When I was first learning Italian in Venice, I was charmed by my tutor’s translation of the verb dovere as “to have to, to must.” Chuckling, I explained that “to must” isn’t a gerund in the typical sense in English, even though we do say “I must…” or “It must be…” in comparative grammatical structures. It reminded me of a similar translation of the Spanish verb deber which includes the sense of having an obligation, owing, and being required to do something. Etymologically, the word “debt” goes to this common route (the Latin debere by way of the French dette) which paradoxically started with the verb for “to have.” As in, I have to do something, or I have an obligation.
In 21st-century America, I think we are strangely distanced from what debt means, but at a more rooted, personal level, we are more aware than ever. I remember being horrified when I first learned about the national deficit in math class, of all places, as my teacher tried to explain the difference between debt and deficit. I was aghast, as she hashed out this seemingly inconsequential difference, speaking so casually about how our country was insolvent. Did everyone else know about this? What were we going to do about it? Why weren’t we panicking??
That moment was also when money became abstract to me. Up to that point, my concept of money was that a person went to work, earned a certain amount of money in exchange for their efforts, used some to pay for daily expenses like food and utilities, and put the rest in savings for vacation or big purchases. Concepts of credit, stock investments, and especially interest, made absolutely no sense to me, and if I’m being perfectly honest, still don’t.
When I was a little girl, I remember a New Year’s themed radio commercial for used cars celebrating the dealership’s particularly generous financing policies. It was (to my thinking iconoclastically) set to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, singing how they forgave everything, “like re-posession, foreclosures, eeee-ven bankruptcyyyyy.” (I still fill in these absurd lyrics every time I hear Auld Lang Syne.) After walking around with the song stuck in my head for weeks, I asked my mother all about the terms in the song, especially the idea of bankruptcy, and we got into a lengthy discussion of personal finance and how debt could be negotiated, consolidated etc. After patiently going through the whole structure of credit and debt, we settled on the analogy that it’s like how sometimes stores set an item at a certain price, but whenever they want they can put it on sale. “Some money is better than none,” she said, and I tried to wrap my proto-Marxist child mind around goods and services having no intrinsic value.
My concept of the commodity of debt and its value as a purely theoretical concept remains as fluid and tenuous as when I was young, and the past decade’s national events have done little to change the impression that it’s all just an elaborate fiction. Its counterpart is probably speculation on the stock market, or maybe derivatives. At some point, it’s so much abstraction that it seems to mean nothing. Through crafty math and strategic deregulation, big piles of money get bigger, debts with interest accelerate to asymptotic exponential growth, the rich get mega-rich and the poor lose their homes.
I have had a number of startling and disturbing conversations with fellow college graduates lately, who by all the traditional concepts of the American dream should be establishing themselves in their careers, getting married and having kids (if that’s the chosen path), and beginning to own property. Every single one of us, however, has agreed that we can’t possibly get married with the amount of student loan debt we have because marriage is just an invitation to creditors to go after someone else’s salary. We feel like we can never afford children or homes or really anything beyond our current lifestyles of renting apartments (often with 3-5 roommates), lengthy commutes, no travel or costly hobbies, and more or less stagnation of our ability to contribute to society beyond giving all our time and energy to our jobs. And if we get brave and think maybe we can do it anyway, our credit is wrecked in colorful, elaborate ways.
I spend a lot of time trying to think of ways to turn my art and hobbies into money, but even if I manage to double my salary, I’m not sure the margin will be enough because my loan payments increase proportionately with my income. It’s like the government has worked out the exact amount of blood they can leave in my body so I’ll survive to make another payment, but sucking every drop until that point. I feel really lucky on the weeks when what’s left over after loans, rent, and bills doesn’t cut too badly into my pretty paltry food budget, but there are a lot of eggs and English muffins for dinner. In months when I’m sick, I have to decide between doctor’s office and prescription copays or my loans, and then the loans get higher and my credit gets worse.
Who benefits from me working a super demanding office job and constantly stressing about money? What might I have contributed if I could have finished my degree in chemistry, or been able to afford to live as an artist? How does society flourish or grow from Sallie Mae increasing interest rates to turn a profit this quarter, at the spiritual and financial expense of a generation?
I work more than 40 hours a week and pay substantial taxes. I know that my taxes went up to bail out a banking industry that traded on mortgage debt with arbitrarily inflated interest rates and an automotive industry that dropped all its workers but kept corporate bonuses. I have more student loan debt than anyone I know, but it is a complete abstraction to me. And yet, it is one that weighs on my every thought and decision, constraining even my most basic pursuits of love and family. I earn what should be a solid salary, but most of it evaporates into loan payments.
I think about the decisions I made to get from a very good public high school to where I am now. I worked my ass off to get into the best college I could, and I chose the one that offered me a full-tuition merit grant over half-tuition, but room and board and other expenses were still a fortune. Maybe I could have gone to a state school or studied something more vocationally-oriented, but without a liberal arts education and serious studio work, I would never have gotten into Pratt or had the background and experiences I needed to succeed at my current job. If the purpose of education is to improve one’s lot in life and become able to contribute more, I think it was worth it. But I know that if I had been able to pay cash, it would have cost me a fraction of what it did, and that seems really wrong somehow.
As candidates start campaigning for the 2016 presidential election, I find myself more concerned with the economy and student loans than many other issues. I’m also starting to see how it’s not just my own personal cross to bear, but that my generation’s debt is affecting everyone else and jeopardizing the nation’s future.
I don’t have a solution or even the beginning of one. I don’t have a way out of my own debt, let alone the entire nation’s student lending crisis. I am watching most of my money disappear into interest and ever-changing principles when it’s compounded and thinking about what I could be putting that money toward instead. I feel like I don’t have anything but debt and obligation. I have to must.