Dangerous Idea: Abolish Debt

March 8, 2015

My name is Astra Taylor, I’m the author The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, and I’m one of the instigators behind the Rolling Jubilee Project.

The Rolling Jubilee is a project that emerged out of Occupy Wall Street, and what we do is we buy and abolish debts on the secondary market. We’ve abolished $20 million of Americans’ health care and educational debt to date.

Few people know that their debts are for sale on these sort of shady, speculative secondary markets. What happens, for example, is that you might go to an emergency room. And maybe you can’t pay the thousand dollar bill. That bill will then be sold by the hospital to a debt collector for pennies on the dollar, and that debt collector will try to extract the full amount from you.

Our basic feeling is that these debts are illegitimate to begin with—that people shouldn’t have to go into debt because they get sick, or because they want to get an education. Two-thirds of bankruptcies are actually linked to medical debt.

This idea of the Jubilee is one that can be traced back to biblical times. Essentially, all debts are erased and land is returned to the people so that they can live in freedom. This is an idea that has new resonance today, and more and more of us are forced to go into debt just to make ends meet. The price of college has increased by 1200% in the last 30 years. More and more students are going deeply into debt; the average graduate has almost $30,000 of student debt at the end of their college career.

So our group says, we need to bring back the Jubilee. Iceland did this a bit after the mortgage crises where they wrote down mortgages for most Icelanders. It had a huge positive impact on their economy. Why can’t we do something like that here in the United States? Let’s restructure our education system so that students who want to learn don’t have to spend their lives stuck in a debt trap.

In November of 2012, my group organized a telethon, and our modest goal was to raise $50,000. We knew that if we had $50,000 we would be able to purchase and erase $1 million worth of medical debt. We thought, “If we could do that, we could just insert this idea into the public consciousness: that there are these merchants of misery who buy up our suffering and then try to profit from it."

What happened is that the campaign went viral. We ended up having $200,000 in the account before the telethon even started. So, we shut down our fund at $700,000—it was all given by small donors. There were people who wrote us and said, “I’m giving you my last dollar, because I want to help someone else. I’m in debt myself and I just  would rather have this dollar go to help someone and to erase $20 of debt."