These Guys Want to Buy Up Your Debt and Set You Free

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Going viral today almost as fast as a good pepper spray video is the latest idea from Occupy Wall Street: the Rolling Jubilee, a project to buy up and zero out people’s debts. David “How To Sharpen Pencils” Rees explains:

Now OWS is launching the ROLLING JUBILEE, a program that has been in development for months. OWS is going to start buying distressed debt (medical bills, student loans, etc.) in order to forgive it. As a test run, we spent $500, which bought $14,000 of distressed debt. We then ERASED THAT DEBT. (If you’re a debt broker, once you own someone’s debt you can do whatever you want with it—traditionally, you hound debtors to their grave trying to collect. We’re playing a different game. A MORE AWESOME GAME.)

Over at Slate, Matthew Yglesias offers limited praise:

That said, almost all charitable undertakings are organized around some gimmick or other that serves as a focal point and helps get people interested. If the pecularity of the distressed debt situation and the concept of a jubilee happens to inspire people and motivate them to be more generous with their time and money than would otherwise be the case, this is a perfectly good idea.

But ultimately, the Rolling Jubilee could do much more than inspire charity. Spending $500 to cancel $14,000 in debt is an amazing bang for the buck—or, seen differently, an amazing illustration of how the financial system that we all bailed out now enslaves many of us. Even if the Rolling Jubilee becomes wildly successful, it probably won’t cancel out more than a tiny fraction of our trillions worth of personal debts. Its value is as a devastating political statement: Debt is cheap, except when it’s owned by the banks.

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