Cultural Commentator

Certainty of Hopelessness: The Student Debt Crisis in America

Cultural Commentator

Certainty of Hopelessness: The Student Debt Crisis in America

Excerpt from Certainty of Hopelessness: A Primer on Discharging Student Debt
Excerpt from Certainty of Hopelessness: A Primer on Discharging Student Debt
Excerpt from Certainty of Hopelessness: A Primer on Discharging Student Debt
Excerpt from Certainty of Hopelessness: A Primer on Discharging Student Debt
Excerpt from Certainty of Hopelessness: A Primer on Discharging Student Debt
Excerpt from Certainty of Hopelessness: A Primer on Discharging Student Debt
Excerpt from Certainty of Hopelessness: A Primer on Discharging Student Debt
Excerpt from Certainty of Hopelessness; A Primer on Discharging Student Debt
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Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City is exactly as labeled: a reported non-fiction account of a single year, not long past, in New York City. Written in an efficient blend of fairy tale past tense and newspaper journalese, the book follows a cast of young men who sleep with and love other young men. Sicha details their hookups, their in-fighting, their job and their bar hopping. It’s all standard youth folly except for the history—once upon a very recent time in a “very large and very famous city,” the first chapter goes, a billionaire Mayor lived in a multi-million dollar apartment in the same building as hedge fund operators, celebrity news anchors, GE head honchos, and a “very famous and very beautiful pop star named Beyoncé.” Below that top tier lived the aspirational, and below that, “the poorer, the lonelier, and the hopelessly left behind.” (The human megaphone of Occupy echoes back through Sicha’s pages.)

Very Recent History is a book about love and money, and the story of money in New York circa 2009 is a story of debt. “All told, at the end of this year,” Sicha narrates of his lead protagonist, “John’s debt added up to about 15,000 dollars for college, 40,000 for professional school, and about 14,000 in credit card debt during school, almost 70,000 dollars all in.” At the rate he’s paying it off—we’re given the math—it would take John eighty-three months of non-delinquent full payments to get his debt down to $132.27. John’s debt infects everything he does. His hopelessness in the face of it leads to reckless behavior, denial, disbelief. Near the end of the book, a friend of John’s, accidentally happening across one of his loan bills, outrages: “The student loan thing is just kicking a can down the road; those people should all be put in jail, he thought. All the private lenders just managed to piggyback on a person—and you can’t declare bankruptcy?”

“Debtors are misled by the media into thinking that discharging student loans is impossible,” write Christopher Glazek, a Senior Editor at n+1, and Sean Monahan, a member of the brand forecasting collective K-HOLE, in their pamphlet Certainty of Hopelessness: A Primer on Discharging Student Debt. “While bankruptcy protocols are always complex, student debt is loaded with its own special brand of illegibility,” they explain. Discharging student debt on the basis of bankruptcy isn’t easy, but it can be done. In order to declare bankruptcy, student debtors must not only prove that they are currently unable to pay, they must also demonstrate that their future life prospects are characterized by a “certainty of hopelessness.” Glazek and Monahan use that artful phrase (“Lawyers can be poets too,” jokes Monahan) as the title for their pamphlet, which they describe as “a sort of provisional guidebook” to the twelve criteria for determining whether an individual is legally “hopeless.”

Like Very Recent History, Certainty of Hopelessness reads like dark satire or dystopia—how do you demonstrate “hopelessness”: elective amputation, adopting a special needs child, career suicide (uploading amateur pornography), joining the Franciscans in a vow of poverty—but the humor and horror arise from, as Glazek puts it, “the unexpected plausibility of implausible-sounding things.”

In this interview, Christopher Glazek and Sean Monahan expand on the American student debt situation and the propositions of Certainty of Hopelessness by patiently answering the outsider questions of this Canadian naif. 

Coming to America from Canada, I was surprised by how chill some people are in the face of their student debt. In Quebec, we’ve been protesting a small hike on tuition that’s already a fraction of the cost of an education in America, but here people seemed resigned to high tuitions and loans. Why do you think that is?

Monahan: Student debt is a very widespread phenomenon. Most of my friends have some amount of debt and that normalizes the situation. The amounts of money we’re talking about are also really hard to visualize for a young person. These are long-term loan contracts being signed by people who haven’t entered the labor force. Most of the time, the borrowing begins before they’ve even entered college. What does one hundred thousand dollars mean to eighteen-year-olds living in their childhood bedrooms?

Glazek: Some people may seem chill with their debt, but I think for a lot of people, it weighs very heavily on them, and that’s part of the point of Certainty of Hopelessness. We want to shake up the shame discourse surrounding debt and to encourage people to be shameless. All debt has shame attached to it, but the emotional land-mines that surround student debt are particularly dangerous: since parents are often co-signers, that means your family could be on the hook for your failure; student debt is wrapped up with ideas of success, self-worth, and social mobility — “if you’d only studied harder, if you’d only gotten a better job,” and so on. Suicide is a big problem among student-debtors.

The count on the welcome page of your website — it looks like a doomsday clock. Is that the amount of student debt in America? How is it calculated?

M: That’s a computer program that estimates the rising student debt based on the latest counts from the federal government. Student debt doesn’t actually accrue in a linear way like the counter, but there is no resource that maintains up-to-date stats.

But we know it’s growing.

M: Student debt is the only form of consumer debt that’s grown throughout the Recession and there’s no sign that its growth will slow down. There’s not really any limit to how much money people will spend on going to college. Increasingly in the United States, if you don’t pursue a college education, you will be left out of the labor market.

G: You can think of America as a meritocracy, but merit in America is a commodity, and it’s incredibly expensive — it’s a pay-to-play meritocracy.

I was reading the Reddit commentary on this project and one of the commentators took the elective amputation suggestion very seriously, and then another rebutted: “It’s the best kind of satire — the kind that’s serious.” Could you talk about your use of satire?

G: The term that we’ve used to describe it is “pseudo-satire,” meaning that the humor arises from the unexpected plausibility of implausible-sounding things. A lot of what’s in the book are extreme maneuvers, and although we’re not necessarily suggesting people follow through with them, these are things that should genuinely cross your mind when confronted with an enormous debt you’ll never be able to repay. We say in the introduction that the manual’s utility is proportional to any given reader’s desperation. That’s a serious statement, but it’s also the engine of the satire.

Sure, and when you’re in a desperate situation, humor is a means of relief. I was just talking about this with my father. He was pissed at me for making outlandish, jokey anti-patriarchy tweets. He was offended by my “generalizations about his gender,” and I replied with, “when you lack power, you turn to humor.”

G: Right, it’s like living under the Stasi. This is Eastern Bloc humor.

M: I don’t think that most people understand the criteria used to figure out whether their debt can be discharged. It’s a very opaque legal problem that people don’t know how to approach. Humor makes it accessible.

Humor is also a good ice breaker. We’re taught not to talk about money — not to talk about how much you make, how much you come from, what kind of debt you’re in. Money is private.

G: Right, and what we want is for people to take a step back and recognize that this is not private — it’s a social phenomenon.

This might sound glib but it seems like student debt could be our generation’s Vietnam, in that it’s a bad situation that’s affecting a lot of young people, which could to be uniting, a rallying for change?

G: I like the analogy between draft-dodging and debt-dodging. We’re trying to get people to think about how debt-dodging could potentially be an honorable activity, or at the very least something to consider. Rich people are encouraged by pop culture and by the government to do everything in their power to figure out how to not pay as much: how to screw other people over and how to use litigation as a weapon to protect their assets. We just think poor people should have access to the same tools. People should be adversarial about how they approach their debt, not moralistic or ashamed.

To read the full pamphlet Certainty of Hopelessness: A Primer on Discharging Student Debt, click here.