Taking on Debt: Advancing the Discourse on America’s Bottom Line

 

by Ryan Cohen and Shane Hebel, Harvard Law & Policy Review, Volume 11 Editors-in-Chief

During this time, when our nation appears so divided, there is one thing that we all share, whether we are Democratic or Republican, teacher or coal miner, voter or U.S. President, from the coasts or from Appalachia. Debt. We may be a nation of red, white, and blue, but mostly, we are just in the red.

Our students are in debt (as graduate students, we can attest to that from personal experience). Our households are in debt. Our cities are in debt. Our nation is debt. Even our new president is in debt—billions of dollars of it. Collectively, Americans are $12.35 trillion in the hole. And that is not even including our $19 trillion national debt. In the past decade, U.S. household debt has risen 11 percent. Today, the average household with any debt at all is $132,529 in debt, including mortgages. Meanwhile, student loan debt has increased 186 percent.

Debt is so pervasive and central in American society that The Week published an article late last year entitled How the Politics of Debt Explains Everything that described the “underlying political economy” as “a creditor/debtor stand-off where the creditors have the whip hand” and attributed Donald Trump’s ascendency to his “riding debtor anger against creditor strength.”

While strategies to address debt divide us along partisan lines, there is bipartisan recognition that debt–in some form or another–is a problem. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) has said: “Would I like to see [the budget] balance? Certainly. Absolutely. I’ve got 13 grandchildren, and I don’t want to see them buried under $30 trillion of debt.” Focusing on individual debt, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has said: “College students today are drowning in debt, and it is hurting them and hurting our economy. We must find a way to help families pay for college without condemning them to a lifetime of indebtedness.”

Debt is a prop of political posturers on both sides of the aisle. But behind the headlines, the green screen and the rhetoric lie important and timely questions. What are the facts about debt and how it affects everyday Americans? What do those facts mean for the lives of the people that our government was elected to serve? And, given those facts, how should policymakers and lawyers craft and interpret laws and policies around debt that advance the vision of an inclusive, just and thriving America?

Those are some of the questions that Harvard Law & Policy Review Volume 11.1 aims to answer. The issue, America in Debt: Borrowers, Creditors, and Forgiveness in the Age of Austerity, which will be released here tomorrow, focuses a progressive lens on the subject of debt, zooming from the micro—the individual, the consumer, the student—to the macro. With authors ranging from a State Attorney General to practitioners, policy analysts and academics, and drawing the expertise of experts who have spent decades working on these problems to data collected by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, we have attempted to put together an issue that addresses concerns of everyday Americans.

Harvard Law & Policy Review strives to provide a forum through which academics and practitioners can engage in thoughtful, respectful discourse on the challenges that affect our nation. For this issue, we strove to provide a resource for those in Washington and in the state capitals as they tackle this monstrous challenge. The debt crisis is a problem that impacts everyone living in this country, and we are honored to contribute, in our own small way, to the discourse that will help drive towards sustainable solutions.

 

 



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