Political Animal


November 18, 2012 4:37 PM Rolling Jubilee: a distraction, or a way forward?

By Kathleen Geier

One of the offshoots of the Occupy movement is an intriguing project known as Rolling Jubilee. Billing itself as “a bailout of the people by the people,” Rolling Jubilee is an organization that raises money to buy the debt of random individuals for pennies on the dollar, thus wiping out the debt and freeing them from the harassment of bill collectors. They plan to start by buying medical debt and to branch out to other forms of debt (credit card, etc.) later. When the debt is forgiven, the debtor is informed of this by a letter, which explains what the Rolling Jubilee is and is accompanied by a copy of Occupy’s Debt Resistor’s Manual.

Like Doug Henwood, I have mixed feelings about this project. Raising awareness about debt is essential, and lending a helping hand to one’s fellow citizens who are being crushed by debt is a noble endeavor. Personal debt, and in particular student debt, is an ever-growing problem in our society and was a powerful motivator for many of the Occupy protesters. But it very much remains to be seen if Rolling Jubilee’s debt relief effort is a promising way to organize a political movement. As a community building exercise, it may prove a bust. The debtors who are being helped out have no organic ties to the movement and may not care to participate in it. Foreclosure activism, which is focused on keeping people in their homes and is community-based, seems much more promising in this regard.

Also, as Henwood points out, there’s the problem that if activists buy enough debt, they risk driving up the price of the debt, by increasing demand. However, it seems unlikely that they will raise enough money to do so, and at any rate the debt-buying is mostly symbolic. The point is not to abolish the debts of everyone in America, but to raise awareness of debt as an issue and to build a movement that brings about public policies that promote debt relief and other fundamental changes in our economic system.

Henwood’s most persuasive critique of the movement is his argument that in its narrow focus to debt, the movement unproductively addresses a mere symptom of our unjust and dysfunctional economic system, while ignoring root causes. He writes:

[T]he StrikeDebt! people have inherited from American populism an obsession with money and finance as the root of all our economic problems, while not paying much attention to the things they connect to in the real world. So, debt is a symptom of crappy wages, unemployment, expensive health care and tuition, and a cheesy welfare state. It’s fine to organize and propagandize around debt as long as you use it as a point of entry into that larger conversation—but the StrikeDebt! people have so far done that more in passing, while fixating instead on a so-called “debt system.” They say they’ll move on to that, and I hope that’s true.

So do I. I’m a skeptic about the movement’s potential for success, but I wish them well. Debt relief efforts may not necessarily lead to a movement that addresses the economic system as a whole, but it could get the ball rolling toward more humane public policies for our huge national problem of overwhelming personal debt.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Tyro on November 18, 2012 5:57 PM:

    . Iím a skeptic about the movementís potential for success,

    I'm a skeptic of every single other liberal movement which has failed. So I'm up for radical solutions that haven't yet been tried.

  • c u n d gulag on November 18, 2012 6:09 PM:

    Any Liberal/Progressive effort, even a symbolic one, is apprecated - AND important!

    Whoever they can bail-out, will be appreciative - unlike the Wall Street @$$holes, who got bailed out for their idiotic and wildly speculative decisions by the tax-payers, then gave themselves bonuses for almost crashing the economy, and now bitch about a small 3+ percent increase in their taxes.

    If many of us had their way, the dust from their drawn-and-quartered bodies, and the molecules of their survivor's tears, would have long been spread around the globe.
    I don't hate many people - but I really HATE the really rich, entitled @$$holes in this country, with the heat of 100,000 suns!!!

  • Drinkof on November 18, 2012 7:06 PM:

    Henwood's critique is vacuous, straight out of the 'if you can't fix all of it, why fix any of it school'. This is targeted enough, and illustrates a good point most people are unaware of.

    And seriously, 'organic ties', or driving up the price of debt? Straining at gnats ...

  • VaLiberal on November 18, 2012 7:31 PM:

    I was watching Naomi Klein on Bill Moyers today discussing the impact of climate change as well as disaster capitalism. It occurred to me that, however well-meaning and effective all the Occupy movement people are on a community level (and, bless 'em, they do good work), there needs to be a lot more education about "the commons" and what it means to pay locality, state and federal taxes in order to have services that are better performed by some level of government and are available to everyone. Conservatives like my brother will constantly say that we don't need welfare/food stamps, etc because that's what charities and churches are for and HE wants to choose to whom he gives his money.

    At the same time, after H. Katrina, there was at least one company offering to provide special evacuation/vacation plans for the wealthy. And some insurance companies are offering "concierge services" of private firefighting companies.

    I mean c'mon...

  • Rose on November 18, 2012 8:04 PM:

    This may be kind of off topic, but I hear my rich boss complaining that FEMA will not pay for second homes on Long Island and Connecticut. As though it's the same thing as helping people's first homes.

  • TCinLA on November 18, 2012 8:06 PM:

    Had you committed the radical act of watching "Up With Chris Hayes" on Saturday, you would have seen some of the main organizers of this project, talking about what they are doing and why, and making the exact same points you think they should be making.

  • Drinkof on November 18, 2012 8:37 PM:

    Henwood's critique is vacuous, straight out of the 'if you can't fix all of it, why fix any of it school'. This is targeted enough, and illustrates a good point most people are unaware of.

    And seriously, 'organic ties', or driving up the price of debt? Straining at gnats ...

  • billb on November 18, 2012 10:01 PM:

    Faint Criticism from the press/bloggers , rather than jumping in full throat in support, is exactly what is wrong in this country. Every dang effort matters if we are going to re-take our country back from the banksters. Have you ever heard the phrase 'damning with faint praise'?

  • cwolf on November 19, 2012 3:51 AM:

    Like Doug Henwood, I have mixed feelings about this project....

    OK, I'll make it easy for you to unmix your feelings.
    The Banks hate the Idea.

    What else do you need to know?

  • Keith M Ellis on November 19, 2012 5:05 AM:

    And wait till those lucky recipients of this debt relief get an unexpected, hefty tax bill on the forgiven debt! That's fun.

  • Neil Bates on November 19, 2012 8:11 AM:

    Hmmm... I think Rolling Jubilee is a great idea, and the "cons" are less than the pros. However, the very ability of whomever to buy debt for pennies on the dollar sidesteps the question: why isn't that very same deal, legally required to be offered to the debtors in the first place (instead of say, debt collection companies.) Well maybe it sort of is, in the sense of deals that are offered, but those are usually a bigger percentage of the debt, and offered by those middlemen! The debt holder should have to have offered any given debtor at least as good a deal as they ever sell (ie, some people won't even take the cheap sliver.) Also, by the time someone's debt is that cheap, credit is already and maybe long-since harmed and not really pegged to any such technical forgiveness, true? I hate to undercut RJ, but maybe the system itself can work better to start with.

  • Shane Taylor on November 19, 2012 10:20 AM:

    Speaking of efforts to deal with the overhang of private debt, I would still like to see a push for principal reductions to Fannie and Freddie mortgates. Or would that be too "statist" for Occupy?

  • Barbara on November 19, 2012 10:24 AM:

    The only thing I don't like about this is that, at least for now, they seem to be focusing on debt that could be extinguished in bankruptcy. I understand this -- debt that cannot be extinguished in bankruptcy does not sell at nearly the same loss as that which can. I have not made up my mind about whether to donate, but I definitely think this is the issue of the here and now -- rolling every social good into a form that is affixed to paying tribute to lenders (student debt, in particular) has achieved noxious proportions and threatens too many people with permanent financial distress.

  • NKM on November 19, 2012 10:37 AM:

    I think Rolling Jubilee is a great idea. So much of the money donated to activist or political organizations just ends up paying for canvassers, mailers, protests and more talk. That's okay. Money donated to Rolling Jubilee does something so much more.

    The symbolism of Rolling Jubilee goes far beyond raising awareness of debt. It exposes the disgusting system of debt in which people's well-being is traded on an open market like so many tic-tacs. Medical debt is the most pernicious debt. Once the debt is sold to some debt-collector sleaze, the hospital doesn't see any of that money.

    Thus individuals are beholden to debt-collectors for debts to save themselves or loved-ones from untimely death. And the money, once collected, does not prop up the crumbling hospital, it lines the pockets of bullies.

  • JDC on November 19, 2012 11:32 AM:

    I think the critique overlooks that the targetted debt is so cheap because there is so little hope of ever obtaining payment by legal means. The normal thing that happens with this debt is that it is bought by the most vicious, predatory bill collectors who then squeeze the hell out of people who are more or less indigent for the rest of their insurance-less lives. If the price of the debt goes up even a fraction as a result of the Jubilee, these monsters will be fiscally bleeding to death.