Monday, February 28, 2011

Alan Nasser (Part III)

Part III of my conversation with Alan Nasser about capitalism, the Obama administration, U.S. democracy, student loan debt, and so forth. 

If you haven't read Part I or Part II, I encourage you to do so before reading the next installment below. 

CCJ: Speaking of appealing to regular people, you write a lot for publications like and Could you tell us why that is? 

AN: I've mostly quit writing for professional journals. I want to talk in plain, direct English, and I try to do that.

CCJ: You do a great job of that.

AN: Well thank you. So, that is why I write for Commondreams and Counterpunch. I want to reach more people. Education is a task that is very important. It's overwhelming. For instance, I know that in public schools, they still promote anti-communism, portraying preposterous depictions of what communism is supposed to be. And the Soviet and Chinese 'threats' don’t even exist any more! I don't think they do much better with fascism. History is not a well-taught discipline.

CCJ: I know that all too well! Your comment also reminds me of the way in which Obama is portrayed with a red flag behind him, which is obviously a Communist flag, and then has a Hitler mustache slapped on his face. I have news for these people: Fascists hated Communists. They were the first to be put in camps by the Nazis. But let’s move away from how these –isms are so poorly and laughably conflated. What do you think of this idea that Obama is a socialist? 

AN: It’s not true. Let’s look at a few things. When it comes to home energy programs, Obama has twice cut back on these programs. So many people die from the cold or from fires, because they can't afford heating. That's another way I see this administration engaged on a frontal assault on the most vulnerable people. They are cutting aid to the disabled. But why bother providing energy assistance to people who are of no use to the vested interests, whether it is at the ballot box or in terms of campaign contributions? And perhaps most ominously, Obama stacked his Deficit Commission with people who have made a career of working to reduce or privatize Social Security. He now wants people to work longer for lower benefits.

CCJ: Yes. That’s quite troubling. Let’s talk about a group now that actually helped President Obama win the election. Well, at least a portion of them (those who are between the ages of 18 - 24+). You are obviously interested in the student loan issue. I call it a student loan debt crisis. How does this relate to the broader problems of the economic crisis that many Americans, and most people around the world, are still experiencing today? 

AN: I think at one basic level it fits in with the economy de-industrializing not completely of course, but substantially.  The economy has become increasingly financialized, leaving less and less real and productive activity. You and I both grew up seeing those familiar pictures of presidents surrounded by his advisory entourage. They were mostly CEOs from Ford, US Steel, General Motors, Alcoa, that is, those sorts of industrialists. Now you see the same the pictures, and there might be an industrialist or two in that entourage, but the majority of them are finance capitalists and generals. I think that you know that America is turning into an economy in which the principal thing sold is not widgets but debt. That’s what banks do: they sell debt. Debt is becoming the principal product sold in the U.S. Student debt is a big component of that total debt. Defaults on student loans far exceed those on any other types of loan. The student borrower is saddled with debt for a longer stretch of their life than those with home mortgage loans.

The burden of student loans is not infrequently a lifetime burden. Student debt is taking a terrible toll on people. The victims of the collapse of the housing market won’t be as oppressively burdened for as long a time as student debtors will be. This is consistent with the typical wage earner becoming a permanent debtor.

The impact of the assault on the public sector and public sector workers hit state and local governments as well as public colleges. Public colleges have been forced to drive up their tuition. Over-enrollment is forcing students into schools that are even higher tuition costs just in order to get that college degree, a degree that is becoming worth less and less. According to the most recent projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most future jobs will not require a college education. Most of those jobs will also be low-paying. The general trend in industry is to both reduce and de-skill the labor force. The economic crisis, which really began in 2006, and was evident in 2008, hit the public sector very hard. Over-enrollment and an increased rush to other alternatives really set in the fall of 2008, so it stands to reason that for- profits would proliferate.

CCJ: I have to say, I have only been gone from the U.S. for 11 months, but I have been shocked by how many for-profit schools I’ve seen here. When I returned from South Korea in late December of 2010, I drove from Los Angeles, California to Dallas, TX. I was also in Washington, D.C. in mid-January. I am speaking to you from downtown Chicago. In all of these places in the country, there seemed to be a for-profit school is practically on every block. Downtown Chicago is filled with them, and I mean on every block. I realize that might be anecdotal, but I’ve been really taken aback. 

AJ: I’ve noticed something similar. I’m from NYC, and I get back there on a regular basis. In the last 2 years I’ve noticed a change on the subway. The advertisements for these schools are just everywhere!

CCJ: I have noticed the same thing here in Chicago when taking public transportation, too. It’s disturbing. 

AJ: Being away puts you at an advantage. Changes that others might not notice will strike you.

CCJ: I agree. Speaking more about the for-profits or proprietary schools, there has been a great deal of scrutiny on the for-profits or proprietary schools lately. Do you feel that they are a bigger problem than the non-profits?

AN: The Department of Education is looming now as a more serious problem, because the Department is the biggest student lender. Moreover, the department is raking it in with defaults – they recover 120% of every defaulted loan. And they know that the default rates they've backed are between 25% - 40%. They are not warning people about this. They aren't doing credit checks. The department is making a killing, so I think I'd like to see people focus on that, without losing sight of the for-profit issue. It is just as salient, but I think the Department is looming very large as a real predator, a really horrible predator. That’s something we should pay attention to and not allow the for-profits to distract us from this. After I wrote about student loans, so many people wrote to me. I felt that I needed to respond in some way, and, as you know, the horror stories are astounding. Garnishing disability payments and their tax refunds? It's stunning. It's horrific. I don't know how these poor folks . . . what they are going to do. A lot of people who have signed off on loans, for their sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, never suspected that the debt would be compounded and compounded.

It’s really a whole new kind of misery.

Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church, built in the Gothic revival style in 1911. Photograph from the collection, "Detroit In Ruins," by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. Special thanks to Mr. Marchand and Mr. Meffre for agreeing to let me use their photographs for these next installments of my conversation with Alan. 

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