Why We Did an Issue on Debt

Good debts? We know it sounds crazy. But there’s a quiet revolution brewing in how we move money around, and we want our readers to know about it.
YES! illustration by Serge Bloch.

YES! illustration by Serge Bloch.

Nathan Hornes gets a lot of calls from collection agencies—sometimes four a day. Hornes, a 25-year-old who shares a small Los Angeles apartment with his mom, has more than $60,000 in student loans, racked up while he earned a degree in business management from Everest College, run by the umbrella group Corinthian Colleges.

But he isn’t sending checks anymore.

Hornes aspired to open a music school for inner-city kids, and he knew he’d never make the money for that working in fast food. But the education he received at Everest was a joke: When Hornes interviewed for a position as a bank teller, the hiring manager laughed at his degree. He found himself back in fast food, paying $647.91 a month for a worthless diploma from a college that has since gone out of business.

So Hornes and 14 classmates started the “Corinthian 15,” a group that kicked off a debt strike last December—the first in U.S. history. Their story made headlines at CNN and The Washington Post, and the group was invited to the Department of Education to help negotiate a mass loan forgiveness deal for Corinthian students. Today, they’re the Corinthian 200—and together, they’re challenging the legitimacy of their debts.

When debt gets out of hand, it becomes something to be ashamed of, a burden we carry alone, and a weakness that strips our power away. Millions of us—from students graduating with an average of $33,000 in loans to homeowners trying to keep up payments on mortgages worth more than their houses, to people who take out payday loans to cover utility bills—are so emotionally and financially drained that debt is the last thing we want to think about.

The Corinthian students show how debt can be a source of power. The financial sector depends on debtors’ payments for its survival. What if we stopped seeing our nearly $12 trillion in household debt as a burden and saw it as a bargaining chip instead? As Charles Eisenstein says, even the smallest challenge to the debt system can have radical implications because “if one debt can be nullified, maybe all of them can.”

Thankfully, our communities can provide credit too.

But it’s not enough to seek relief from current debt. We need to rethink the entire system that moves money and credit through our society. Credit is key to building things that last—homes, businesses, and organizations—but when a small group of creditors holds the purse strings, they tend to use that power to enrich themselves.

Thankfully, our communities can provide credit too, and a growing assortment of peer-to-peer lending systems and zero-interest small loans is getting the right amounts into the right hands at the right time. Community-based credit not only avoids throwing debtors into lifelong financial crisis but knits families, neighbors, and political allies more closely together. This is what we mean when we talk about “good debts.”

For many of us, debt plays such a negative role in our lives that it can be difficult to imagine what a positive relationship to debt might look like. The stories we’ve collected in this issue show how our shared debts can be a source of solidarity and people power. That’s what we need to find a way out from under debt and, more than that, to fundamentally change our economic system.