The golden age of unsolicited credit-card applications ended about five years ago. It must have been a relief at the post office. At least ten envelopes came each week -- often with non-functioning replica cards enclosed, to elicit the anticipatory thrill of fresh plastic in the recipient’s hot little hand.
For a while, I would open each envelope and carefully shred anything with my name on it, lest an identity thief go on a shopping spree in my name. But at some point I gave up, because there were just too many of them. Besides, any identity thief worth worrying about enjoyed better options than trash-diving for unopened mail.
Something started happening circa 2006 or ’07. More and more often, the very envelopes carried wording to the effect that approval for a new card was a formality, so act now! With the benefit of hindsight, this reads as a last surge of economic acceleration before the crash just ahead. But at the time, I figured that credit-card companies were growing desperate to grab our attention, since many of us were throwing the offers away without a second glance.
The two alternatives -- turbocharged consumerism on the one hand, the depleted willingness (or capacity) of consumers to take on more debt, on the other -- are not mutually exclusive. It was subprime mortgages rather than overextended credit cards that brought the go-go ’00s to an early end, but each was a manifestation of the system Andrew Ross writes about in Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal (OR Books).
Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, was active in Occupy Wall Street, and Creditocracy bears a few traces of the movement, both in its plainspoken and inclusive expressions of anger (this I like) and its redeployment of old anarco-syndicalist ideas (that, not so much).
One commonplace account of the near-collapse of the world financial system in 2008 is that it was the product of consumer hedonism at its most irresponsible. It was just deserts for people playing Xbox on jumbo flat-screen TVs in subprime-mortgaged houses they shouldn't be in. Whatever the limits of its explanatory power, this interpretation allows for a pleasing discharge of moralistic aggression. Hence its popularity. The most familiar argument opposing it places the blame, rather, on bankers, brokers, and other criminals “too big to jail.” It was they who were greedy and short-sighted, not average people.
Besides the more obvious similarities, what these explanations share is an implication that the disaster could have been avoided with some self-discipline and the understanding that hyperbolic discounting is a very bad habit.
Ross leans in the anti-plutocratic direction, but he proves ultimately less interested in the morality of anyone’s decisions than he is in the framework that permits, or demands, those decisions in the first place. The system he calls “creditocracy” turns out debt as fast and efficiently as Detroit once did automobiles, and just as profitably:
“Financiers seek to wrap debt around every possible asset and income stream,” he writes, “ensuring a flow of interest from each…. [T]he tipping point for a creditocracy occurs when ‘economic rents’ – from debt-leveraging, capital gains, manipulation of paper claims through derivatives and other forms of financial engineering – are no longer merely supplementary sources of income, but have become the most reliable and effective instrument for the amassing of wealth and influence.”
At that level of description, Ross has simply given a new name to what Rudolf Hilferding, writing a hundred years ago, called “finance capital.” But what Hilferding had in mind was the merger of banking and industrial capitalism – the marriage of big money and big factories, with monopoly presiding. Creditocracy, by contrast, “goes small,” insinuating itself into every nook and cranny of life. The relationship between creditor and debtor takes many different shapes, some more overt than others.
When you take out a student loan or a mortgage, your submission to the financial system is more or less deliberate, and in any event explicit. It runs deeper, and proves less purely voluntary, if you have to use credit cards in lieu of unemployment insurance. The credit relationship is much more efficiently disguised if it takes the form of an unpaid internship – the “exchange” of your time and skills for intangible and impossible-to-quantify credit” toward a future job, if you’re lucky.
And if that doesn’t pan out, you might end up working in one of the less desirable positions at Walmart or Taco Bell, among other corporations that banks have persuaded, Ross writes, “to pay their employees with prepaid debit cards that are only lightly regulated.” The banks then “charge the users fees to make ATM withdrawls and retail purchases, along with inactivity fees for using their cards. Almost all of these are minimum or subminimum wage employees, compelled to fork over a fee to enjoy their paycheck." (The practice was described in a New York Timesarticle a few months ago.)
In next week’s column, I’ll consider Ross’s analysis of how the impact of creditocracy on education amounts to a ruthless exploitation, not just of present-day society, but of the future. We’ll also take a look at the comparable argument in a new book called The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books) by David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy of education and legal studies at the University of Delaware.
Until then, I’ll sign off by mentioning that someone has just sent me an application for a $40,000 line of credit. This must be evidence of that “recovery” one reads about. If so, we’re in real trouble.
This week, the U.S. Department of Education announced changes to the PLUS loan underwriting standards that may help previously denied PLUS loan applicants obtain loans. This will be welcome news to previously approved loan applicants who found themselves unexpectedly denied last year.
But federal PLUS loans can be risky business for graduate students and parents of undergraduates who can use them to borrow up to the full cost of attendance at college. Much more can be done to protect consumers from getting too deeply into debt. The Department of Education recently added PLUS loan underwriting standards to its list of items to potentially consider during negotiated rule-making, the process where students, advocates and colleges work with the federal government to hash out new regulations.
The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators offers three recommendations to add vital consumer protections to Federal PLUS loans.
Separate Parent PLUS Loans from Graduate PLUS Loans. Currently, there is one PLUS Loan program available to both parents (Parent PLUS) and graduate/professional students (Grad PLUS). This is a relatively new development: the Grad PLUS program was simply added onto the existing Parent PLUS program in 2005 to help graduate students cover the increasing costs of their programs.
While the borrowing profiles of parents and graduate students differ greatly, the same credit standards are applied to both. Lumping these groups together makes little practical sense. Separating the Grad PLUS and Parent PLUS programs would allow for vital variations in credit standards, loan limits, and interest rates that should be tailored to these two different populations.
Increase Loan Underwriting Standards on Parent Loans for New Students. Appropriate underwriting not only protects the lender (in this case the taxpayer), but also borrowers, by preventing them from getting into unmanageable amounts of debt.
The underwriting criteria for PLUS loans are minimal, resulting in approvals for parents who may not actually be in the best financial position to borrow. In fact, each year colleges field thousands of pleas from parents who have been approved for PLUS loans but believe they should have been denied. These parents know they cannot afford the loan debt on their income or have little experience with any form of significant debt. Yet, in order for dependent undergraduate students to receive additional federal loans in their own name, parents must first apply for -- and be denied -- a PLUS loan.
The sole credit criterion for PLUS loans is that an applicant “not have an adverse credit history,” meaning they cannot be 90 or more days delinquent on any debt or have defaulted or received a bankruptcy discharge in the last five years. Put another way, having no credit is tantamount to having good credit for purposes of a PLUS loan and -- perhaps even more troubling -- approval from the government doesn’t require even a simple debt-to-income analysis.
Using the current definition of adverse credit makes sense for graduate students who haven’t had time to build a credit history. Ignoring debt-to-income ratios also makes sense for graduate students whose earnings will increase based on the very educations they’re financing.
But parental earnings don’t increase because of an educational investment in their children. And unlike graduate borrowers, parents lack access to loan forgiveness programs offered through public service or the government's Pay As You Earn plan. When determining credit worthiness, parent eligibility credit criteria should include some measure of likely ability to repay, such as a debt‐to‐income measure, FICO score, or another test of adequate resources. Allowing parents to assume unmanageable amounts of debt presents a fiscal and moral hazard to both the taxpayer and borrower.
It must be noted that any changes to restrict access to Parent PLUS loans should only impact new students, so as not to disrupt current enrollments. ED learned this the hard way after the agency unexpectedly, and with little fanfare, tweaked underwriting standards last year. The move resulted in harsh criticism from some students, institutions, and lawmakers. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, claimed in an August 1 statement that the change disproportionately impacted students attending historically black institutions and demanded that ED “immediately suspend use of the new ‘adverse credit’ criteria as a determinant for Federal Parent PLUS Loan eligibility.”
In response, ED has begun reconsidering previously denied PLUS loan applicants. Lest anyone believe the lesson here is to never reconsider underwriting standards that ultimately protect parent borrowers, it should be pointed out that the furor would likely have been much less had this not disrupted currently enrolled students who are now depending on these funds to graduate.
More Transparency in Federal PLUS Borrowing. Good public policy must be built on good data, yet the availability of data on federal PLUS borrowing is abysmal. Basic information about PLUS loan approval or denial rates, default and delinquency rates, and repayment plan distributions are difficult if not impossible to obtain. While Congress and the Education Department have significantly increased disclosures requirements placed on colleges regarding graduate earnings, dropout rates, repayment rates, educational costs, and Stafford loan defaults, there is no comparable level of disclosure from the department on Federal Parent or Grad PLUS loan borrowing.
The feds certainly have this information, so why not share it?
Efforts to better target the PLUS programs to the groups they serve, bolster underwriting standards for parent borrowers, and increase transparency would significantly strengthen the programs and help ensure that these federal loan dollars are used to provide access to higher education without crushing current and future borrowers.
Justin Draeger is president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.