The Rolling Jubilee launches Thursday with a telethon, and ambitious plans to buy and forgive millions of dollars in debt

    One of the beautiful things about the Occupy movement is how it keeps evolving. What started as a sea of wiggly fingers in a New York City park, has, in a relatively short period of time, spread across the country, adapting as it does so, in order to meet the needs of local communities. Here in Ypsilanti, just to give you an example, our Occupy folks, in addition to publishing a well-received book on the historic trend toward toward vampire Capitalism, have hosted teach-ins on the use of art in rebellion, and continue to assist residents in fighting foreclosure. And, now, it looks as though things are getting ready to make yet another evolutionary jump on the national stage. On Thursday, November 15, a new initiative will be launched online, via telethon. Organizers of the undertaking, called the Rolling Jubilee, are hoping to raise enough money to purchase tens of millions of dollars in consumer debt, which they can then proceed to abolish.

    Here’s how the folks at Strike Debt describe the initiative:

    WHAT IS STRIKE DEBT?

    Strike Debt is an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. First started in New York City, but inspired by movements around the globe, Strike Debt now has affiliates across the country. We believe people should not go into debt for basic necessities like education, healthcare and housing. Strike Debt initiatives like the Debt Resistors’ Operations Manual offer advice to all kinds of debtors about how to escape debt and how to join a growing collective resistance to the debt system. Our network has the goal of building a broad movement, with more effective ways of resisting debt, and with the ultimate goal of creating an alternative economy that benefits us all and not just the 1-percent.

    CAN YOU ABOLISH MY DEBT?

    There is no way to seek out a specific person and buy that person’s defaulted debt. With 15% of Americans currently being pursued by a debt collector, looking for one person’s debt would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Anonymous accounts are bundled together and sold as a whole. Before purchasing debt, there is only limited information as to whose debt we are buying. These peculiarities are part of the scandal that we are trying to highlight.

    WHAT IS A JUBILEE?

    Jubilee comes from many faith traditions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A jubilee is an event in which all debts are cancelled and all those in bondage are set free. It worked in Biblical times and it can still work today. For example, a kind of jubilee happened in Iceland after the 2008 economic crisis: instead of bailing out their banks, Iceland canceled a percentage of mortgage debt. What these examples show is that debts are just a promise which can – and should – be renegotiated or cancelled when the circumstances warrant. Strike Debt believes that now is the time for a jubilee for the 99%.

    HOW DOES THE ROLLING JUBILEE WORK?

    Banks sell debt for pennies on the dollar on a shadowy speculative market of debt buyers who then turn around and try to collect the full amount from debtors. The Rolling Jubilee intervenes by buying debt, keeping it out of the hands of collectors, and then abolishing it. We’re going into this market not to make a profit but to help each other out and highlight how the predatory debt system affects our families and communities. Think of it as a bailout of the 99% by the 99%.

    More information on The People’s Bailout telethon, which will include the likes of Janeane Garofalo, Lizz Winstead, Hari Kondabolu, David Rees, John Cameron Mitchell, Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Guy Picciotto of Fugazi, and Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, can be found here. (Things are set to begin at 8:00 PM EST on November 15, and will be live-streamed at RollingJubilee.org.)

    As of right now, they’ve already raised over $14,000, which, by their calculations, will allow them to buy, and subsequently destroy, almost $3 million in debt… If you’d like to contribute toward the cause, you can do so here.

    And, here’s a little video overview, for those of you who are still struggling with the concept.

    Personally, I’m not quite sure what to make of this. On one hand, I think it’s great that these folks have found a creative way to strike back against the big banks that are enslaving America, using their own game against them. That, I think, is brilliant. On the other hand, though, I’m not sure how I feel about arbitrary debt relief. While some people have certainly been taken advantage of, and are probably deserving of our collective assistance, I think it’s probably safe to say that a great many people got themselves into debt because they have very little self control and simply wanted things that they couldn’t afford. And, I don’t know how I feel about kicking in money so that these people can have their debt wiped away, allowing them, once more, to go on instant gratification-fueled Black Friday acquisition sprees. My bigger issue, however, isn’t with the concept itself, but its execution. I’m wondering why the organizers have made the decision to completely forgive the debt that they’ll be purchasing, and not at least asking the individuals who had originally incurred that debt to pay back some nominal amount, with would in turn allow for the acquisition of even more debt. Yes, I realize there’s a kind of poetic beauty in just destroying debt, but, on a tactical level, I can’t help but think that we might be missing an opportunity to create a perpetually self-funding debt relief machine.

    Imagine this… You’re tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and you’re struggling to keep the lights on and a roof over your head. And, one day, you receive a formal letter from The People’s Bank of Occupy, which says something like this… “Good news. Your friends and neighbors have just purchased your debt. And, guess what… Our objective isn’t to destroy your life in a quest to recover every penny of the $20,000 that you currently owe. If we hadn’t stepped in, your loan would have been sold for pennies on the dollar to a debt buyer, who would most likely, at this very minute, be on the phone with you, making threats. Instead, though, ‘we the people’ bought your debt for those pennies on the dollar. Your $20,000 debt cost us just $1,000. And, now, we intend to pass that savings along to you. That’s right… We don’t want for you to pay the full $20,000. We just want the money that we invested in you back, so that we can, in turn, randomly purchase the debt of someone else, and keep this incredible grass roots debt relief program moving forward.” I know that some percentage of folks won’t do it, but some will, and, in those instances, we’d be able to keep that initial investment rolling, from one person to the next, eliminating debt.

    update: According to the Rolling Jubilee’s Thomas Gokey, they are in fact able to identify the type of debt they want to go after, and they’re focusing on medical debt, which is exactly what I was suggesting above… This is a very good thing… Here’s video.

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      27 Comments

      1. Posted November 14, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

        while i feel that some of the blame certainly goes to the credit and loan companies, who led people to believe they could certainly afford to pay for these huge houses, there is still quite a bit of blame to the people who bought into the hype and purchases these huge houses, used the credit cards to the max, and dug themselves into a hole where there is little to no chance of getting out.

        the smooth talking loan and credit people do their jobs very well: they sell. and many people never learned how to budget money or even how to be aware of their own resources. i certainly didn’t learn that until i got older. that’s not justification for consumers and their failure to manage money, but it does help explain some of it. we need to educate school kids how to manage money, but that’s a completely different conversation about education.

      2. Edward
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        I like that this is happening, as it will draw attention to the debt crisis in America and the corrupt practices of banks. I, however, wish there were another way than just indiscriminately forgiving the debt of those who might not be deserving of the assistance.

      3. Knox
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

        I know next to nothing about how such debt is bundled and sold, but I have to think there’s a way that purchasers could at least have some control over what they’re getting. In other words, I find it hard to believe that the people behind the Rolling Jubilee, if they wanted, couldn’t target college loan debt, for instance, and, in that way, exercise some discretion.

      4. Meta
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        From Reuters:

        The scheme isn’t conceptually perfect: as Strike Debt themselves say, the very fact that they can buy up debt for pennies on the dollar in the first place is “part of the scandal that we are trying to highlight”, and yet it’s also something they are ratifying with their participation. And anybody who’s read Jeff Horwitz’s wonderful series on the debts which were sold by Chase will know that much of the time the “debts” which are being bought aren’t actually legitimate debts at all. For instance, it’s alleged that Chase systematically shredded incoming correspondence such as records of borrower payments and counter-judgments extinguishing debts, before selling those debts on to collectors. Horwitz reckons that at Chase alone, billions of dollars of outstanding claims have highly questionable legitimacy.

        As a result, Strike Debt will probably, at some point, end up paying banks for debts which aren’t legitimate at all: indeed, if they’re looking for the debt which trades at the lowest levels on the pennies-per-dollar market, they’re likely to be buying the most dubious debts, on an “as is” basis.

        So the symbolism here is in some ways more important than the actual results, which pretty much by definition are unknown and unknowable. Still, that’s one of the reasons I like this scheme. In a world where philanthropy is increasingly run by business professionals who want to measure results and return on investment, this is a refreshing throwback from a time where you would just do some good in the world and that was that. US households have too much debt; this reduces their debt burden; therefore it’s a good thing — especially seeing as how it also acts as a focal point and rallying cry for a much broader agenda.

        Read more:
        http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2012/11/13/the-deliciousness-of-rolling-jubilee/

      5. anonymous
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        Occupy also did some good work recently in response to Hurricane Sandy.

        http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.4254436037792.2158679.1192542537&type=1

      6. James Marks
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        I was in over my head with credit cards for a long time. I ultimately learned my lesson (yes, this should be taught in school) and developed a better resistance to predatory lenders.

        While I paid huge portions of the debt back by my own means, assistance also came from other places. A family member stepped in at one point when they were able, and the difference was huge.

        The weight being lifted was not a pass to spend more and get in trouble all over again, it was an opportunity to benefit from the lessons I’d learned and have a chance to benefit from my newfound knowledge. And that feels very much like the spirit driving the Jubilee.

        This is my favorite twist from Occupy yet.

      7. kjc
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

        Doug Henwood weighed in on the issue here:

        http://lbo-news.com/2012/11/13/rolling-where/

      8. Knox
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        Thank you, KJC. Following your like, I found this, which answered by question about student load debt.

        “Though they don’t say, it’s almost certain that the debt they aim to buy is the credit card kind. Student debt, even if delinquent, isn’t sold into the secondary market. Debt backed by things—as auto loans are by vehicles and mortgages by houses—aren’t generally sold that way either, because lenders can seize the underlying assets. Though there are other kinds of unsecured personal loans (those backed by pledges only, and not things), the bulk of them are credit cards, so we’ll do the math on them.

        According to the FDIC, there was $664.3 billion credit card debt outstanding in the second quarter of 2012. Of that, $16.5 billion was 30 days or more past due. Banks had charged off $8.5 billion. They’re required by regulators to do that once an account is 180 days past due, but that doesn’t mean the debt is extinguished. Though the bank removes the asset from its balance sheet and takes a (tax-deductible) loss, the debt still exists. The bank can try to collect it on its own, or sell the bad debt to the vultures described above.

        Let’s think about that $8.5 billion. The people who owe that money are probably getting threatening communications from the banks or whoever now holds the claims. If RJ could raise $1 million—they’re more than 1/8th of the way there now—they could buy $20 million in debt, or 0.2% of what’s been charged off. To buy all the charged-off debt at five cents on the dollar, they’d need to raise $423 million. But of course if any more than notional amounts of money were put to this task, the price of the debt would rise dramatically. To buy a tenth of it at ten cents on the dollar they’d need $85 million. In other words, given those sums, the monetary angle for RJ is purely symbolic.”

      9. Mr. X
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        As it appears to be credit card debt that they’ll be buying, and as those who will be bailed out likely won’t even know that they’re being bailed out, I’m inclined to say that I don’t think this is a great idea. Maybe, if they could be selective as to whom they’re bailing out, it might be different. Maybe, if they could bail out those who were in default because of medical bills, for instance. But I don’t like the idea of paying good money to buy the debt of someone who purchased an X Box and then refused to to make payments. I appreciate what James is saying, and I think it’s true, but I don’t see how the people being helped along in this instance will learn from it. As KJC’s article states, they likely won’t even know that they’d been bailed out. If anything, they’ll probably just think that the bank gave up on them, encouraging them to do more of the same. Perhaps the money would be better spent making educational materials on debt for use in a K-12 setting.

      10. kjc
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        Well, Doug Henwood isn’t saying ‘this plan sucks cuz i don’t wanna pay for your x box” (although people obsessed with this kind of imaginary scenario will be one of the obstacles). he’s saying people should declare bankrupcty instead.

      11. Stupid Hick
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

        mark: “While some people have certainly been taken advantage of, and are probably deserving of our collective assistance, I think it’s probably safe to say that a great many people got themselves into debt because they have very little self control and simply wanted things that they couldn’t afford. ”

        sunny: “there is still quite a bit of blame to the people who bought into the hype and purchases these huge houses”

        I’m all for “personal responsibility”, and I don’t disagree that each individual case deserves examination before relief is offered, but I would urge readers to be cautious about casual acceptance of right-wing memes about The Great Housing Collapse of 2007.

        One meme is that undeserving and irresponsible “takers”, abetted by the government, bit off more housing than they could chew, and they are the ones who caused the crisis because they irresponsibly failed to pay their mortgages.

        My understanding is the magnitude of the crisis was much, much, greater than the entire value of all US mortgages, and the real problem is that investment banks and insurers were unable to pay off their gambling debts on CDS/CDOs that they invented to be able to make more money than would be possible if they were constrained by having to bundle actual, real-world assets like mortgages into their financial products. Read up on synthetic CDOs. Here’s an illustrative excerpt from wikipedia:

        “(P)rior to the creation of CDS and synthetic CDOs, you could have only as much exposure as there were mortgage bonds in existence. At their peak, approximately $1 trillion in subprime and Alt-A mortgages were securitized by Wall Street. However, the introduction of the CDS and synthetic CDO changed that. Unlike a “normal” CDO, which contained the bonds themselves, the synthetic version contains CDS — derivatives that “referenced” a particular group of mortgage bonds. Once synthetic CDO’s became popular, Wall Street no longer needed to actually originate new subprime loans. It could make an infinite number of bets on the bonds that already existed, as long as investors agreed to take the other side of the bet. One of the reasons synthetic CDO became popular was that the subprime companies were starting to run out of risky borrowers to make bad loans to in 2006-2007.”

      12. Mr. X
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

        All I was saying is that, to me, there’s a hierarchy when it comes to the kind of dept I’d want my money to go toward relieving. For instance, It think that abolishing debt incurred for higher education probably ranks higher, for me, than debt incurred for non-essential consumer goods. I also think that debt incurred to feed one’s family is more worthy of our attention than debt incurred at a casino. All I’m saying is that not all debt is equal, and it would be good if they could make it work where, for instance, they were absolving the debt of individuals who had lost everything as a result of catastrophic illness. I’m not saying, as I think you’re suggesting, that all consumer debt is a result of welfare queens who want big screen televisions.

      13. kjc
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

        I hear you Mr. X. But we can probably both agree that this kind of cherrypicking is likely impossible. And considering our economic system is built on the purchase of things like non-essential consumer goods, i don’t mind if we throw some of that shit in for free.

      14. kjc
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        but again, Henwood is saying that Occupy would probably be better off encouraging bankruptcy, particularly for credit card debt. The PR on that sucks though.

      15. josh
        Posted November 14, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

        It is likely that many of the debtors already have filed for bankruptcy. The credit industry is riddled with what banks call poor record keeping and the rest of us call fraud. Much of the stuff RJ will be buying will have already been repayed for cleared in a bankruptcy and now only represent an opportunity for sharks to harass people who have gone through hell.

        I find it a little disheartening to see so many here internalize the personal responsibility propaganda. More than half of all personal bankruptcies are related to medical problems.

      16. Posted November 15, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        I think this is a really cool idea and gets at some of the Occupy critics who kept saying “Well when are you gonna DO something…”
        And I appreciate your sentiment and the idea of creating a perpetuating cycle of debt relief in this fashion. Great thought.

      17. Brainless
        Posted November 15, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        Let’s review:
        – energy costs have skyrocketed well beyond COLA adjustments
        – healthcare has skyrocketed well beyond GDP growth
        – real wages have stagnated for a generation or more
        – until the crash, housing went through the roof (pun intended)
        – college education has become virtually unaffordable for most people

        Oh, but some guy is all at fault for buying an X-Box. (Technology is cheaper than it’s ever been.) Nice imagination.

      18. Brainless
        Posted November 15, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        BTW: Strike Debt is doing an excellent AMA on Reddit. The commenters have TONS of good info about some of the fine points of what they’re doing.

        http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/137owy/iama_members_of_strike_debt_ama_about_buying_and/

      19. Mr. X
        Posted November 15, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        If you’re like me, you know people who have lost everything. In some instances, it’s because they made poor decisions, and in some instances it’s because they got fucked. All I was saying is that I’d prefer to bail out the people who got fucked first. I didn’t think it was that controversial of a statement.

      20. Brainless
        Posted November 15, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        “All I was saying is that I’d prefer to bail out the people who got fucked first.”

        This is an extremely controversial statement when you start to dig into it. Just how, exactly, can you tell who these people are? The only evidence you’ve given so far is the presence or absence of a gaming console. So, if a person reasonably replaced going out to dinner and movies to the tune of thousands per year for a game box that costs hundreds per year, this person deserves no help?

        Yes, we all want justice. We all want to be righteous and make the scofflaws pay and stick it to the stupid people. This used to be easy when the bad people were clearly identified by their dark skin or lack of a penis. Now that we’ve woken up from that nightmare, this isn’t so easy any more.

        Would you believe me if I told you the only errant party here was the credit card issuer? People will do what they do. You needn’t judge them. But good lord, stop handing them the ability to give themselves loans.

      21. Posted November 15, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

        i nominate brainless for a macarthur.

        speaking of occupy-related initiatives, let’s host The Coup:

        http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1782712374/bring-the-coup-to-ypsilanti

      22. Posted November 15, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        “I think it’s probably safe to say that a great many people got themselves into debt because they have very little self control and simply wanted things that they couldn’t afford. ”

        I think its pretty safe to say that a lot of poor and middle class America had most of their wealth erased overnight in the financial crash of 2008. The largest asset that poor and middle class Americans have is their home. Many people made purchases assuming (rightly) that their assets fully covered their debts.

        The point is, given the value of real estate at the time, people most certainly could afford it.

        I’m surprised that you’re blaming the victim here. Many economists had a hard time predicting when and if the housing bubble would burst (though some certainly did). You are assuming here that the average homeowner could?

      23. anonymous
        Posted November 15, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        I think he’s conceding that it would be impossible to do, but he’s saying that he’d be more inclined to contribute if he knew they were erasing the debts of individuals who, for instance, lost everything due to medical bills. Are you really suggesting that no one is responsible for their debt because of the big, bad banks? Pardon me, but that’s bullshit. I’ve known plenty of people who bought things they couldn’t pay for, many of whom have gone bankrupt. I can understand the anti banker rage, but it really trivializes what some people are going through to lump everyone in together. Some people really did get screwed by the system.

      24. Alexis
        Posted November 16, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

        Regardless of how someone acquired their consumer debt, I donated $10 because nobody should be subjected to the horrific, degrading and chronically harassing phone calls from collection agencies like I have for the past 5 years. Why do they need to harass somebody 4 times a day when eventually they are just going to sue them in court and get a judgement against them to garnish their wages & tax returns?

      25. Posted November 18, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

        According to the Rolling Jubilee’s Thomas Gokey, they are in fact able to identify the type of debt they want to go after, and they’re focusing on medical debt, which is exactly what I was suggesting above… This is a very good thing…

      26. Meta
        Posted November 26, 2012 at 10:48 am | Permalink

        UTNE Reader has an interview with Mike Andrews of Strike Debt. Here’s one of his comments on the Rolling Jubilee.

        Mike: One of the first things that Strike Debt did to try to alter the framework around debt is to reject the language of forgiveness, the moral language that surrounds debt. So in the things we’ve produced, whether it’s propaganda or the Debt Resistors Manual , we avoid calling for debt forgiveness, we avoid the word “debt forgiveness”. Similarly, with the Rolling Jubilee we’re not saying that we’re “forgiving” the debt we’re buying, we’re cancelling it or we’re abolishing it. So we’re trying to reject the morality around debt, and part of that is saying that these debts are illegitimate. Today we all have to go into debt just to meet our basic necessities whether its going to college so we can get a decent job or seeking medical care or anything like that. So the idea is that these debts that we incurred are not legitimate, we don’t owe, we don’t actually owe you, we reject this debt both monetary and moral. But figuring out a strategy for how to connect debt to a larger anti-capitalist program, it’s difficult to really think through those steps, so I think as a group we’re just experimenting with something we have the capacity to do, to see what happens, and then depending on the results decide what to do next. So the grand idea behind the Rolling Jubilee is to relieve a lot of people’s debt initially as a gesture of mutual aid, to make day to day survival easier for people who have a lot of this medical debt. But if this spreads widely it actually might cause some havoc. Some people have been critiquing Rolling Jubilee by saying: ‘well if lenders or the secondary debt market catches wind of it they’ll just stop selling debt.’ Yeah, you’re right! And that would be an amazing victory, if this spread widely enough that this shady secondary market were altered. It would just show we are doing the right thing.

        Read more:
        http://www.utne.com/politics/inside-the-rolling-jubilee.aspx#ixzz2DLOPbjDD

      27. Meta
        Posted November 13, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        The numbers are now in. The Rolling Jubilee purchased nearly $15 million in personal debt.

        Rolling Jubilee, set up by Occupy’s Strike Debt group following the street protests that swept the world in 2011, launched on 15 November 2012. The group purchases personal debt cheaply from banks before “abolishing” it, freeing individuals from their bills.

        By purchasing the debt at knockdown prices the group has managed to free $14,734,569.87 of personal debt, mainly medical debt, spending only $400,000.

        “We thought that the ratio would be about 20 to 1,” said Andrew Ross, a member of Strike Debt and professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. He said the team initially envisaged raising $50,000, which would have enabled it to buy $1m in debt.

        Read more:
        http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/12/occupy-wall-street-activists-15m-personal-debt

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