Weekend Reading

“Student-loan debt collectors have power that would make a mobster envious” is how Sen. Elizabeth Warren put it. Collectors can garnish everything from wages to tax returns to Social Security payments to, yes, disability checks. Debtors can also be barred from the military, lose professional licenses and suffer other consequences no private lender could possibly throw at a borrower.

The upshot of all this is that the government can essentially lend without fear, because its strong-arm collection powers dictate that one way or another, the money will come back. Even a very high default rate may not dissuade the government from continuing to make mountains of credit available to naive young people.

“If the DOE had any skin in the game,” says Collinge, “if they actually saw significant loss from defaulted loans, they would years ago have said, ‘Whoa, we need to freeze lending,’ or, ‘We need to kick 100 schools out of the lending program.'”

[C]an you imagine a monument to the genocide of Native Americans or the Middle Passage at the heart of the Washington Mall? Suppose you could walk down the street and step on a reminder that this building was constructed with slave labour, or that the site was the home of a Native American tribe before it was ethnically cleansed? What we have, instead, are national museums of Native American and African American culture, the latter scheduled to open in 2015. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian boasts exhibits showing superbly crafted Pueblo dolls, the influence of the horse in Native American culture, and Native American athletes who made it to the Olympics. The website of the Smithsonian’s anticipated National Museum of African American History and Culture does show a shackle that was presumably used on a slave ship, but it is far more interested in collecting hats worn by Pullman porters or pews from the African Methodist Episcopal church. A fashion collection is in the making, as well as a collection of artefacts belonging to the African American abolitionist Harriet Tubman; 39 objects, including her lace shawl and her prayer book, are already available.

Fine print has a habit of eliciting just such a moralizing tone. If somebody is caught out by terms contained in a section of fine print, our first thought is usually that it’s the person’s own fault for being so inattentive, reckless, or even downright lazy. “Always read the fine print.” With its definite article serving at once to distance and to universalize the practice, the old adage is deemed fair warning. And yet fine print asks specifically not to be read. It is a deliberately non-communicative speech act, erasing itself by miniaturization, accumulation, and esotericism. Its first appearance in literature makes light of its use of obscure jargon. Robert Musil, who knew a bit about accumulation too, writes in A Man Without Qualities that the funeral director “pressed into Ulrich’s hand a form covered with fine print and rectangles and made him read through what turned out to be a contract drawn to cover all classes of funerals. […] Ulrich had no idea where the terms, some of them archaic, came from; he inquired; the funeral director looked at him in surprise; he had no idea either.”

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