Rolling Jubilee: Debt and Forgiveness

Debbie says:

Welcome to 2013! We hope you had sane holidays.

In our Thanksgiving post, Laurie and I mentioned Rolling Jubilee. We both wanted to give it a little more space of its own.

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%.

As of the moment that I write this post, Rolling Jubilee has collected $533,133, with which it will be able to forgive at least $10,668,078 in medical debt, for random people around the U.S. (With its first purchase of debt, it came out just a little better than the anticipated five cents on the dollar, so the figure may be a little higher.)

The concept of Rolling Jubilee is simple. If you are a human being, you have to pay off your debt at $1 per $1, unless you negotiate it down with your creditor(s). If you are an arcane kind of corporation called a 501(c)(4),  you can purchase debt as a commodity. If it is old, difficult-to-collect debt, you can purchase it as low as 5 cents or so for each dollar of debt. The theory is that then you would collect it, and if you could collect more than 5% of what you purchased, you would come out even.

Rolling Jubilee, however, purchases that debt and forgives it. They chose medical debt because it is purchasable, and is the primary source of bankruptcy in America. They cannot control whose debt they purchase, and they (and I) see that as a feature, not a bug.

Random people who probably can never pay their debts–or those debts wouldn’t be in that pool that can be purchased so inexpensively–get letters like this one:

Original Creditor: xxxxxx
Patient ID: xxxxxx
Rolling Jubilee Acct : xxx
Original Balance: $xxx
Balance Due: $0.00

Dear Ms. Doe,

Season’s Greetings from Strike Debt!

We write with good news: the above referenced account has been purchased by The
Rolling Jubilee Fund, a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization. The Rolling Jubilee Fund is a project of Strike Debt. The mission of this project is to buy and abolish personal debt. We believe that no one should have to go into debt for the basic things in our lives, like healthcare, housing, and education.

You no longer owe the balance of this debt. It is gone, a gift with no strings attached. You are no longer under any obligation to settle this account with the original creditor, the bill collector, or anyone else…

Of course, this ten million dollars in debt reduction isn’t even a drop in the bucket of American medical debt, let alone American debt overall. Here’s what it is:

1) It’s a project of the people, by the people, and for the people.

2) It’s random and nonpartisan. Some of the people getting these letters are likely to be hard-core right-wing Republicans, who hate Occupy Wall Street and all its offspring. Nonetheless, OWS folks are forgiving their debt.

3) Its intended purpose is not primarily to forgive debt. In concert with a related organization called Strike Debt, the folks who founded and maintain Rolling Jubilee are hoping to shine a productive light on the role of debt in American life, and to give us all a variety of ways to fight back. Strike Debt has created an excellent resource, the Debt Resistor’s Manual (long .pdf at the link), which everyone should download and read. Strike Debt local organizations are cropping up all over the country; check one out near you.

In 2013 America, debt is largely a burden. Unpaid debts are largely a source of shame. (Many homeowners don’t fight foreclosure because of the shame involved in coming forward.) Rolling Jubilee and Strike Debt offer us another view: debt is largely a tool of the 1%. Unpaid and unpayable debt is often something that was done to you by the system, which has an interest in keeping you in debt.

The phrase we use for cancelling debt is “forgiving.” Corporations don’t forgive; people do. What’s more, people can force corporations to the bargaining table.

The only thing I want more than for this to be successful is to see America take part in the other aspect of jubilee: maybe all (well, 50% anyway) those in bondage can be set free.