Pluralistic: 19 May 2021

Today's links

  • Dead, broke: What it's like to inherit nothing but debt.
  • This day in history: 2006, 2011, 2016, 2020
  • Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming/recent appearances, current writing projects, current reading

Engraving from Gustave Doré’s 1861 illustration of Dante’s Inferno, showing Charon the ferryman bringing souls across the river Styx while the damned thrash in the shallows.

Dead, broke (permalink)

Of all the moving, wrenching accounts of death during the pandemic, Molly McGhee's "America's Dead Souls," for The Paris Review stands out: haunting, furious and sad, a rude awakening to the status quo that denies any possibility of inaction.

I've known McGhee a long time, since she worked on my book INFORMATION DOESN'T WANT TO BE FREE from McSweeneys, a professional association we renewed when she landed at Tor.

During the pandemic crisis, I've had two different connections to her: on the one hand, the consummate professionalism of her emails as we published my novel ATTACK SURFACE in the middle of the lockdown.

On the other hand, I knew her through her wrenching and deeply personal Twitter account of the personal tragedies she's endured over the same period. Her Paris Review essay brings those tragedies into sharp focus and uses them to pin down a huge and heretofore ill-defined feeling.

McGhee's mother died during the crisis, but the death was the culmination of years of hardship: "[earning] less than $10,000 a year. Suffering from debilitating depression while caring for her aging parents…chronically unemployed, undermedicated, and overstressed."

Her mother's debts were on public display through searchable databases, and her life was haunted by both con artists and bill collectors who carpet-bombed her with calls, letters and emails.

She was too poor to fight back: her wages were garnished by the IRS "for back taxes calculated from a years-old misfiling they refused to correct." McGhee sent her months of her salary, but it wasn't enough.

She had no answer for her mother's rhetorical questions, "Why are these people harassing me? What good does it do them?"

Because the answer is obvious and insufficient: "The people in power don’t care if we live or die, as long as they get paid."

It only took two days after McGhee's mother died for her creditors to begin harassing her for her mother's debts. The state of Tennessee seized the house, but Wells Fargo expected her to make good on the mortgage.

The hospital where McGhee's mother died wanted a quarter of a million dollars. McGhee, not even 26, was staring down the barrel of the weapon that had been trained on her mother, the inheritor of nothing but debt.

The debt-machine is efficient. Bill collectors found out about McGhee's mother's death before McGhee's own family got word. And they're remorseless, immune to McGhee's "pleading, bargaining, reasoning, denying, uploading, scanning, begging, faxing, and crying."

McGhee compares it to Gogol's "Dead Souls," a surreal tale of a grifter named Chichikov who buys dead serfs' souls to sell for profit.

It's only surreal if you've never been in the debt system's crosshairs, "where one day of lost wages can compound into houselessness."

We live in a system of winners and losers. The winners' winnings come from debt, shielded from the system's cruelty by "professionalism and bureaucracy" that insulate them – and their functionaries – from "feelings of culpability, not to mention empathy or curiosity."

Poor people have less money, but the system is firmly focused poor people, because people with money can defend themselves. When McGhee went into debt to hire a lawyer, a single letter on official letterhead instantly reduced all that debt by 90% – more than $250k, poof.

It's expensive to be poor. Take Community Health Systems, one of the largest hospital chains in America. It sues the shit out of poor people. When those people can afford lawyers, CHS loses, because it is chasing debts it is not entitled to collect.

CHS itself owes $7.6 billion. It turned its first profit in 2020, thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal subsidies, and its executives pocketed millions in "performance bonuses" for a performance that consisted of getting bailed out by the public.

The Trump stimulus handed trillions to the richest people and biggest companies in America. Those companies "leveraged up" their handouts to raise trillions more and went on spending sprees, buying up struggling businesses.

They loaded these companies up with debt, declared "divi recaps" (where you take out a loan on a company you bought on credit and put that money in your own pocket as a "special dividend") and crashed the companies, destroying jobs and communities.

Plutes know there are three kinds of debt: workers' debts (which must be repaid), owners' debts (to be "restructured" away) and government debt (not debt at all, but still handy for terrifying normies with stories of "mortgaging our kids' futures").

Forty years of this approach has turned the economy into a shambling zombie, dependent on the fiction that "consumer" debts – repackaged as bonds through financialization – will be repaid, somehow.

As an ever-larger share of the world's wealth has shifted from the workers' side of the balance sheet to the owners', the ability of workers to buy things to keep businesses afloat as vehicles for debt-leveraging has only declined.

Wage-theft and stagnation, unions in retreat, monopoly, monopsony, tax-preferencing for home-owners over renters, for capital gains over wages, spiraling housing, health and education costs, worker misclassification – wages are annihilated before they're even deposited.

With no wages left over to fund consumption, there's only debt, and as Michael Hudson says, "Debts that can't be repaid, won't be repaid." CHS can comfortably carry billions in debts, but the sick people it sues for $201 have to choose between rent and medical debt.

Every loan-shark knows how this works. The chump with $500 who owes you $500 and owes the bank $500 needs an incentive to pay you ahead of the bank. To assert the primacy of your claims, you need an arm-breaker.

The digital world has given us all kinds of fantastic new arm-breakers: digital repo men who can brick your car or your phone. It's automated the once rare practice of evictions, creating eviction mills that run with devastating efficiency.

Creating a debt-instrument – a bond grounded in the payments from other peoples' debts – requires that you convince investors and bond-rating agencies that your arm-breaker will terrorize the debtors into paying you instead of child-support or grocery bills.

"The cruelty is the point" isn't ideology, it's pure description. The system – an artificial life-form constituted as immortal colony organism that uses us as gut flora – runs on competing claims to your debt, and victory consists of terrorizing you more than any rival.

The financiers who practice leveraged buyouts destroy real businesses, ruin lives and hollow out communities. They are feted as "job creators." The workers who must borrow to close the gap they leave are "deadbeats." Leveraged buyouts are back, baby.

If you fret that forgiving student loans and making college free will "saddle our kids with debt," then you've been suckered.

Look. Replacing a system that starts all but the richest children with unserviceable debt with one that doesn't is liberation, not bondage.

Since Reagan, we've been hiking tuition, killing deductions for interest, and shielding student debt from bankruptcy.That's how you can borrow $79k, pay $190k, still owe $236k, and have 25% taken from every paycheck and Social Security until you die.

Debts that can't be paid, won't be paid. Student debts do get forgiven, but only for those highly educated, (potentially) highly productive people who can prove that they have been so thoroughly destroyed by debt that they have no future.

And as McGhee reminds us, the tragedy isn't merely that we educate people on the pretense of betting on America's future, but really, the principle use that the system makes of the educated is as collateral for securitized loans.

If the arm-breakers who chased her mother wanted to understand that woman's humanity, McGhee says they should start here:

"Her humor and her rage were unmatched. In the evenings, against the setting Tennessee sun, she liked to drink red can Cokes in the garden while snuffing cigarettes out against the yard’s ant colonies. She could reckon with anyone just by looking them in the eye. Men were terrified of her, rightfully so. She was sweet. In the last week of her life, when she couldn’t understand where she was or who she was talking to, she greeted everyone the same: 'Hi, pal. Hope you’re doing okay. When can you come pick me up?'"

Take a second. Re-read that.

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Is one month’s piracy worth more than France’s GDP?

#10yrsago CDC explains how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse

#5yrsago A look at digital habits of 13 year olds shows desire for privacy, face-to-face time

#5yrsago Second Life’s Trump army lays siege to Bernie Sanders’s virtual HQ with swastika cannons

#5yrsago Angry dudes are downranking woman-oriented TV shows on review sites

#5yrsago Apple rejects game about Palestine because political messages disqualify games from consideration

#1yrago Softbank's "pegasus" grift

#1yrago "Shoe-leather" contact tracing works

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Patrick Nielsen Hayden (

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Yesterday's progress: 310 words (1062 words total).

  • A short story about consumer data co-ops. PLANNING

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: How To Destroy Surveillance Capitalism (Part 06)
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

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Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla