Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Museum Musings: Joyful Activism

This is kind of what I imagine, except not all the Jubilee fairies
are pretty white ladies. Titania & Bottom, circa 1790,
by Henry Fuseli [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Although I've been working to focus this blog towards visions and inspirations for the Museum, occasionally I run into something so fabulously and uniquely related to joy that I just have to write about or feel I'm somehow failing in my mission. Today it is my pleasure to write about the Rolling Jubilee, a work of activism so brilliant, beautiful, and far-reaching that I get that kind of proud inflated feeling in my chest that is you might recognize if you've ever sung a national anthems in a large crowd or watched a male pigeons strut around trying to impress the ladies. No, but really. Snark aside, the Rolling Jubilee is amazing. So what's the deal? Just this: The Occupy movement has birthed a legion of sparkly fairies who go around magically forgiving people's debts. Yes. For actual. And while there may not be any real glitter involved, this phenomenal piece of activism is absolutely, solidly golden.

Here's what's up. A lot of people in this country have debt, right? Like a lot a lot. And banks do this shady thing where they sell your debt for pennies to people who then go after you for the full amount. Those people are involved in one of the more uniquely horrible professions in this country: their job is to hound you until you die or give them money. So Strike Debt, the folks behind the Rolling Jubilee, decided to do something astounding: they would become debt buyers. And then...

...they would forgive the debt completely. 

Just make it go away. They buy it from the bank, it belongs to them - and yes, they can simply make it vanish. Into thin air. And remember, the bank sells the debts for a fraction of their worth. Which means that the $368,428 that Rolling Jubilee has raised so far can forgive seven million, three hundred and forty-three thousand, three hundred and seventy-seven dollars of debt. Yes, that's right. That means you can buy a dollar of debt for around a nickel. Which means some pretty astonishing things....

1) This is incredibly effective fundraising. Listen, if you know that your dollar is going to go and forgive $20 of somebody's debt, that dollar feels pretty powerful. The money they raise goes directly to buying debt. The Rolling Jubilee website says: "All contributions go to The Rolling Jubilee Fund, a non-profit 501(c) (4) organization with the exclusive mission of buying and abolishing debt. 100% of the money raised will go to the process of buying and abolishing debt (a process that includes some associated costs such as paperwork, accounting, and legal fees). The volunteers managing the fund receive no compensation. In the interest of transparency, a full accounting of funds received and spent will be reported on our website." Nonprofits often suffer from economic inefficiency and a lack of transparency in use of funds; not so the Rolling Jubilee. As the Daily Kos points out, this is not only awesome, it also actively encourages people to donate - because you know exactly where your money is going and you know it's going to be used with an incredibly high degree of impactfulness. 

2) This is the bailout that we didn't get. Wall Street got the bailout, not the people suffering the effects of its poor decisions. The Rolling Jubilee, in forgiving debts at random, is allowing thousands (and hopefully eventually millions) of Americans to start fresh. That's not only compassionate, it's sensible. Individuals can't put money into their economy when they have negative dollars; when your debt is 154% of your income, you're too busy trying not to collapse completely to make any kind of contribution to the country whatsoever. (There's been a lot of self-righteous talk abounding about well if you didn't have the money you shouldn't have bought that house, or that car, or that education, as if all Americans were blind idiots who managed to make terrible decisions in the millions in some kind of vacuum where predatory lending practices and deeply duplicitous credit card companies didn't exist. It's easy to make a bad decision when somebody stands to make a lot of money off of ensuring that you do. And frankly? The bootstrappers who imagine that their fellow-citizens should simply sit and suffer for their inability to see with perfect clarity the disastrous ramifications of investing where they were told to invest are bloody idiots.)

3) It's nonpartisan activism. People across all kinds of demographics have debt. People are talking about it as a "bailout for the 99%," but it doesn't need to be framed that way. Rain falls on the just and on the unjust; debt strikes the hard-working and the genuinely lazy, despite the fact that there are almost infinitely fewer people in that latter category than certain people would like us to believe. In fact, the name "Rolling Jubilee" comes from a Biblical tradition in which slaves were released, land was left fallow, and debts were forgiven after a cycle of a certain number of years. ("Rolling," if it isn't obvious, means they just keep doing it.) Jesus would approve. And though there are plenty of Christians in this country whose values I'm pretty sure would make Jesus weep, apparently religious groups are signing on to the Rolling Jubilee movement as well - which, in all honesty, shouldn't be surprising, because this is peaceful, compassionate activism in the spirit of community, forgiveness, and charity at its best.

4) It's really, really hard to imagine who can complain about this. The banks that are selling the debts? Well, they make the same amount of money from selling a bundle of debts to Rolling Jubilee as they do to collection agencies. The collection agencies? Don't worry, guys, there's still trillions of dollars in debt left for you to hound our citizens for. The selective moral outrage brigade, who have no problem overlooking the people who persecute debtors in order to scold people about their responsibility to pay what they owe even if interest rates are crippling them? They can chill out, because the debt forgiveness is random, and so getting bailed out by Rolling Jubilee isn't really any different than winning the lottery and using the money to pay off your debt yourself. And right now the good folks of the Jubilee can't buy student debt, because most student loans aren't sold like consumer loans, so that's over $1 trillion in debt that isn't going anywhere, even if you die.

Unless, of course, the movement becomes so popular that debt forgiveness starts to sweep the nation. I honestly don't know enough about economics to say what might happen if suddenly only a half of the country was in debt. Or a quarter. How would lending practices change? What would happen to collection agencies? What would the economy look like if people were spending money they had instead of money they didn't? I don't know. But I'd like to find out. I'm donating to the Rolling Jubilee even though I fucking hate those practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty bumperstickers - because I believe Americans, not corporations, deserve a bailout. The government sure as hell isn't going to do it (because we wouldn't want to pay any attention to countries like Iceland, of course, which recovered from its financial crisis in large part by forgiving over a quarter of its citizen's loans) but, amazingly, because it is legal to buy and sell charged-off debt (debts the bank doesn't think it can collect, which it declares "charged-off" in order to get a tax exemption on the debt and then can sell to anybody else to collect on anyway - yes, really), you can.

That's some pretty powerful stuff. I love it. Effective, thoughtful activism is always inspiring.

This post was informed by articles worth reading on the Daily Kos, The Village Voice, and the Huffington Post, and by the Rolling Jubilee website.

Got any particularly awesome activism you'd like to share? I love hearing about ideas that seriously move mountains. Leave 'em in the comments!

1 comment:

  1. Actually, debt buying is only quasi-legal. If put to it, it's actually illegal, but no one wants to do anything about it, because it makes a lot of people a lot of money. Unless, of course, the guy down the street buying the debt from a loan shark, because, then, it is illegal even though it's the exact same thing.

    I could rant more, but I'll stop.

    NPR was talking about this the other day, and, actually, there are some people that -are- complaining about it and have set themselves against this movement. Yeah, what the heck?


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