002 and 2007, 65 percent of all income growth in the United States went to the top 1 percent of the population.”

While income remains volatile in the United States, in that many people who are born poor do not stay poor and vice versa, globalization has created a plutocratic society, “in which the rich display outsize political influence, narrowly self-interested motives, and a casual indifference to anyone outside their own rarefied economic bubble.” The rich of today, says Freeland, are “hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly.” Plutocrats have blossomed all over the planet and have more in common with one another than the hoi polloi in their home countries.

According to Freeland, the plutocrat of today is no as longer concerned with “debutante balls and hunts and regattas,” preferring instead to haunt the “international conference circuit,” where attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, or securing a membership to the Bilderberg Group are the real markers of having arrived. To this new generation of geeky oligarchs, the “most coveted status symbol isn’t a yacht, a racehorse, or a knighthood; it’s a philanthropic foundation—and, more than that, one actively managed in ways that show its sponsor has big ideas for reshaping the world.”

The ideas that the ultra wealthy are bandying about and attempting to push on the non-elites of the world might give an average American or European a moment’s pause – “during a recent internal debate [at one of the world’s largest hedge funds] one of [the wealthy CEO’s] senior colleagues argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. ‘His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade.’” Given such attitudes, surely the global elite’s financing of the nearly industrial production of education and culture deserves a little bit of scrutiny.

According to the National Philanthropic Trust, education attracts the second largest pile of donated money in the United States (after religious institutions), and that some 78 percent of high net-worth donors give to educational foundations. Yet in economic terms little of the business of the university is actually channeled toward the arts and humanities. Business, law, medicine, applied sciences, and all the other more quotidian pursuits of humanity encompass a far greater portion of a typical university’s time and resources. Harvard University, for example, graduated 1,664 baccalaureates, 512 PhDs, and awarded 4,460 professional degrees in 2008/2009, at least according to Wikipedia’s tabulations of Harvard’s “Graduate Degrees Conferred” report.

If any systematic calcification of the class system in America has taken place, it is more likely manifest in the unimaginative career tracks encouraged by our elders and betters than any change in the perception of artistic or humane achievement. A far more insidious and corrosive influence is the atrocious amount of debt it is now common for students to take on, and the compromises they are forced to make in service of that debt. According to FinAid.org, the average graduating senior carrying debt (and 59% of them do) owes $21,894. The “median additional debt is $25,000 for a Master's degree, $52,000 for a doctoral degree and $79,836 for a professional degree.” Considering government-guaranteed loans are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy, the loans will haunt all but most successful of students for decades. And as tuition rises far faster than inflation (8%), the problem is getting worse.

The self-immolation of poor Mohamed Bouazizi would not have had the resonance it did with the Tunisian public had the disparity between Tunisia’s elites and their charges been less stark. The Washington Post catalogues some of the excesses of the Ben Ali family – caged tigers, Ferraris, feasts of ice cream flown in from Saint Tropez via private jet, infinity pools! And yet for all their excess, a glance at an average Vanity Fair or Us Magazine reveals much of the same. And as Freedman points out, as legislation that appears to callously aid the upper classes at the expense of everyone else – such as banker bailouts and avoiding taxation hedge fund fees – continues to be passed; and the gap between the rich and poor continues to gapes ever wider, the risk of a populist backlash will continue grow.

Populist movements tend to stir among the not-quite-elite young. Cracks in the American edifice could well form from the nearly ubiquitous burden of student debt. And as the ice outside thaws and compound interest accumulates, perhaps some poor troubled debtor will snap and martyr him or herself on Youtube, galvanize the debt-plagued, and plunge the United States into open revolt. Perhaps it is time to gather stones and pot lids and join our Tunisian brothers and sisters.

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