One Tent-Dwelling Wall Street Occupier's Quest For Something Concrete

Student debt reformer Alan Collinge has brought a clear set of demands--and little patience for general assembly dickering--to Occupy Wall Street. He belongs to a large--but not unified--contingent of pragmatic policy wonks in the movement.

Alan Collinge

For two and a half weeks, Alan Collinge has been living on his political platform--a tent, actually, with a handwritten sign on it stating, among other things, that "Congress must" return bankruptcy protection to private and public student loan debt. It even lists a House of Representatives resolution number.

In the ideological free-for-all of Occupy Wall Street--where general proclamations dominate and many people find concrete demands odious--Collinge is pursuing an extremely focused agenda, providing his own crystal-clear answer to the great question: "What do they want?"

His sign and all it stands for has survived the fierce wind, rain, and sleet of last Saturday's early winter storm. Unfazed by the weather, Collinge spent 20 minutes explaining the injustices of legislation such as the 1997 amendments to the Higher Education Act and of the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act. Among many things, the laws exempted student loan debt from federal bankruptcy protection. According to Collinge, no matter what their financial situation, Americans struggling under education loan payments have no way to escape the ever-ballooning debts.

He's actually not alone in his passionate specificity. Under the Occupy movement's veneer of anarchism and radical inclusiveness hide several detailed, well-researched demands with their own constituencies.

For Collinge, Occupy Wall Street is the latest step in a long journey. "For the past six years, I've been sharpening this blade," he said. In 2004, when requesting a forebearance during a spell of unemployment, his $38,000 student debt suddenly ballooned to $80,000 overnight--and became due immediately--when the lendor decided without warning to classify it as in default. Stung by that fate, he founded in 2005 Student Loan Justice to educate people about the predatory practices and rally support to overturn the legislation that made them possible. After two years, the cause became his full-time, unpaid job. "I said to myself, 'This is my chance. This is my calling,'" he recalled.

By mid-2008, Collinge had blown through $35,000 in savings. He now lives on roughly $1,000 per month in donations from members of Student Loan Justice. That's quite a sacrifice for a 41-year-old with graduate degrees in aerospace engineering and fluid dynamics.

Despite the knocks, Collinge is taken seriously at even the highest levels, including working with the staff of then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton on a 2006 reform bill called the Student Borrower Bill of Rights Act. It didn't get far in the Senate, but Collinge is now working with the office of Congressman Hansen Clarke of Michigan to produce a similar bill, which is just about complete. Clollinge has also been a regular in the national press, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Fortune magazine. He has won cred by doing his homework, much of it compiled in the 2009 book The Student Loan Scam. He's also a key figure in Default: The Student Loan Documentary, which debuted this week on Colorado Public Television.

Student Loans

On Monday evening, Collinge was excited about the meeting of the Demands Working Group the following day. His goal was to help the group develop a "no-brainer" list of demands "that Congress can pass tomorrow."

It didn't turn out that way.

On Tuesday night, Alan walked over to 60 Wall Street, an office building with a publicly accessible atrium where occupiers meet to plot the overthrow of firms like those on the floors above them.

Committee

The Demands Working Group quickly swelled to around 40 participants gathered to discuss, among other matters, an actual, concrete demand. It's a program named Jobs for All, calling for "a massive, democratically-controlled public works and public service program, with direct government employment, to create 25 million new jobs at good union wages." A number of taxes and savings from military reductions would pay for the program. It hadn't passed the General Assembly the previous Sunday, and they were discussing ways to rework it.

But even within the group that had made it, the demand was contentious.

Rick Theis, a cofounder of EcoHearth.com who is also in a working group called "Restore Democracy First," suggested instead what he thinks is an easy-win goal of "passing a Constitutional amendment that corporations are not people, money is not speech."

The "corporate personhood" issue has been swirling around Occupy Wall Street since the beginning. This 19th-century interpretation of the Constitution grants corporations the same rights as citizens, including the right to make campaign contributions. Many people gave the disapproving, downward-wiggling-fingers sign to Theis, saying that it was off-topic to propose something new before discussing the jobs demand. But Alan Collinge said later that he had connected with Theis and might work with him on that issue.

The logic isn't apparent, but the Jobs for All demand also calls for saving money by restoring a 1933 law called the Glass-Steagall Act (partly repealed in 1999). It kept so-called "commercial" and "investment" banks separate, so the same company meant to keep savings of ordinary citizens and businesses safe doesn't gamble that money in risky investments. Glass-Steagall popped up during the very first New York City General Assembly meeting on August 2 and has been kicking around ever since.

The Jobs For All demand also calls for raising money from "new taxes ... on financial transactions." That's the so-called "Robin Hood Tax," another buzzword among many occupiers.

About a half hour of the meeting was a heated discussion about politics in the movement. Luke Rudkowski, founder of news site We Are Change, complained of "a small minority, about 11 people, who are from socialist backgrounds" dominating that group. A woman (no name given) responded that all political beliefs should be welcome. She also charged that a "small, determined, fanatical minority" was using the GA process to block any concrete demand proposed in the General Assembly. Several people used the word "sophistry" to describe obstructionists.

Back at Zuccotti Park, Alan Collinge shared what he thought of the meeting.

"Blech," he said, sticking out his tongue and feigning the lead-up to vomiting. "Process. Stifling. Process. Suffocating."

He conceded the value of the consensus method. But he felt that it was taking too long. "Time is of the essence here," he said, reckoning that the movement has about three weeks before it loses credibility--both in the press and among the people it's supposed to represent. "The reason that this thing started is because people are suffering in this country right now!"

Like several others in the Demands Group meeting, Alan said Occupy Wall Street has to put forward some of those no-brainer demands to win credibility, then work on harder issues like debating a federal jobs program. On his short list are reinstating Glass-Steagall, enacting the Robin Hood tax and, not surprisingly, restoring bankruptcy protection to student loan debt.

That lineup hints at the challenge for Occupy Wall Street as a unified movement--and how unlikely it is to ever become one. Many specific demands exist, but the diverse participants have their own lists.

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3 Comments

  • Michelle Michaels

       I'm not sure it's worth giving Piablo's inane analysis an ounce of attention, but the repeated argument that bankruptcy protection somehow eliminates personal responsibility is worth commenting on.  When the economy declined and scores of recent graduates couldn't find jobs or settled for salaries well under what their previous research indicated they'd be earning, student loan companies realized that placing them in default was extremely lucrative with virtually no risk.  I personally had a small loan improperly put in default (w/an additional 42% of the principal added to the debt) and quickly found out that the industry often operates outside the bounds of law.  I was not at fault and ultimately won the battle to clear my name, but it took an entire year of fighting the industry, including Dept of Ed employees who were unable or unwilling to read the applicable statutes.  
      Listen to those arguing for bankruptcy protection. They are not looking to get out of their responsibility; they simply don't want to pay an amount that dwarfs what they initially agreed upon. Private lenders know that current law demands they be paid eventually, even if they balloon the original debt to astronomical amounts. Since there is no entity willing to battle the industry on behalf of borrowers, many graduates are paying well beyond what is legally required of them, whether unwittingly or by force.
       Moreover, since anyone can get a loan, colleges are increasing their tuitions at rates that far exceed inflation.  This hurts even those students who don't borrow for college.  Restoring ACCOUNTABILITY to the private lending industry will decrease the number of available loans since lenders will be more cautious.  If fewer people are able to afford high tuition, tuition hikes will likely decline. Restoring bankruptcy protection for private student loans helps everyone and doesn’t cost taxpayers anything (private loans aren’t federally backed). 
      Then again, we can fall back on arguments like Piablo’s and put the onus on seventeen year olds to “just say no” to lenders offering them a chance to spend four years partying and studying whatever they choose.  I don’t think many people are so naïve to think that enough teenagers will have the discipline and strength of character to see past the promises being made to them by colleges and private loan companies.  So, do you tell your own child to forgo his or her dreams or do you pay the additional tuition costs simply to make a point that other people’s kids, rather than universities and the lending industry, should take responsibility for the rapidly increasing cost of higher education?

  • Piablo

    Still not sure how a website dedicated to business can give these people an ounce of attention... There is one answer to the student loan debt issue and it's very simple. PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. The topic is so ironic it's silly. In the age of the internet there is zero reason why a would be student could not do 5 minutes of research to ascertain whether their college choice is a good choice financially. Research what the expected salary is of a graduate of their particular field. Add up the 5 years of tuition, add an additional 25% for annual increases. Divide it out over a 10 year loan at 7%. Does that final figure jive with your expected income?? If it doesn't, the student has no business attending the program. There is no freedom of this or that. No right to education BS. It's a simple decision of financial responsibility. Anyone who thought $30K a year was okay for a liberal arts degree should not have been accepted to the program in the first place.

    Kids and vicarious parents have been duped for years. Why would an english major pay the same tuition at a supposed prestigious school as an engineer major? Kids and parents buying into branding created this problem... ask them for loan assistance.

  • Mister M

    Good, so now whenever some loser complains about out OWS has no real demands, I can send them this link.