Saturday, July 29, 2017

On Debt and the American Child Support System

If you didn't get around to reading David Graeber's Debt: the First 5000 Years (Melville House, 2011) for whatever reason, there's a truncated summation in another book Melville House published, Slavoj Zizek's Trouble in Paradise: from the End of History to the End of Capitalism (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014). When I say 'truncated summation' I mean Zizek doesn't reference Graeber directly (at least not in what I'm writing about), but does a pretty good job in a chapter (of Zizek's) called "Being-Toward-Debt as a Way of Life."

Zizek's first couple chapters in Trouble in Paradise are to do what he calls a diagnosis and then cardiognosis of capitalism -- diagnosis is straightforward, but by cardiognosis he means 'knowledge of the heart,' ie let's really get into the heart of global capitalism, and let's especially find out why it's such a difficult ideology to overturn or replace. (I'm mid-read through the cardiognosis section and looking forward especially to answers to the latter question.)

Some of his writing in the section on debt was like he was writing about the general American child support system without writing about the child support system. Granted, I'm only really empirically familiar with this system as it exists in California and to some extent other states. Zizek writes:

Look at how Europe is dealing with the Greek [economic] crisis: putting pressure on Greece to repay debts, but at the same time ruining its economy through imposed austerity measures and thereby ensuring the Greek debt will never be repaid. (p. 46)

One of the tactics child support collection agents use is to intercept any monies a parent owes in arrears (legal language for debt or being behind on payment) through the mechanism of the State itself and anything the State has a dealing in (lottery winnings, tax refunds, cashing out a state-funded retirement early, etc). Another tactic is to punish so-called deadbeat dads (or deadbeat moms) by colluding with the DMV to render a driver's license invalid. This move is especially reminiscent of the Zizek quote above, because, as any working stiff knows, one of the best ways to not only provide right-to-work documentation, but also to be more attractive to employers in a competition-based society (ie capitalism), is to have a valid driver's license. (Not to mention jobs, such as driving, for which it's a must.) You can see the connection: child support wants their money, but in a rather Kafkaesque maneuver, they themselves largely sabotage this by their punitive actions.

So let me don my critical thinking hat with its ideals of removing bias, examining facts and premises leading to conclusions, and being smart about complex, sticky issues. I'll have some sympathy for the devil, in that one can see child support's hamfisted actions as acts of desperation: in other words, they must realize it's counter-productive to seize someone's license who owes money (the debt being the payor's provable fault, or something outside their control), but what else can they do? (Actually, quite a few things.) Judges who court-order child support stress that it is paramount: in other words, all other debts, bills, payments, etc come after, and only after, the child has received the support through the liaison of the parent receiving support. This makes sense in cases where a child either eats or doesn't eat based on counting on the support received, but it again becomes stickier and often more Kafkaesque when the parent paying support is poorer, sometimes significantly so, than the one receiving it.

Child support agencies basically function as a government authority who don't seem too compassionate when workers paying child support (CS) encounter layoff (through no fault of their own), economic downturns, personal challenges, location moves, etc, etc. This is ironic, because government, even in capitalism, is deeply entwined with the job market: regulates it, produces reports about it, does bail-outs (at least of Big Auto and Big Banks). What CS can do is make a modification to a court-order if the child has greater economic needs or the payor has a change in income/expenses. But this modification process is not speedy (because it's government) nor guaranteed, as it can be argued in a court (and here we get into stickiness again by considering: which parent has the better/fancier/more aggressive lawyer?). CS agencies basically take a "find a job, you bum, there's a mouth to feed" approach, whether that mouth is truly in need or if the CS goes toward other things (such as for the receiving parent). CS is not monitored, like WIC (Women, Infants, Children) is (money to buy specific groceries the government can issue to the eligible), as far as what a receiving parent does with the CS money. There's just no oversight that I'm aware of, but mothers receiving WIC can only use the money to buy specific things decided on by the government.

Consider this:

...when we can no longer rely on long-term employment and are compelled to search for a new precarious job every couple of years or maybe even every couple of weeks, we are told that we are given the opportunity to re-invent ourselves and discover our unexpected creative potential... (Zizek, p. 68)

Zizek is talking about the one-two combination move that capitalism uses: it creates "precarious" economic conditions for the worker, while then placing the responsibility on the worker to accept and even embrace those conditions, lest there is something fundamentally wrong with the worker. I recently saw a statistic, which I question, that 86% of child support payors in a certain part of California paid their court-ordered CS amount in 2016. (For the most part, I was part of that 86%, if that number can be trusted.)

But what of the 14% (or more, I suspect)? In his fauxbo memoir, Riding Toward Everywhere, William T. Vollmann becomes a fake hobo and illegally rides trains the way people did (still do) in the golden age of trainhopping. He meets a lot of interesting characters, naturally. One of them I recall vividly: an older gentleman who was only a hobo because he couldn't swing his CS payments of $750/month (!). He dropped out of society and hit the rails, but this seems like a risk (in addition to payors committing suicide over financial problems) CS agencies are willing to take, and take, even if it means that -- often by their own punitive actions -- they make it harder for a worker to meet their obligation. This gives credence to Zizek's argument in the debt section that debt is really about something else: namely, social control and obedience. And if social control and obedience are by-products of the debt system, then surely it can't be denied they play a large role.

News reports of now-deceased rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard still retaining his public benefits card -- and using it! -- while making enough money rapping to not require public benefits linger in the mind, and infuriate those against a welfare state. I think what ODB did was wrong, but also illustrates a specific dynamic in the poor Black community and their relation to the white world (even the white welfare-granting world) that demands deeper exploration and nuance. But if the Trump Era has shown us anything, it's shown us that the right two-word combo can really stick in the craw of John Q. Public and even impact thought and action: we have "Crooked Hillary," "fake news," and other two-word over-simplistic reductions of complex people and issues. "Deadbeat Dad" has a certain Trumpian ring to it, although DDs have been around longer than Trump, and of course there do exist bad fathers out there who intentionally withhold CS money, don't care, etc.

But the good dads, the ones who do all they can to take their (court-ordered) child support seriously, are playing a game they can't win. Increasingly -- and it's not just what/who I read and what echo-chambers I engage in -- from both major American political parties, is the use of the word "rigged." Good ol' Bernie -- a populist who accepts capitalism but aspires to a capitalism-socialism hybrid --
used it to describe a fundamental facet of the American economy. Trump used it to describe an election system that he, ironically, won in. It's like the criticism of bureaucracies that they send people on wild goose chases and often do not talk to or align with one another, even if it's crucial they do so (such as needing a license to get a job to pay child support but child support has invalidated the license).

On a final note, I am aware or try to be aware of counterarguments to my argument, and one of them is this: What about the people who are able to pay their CS consistently while still surviving in and negotiating the pitfalls, the ups and downs, booms and busts, opportunities and crises of a capitalist economy? Well, okay. I knew someone who, when his child turned 18, had met his CS obligation; I remember the day he didn't have to pay anymore and was a slightly freer person. I was happy for him. I was happy for all involved, actually. But just because something is possible doesn't mean it's the norm. And this brings up what life is like today. In the past, Japanese society had lifetime employment with a company: sure, garnish it from my wages, I'll not really miss it and soon get used to it. I can realistically see paying this obligation faithfully because I can realistically see being with this company for a long haul. But stable employment is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, while government thinking (and societal thinking) is slow to catch up, reasoning that (here's that Trumpian oversimplification again): hell, if you're a strong worker and take your obligation seriously, you'll pay that CS and even have money left over for an ice cream cone for yourself, bub. Basically, government takes an Ayn Rand/neocon/Sartrean approach, that we are responsible for our own success and failure in life.

I don't know if it's government's lack of compassion (for the payor) that worries me more or the fact that their coercive ways of punishing parents in debt or behind on their payments often do more harm than good. In the legal world, there are such things as "mitigating factors" that the Defense will try and use to reduce someone's sentence or lessen the severity of their punishment for a crime; the closest thing the CS system has to this is making a modification or arriving at a compromise/payoff deal (for less than the amount fully owed) just in order to get something rather than nothing. This is of course common practice in the world of debt, where there are even levels of debt, from debt that can be realistically recouped to 4th level/"ghost debt" that has passed through so many hands and failed attempts that the company will sell it off for pennies on the dollar. (An outgrowth of the Occupy Movement, the Rolling Jubilee, brilliantly used this last strategy to buy and thus pay off student debt that they bought for a ridiculous fraction of what the total debt was, simply by gathering donations from people.)

Debt is a fascinating and scary thing, but both Graeber and Zizek are keen to point out that it's not an innocent system wherein the ideal is to have zero debt in the world. In fact, Zizek points out that Argentina paid off a debt early to the IMF, and the IMF was pissed because they knew they had less control of Argentina with their debt paid (the ol' "strings attached" when money gets lended). Zizek even links debt to the fundamental workings of Christianity (in Xtianity, a Christian can never fully pay the debt back to Jesus for dying for sins, so the closest a Xtian can do is a lifetime of servitude and obedience to the religion, which creates a mechanism of social control).

It's probably obvious that I know about this stuff because of first-hand experience. I have had tax returns intercepted, my driver's license invalidated, my passport invalidated*, my early-retirement check garnished, and have also successfully met a rather high monthly obligation (not quite the hobo with the $750/month responsibility, but close!) for years and years consistently before falling on hard times due to moving from a severely-gentrified area in search of a lower cost of living and greener pastures. I did not expect trouble finding a job, but that's the unexpected in life for ya.

So what I would say is this: become an antinatalist, use two condoms.... Just kidding! I would say the child support system is in many cases the biggest impediment to itself getting paid by payors. I would say that one common critique of government is that it's inept. A great tangible first step would be removing punitive restrictions when a payor falls behind for whatever reason. (A CS representative I spoke with did the ol' blame-it-on-the-robots when I asked about the absurdity of these punishments, saying they're "automatic actions" that CS workers have no control of when arrears accrue, even though I found out later CS workers do have control over these supposedly automatic actions).

I would say that a deeper critique of government makes a (very good) argument that government does more harm than good, thus is absurd and should be abolished/reduced/transformed. I would say that the invention of debt has been something with far-reaching implications and applications to diverse elements of society, and not for the better. I would say, that with that most precious and fragile of human faculties, imagination, we can find better ways to do things and even create win-win situations so baby gets fed and daddy doesn't end up a hobo. I would say that my responses to child support surveys, in which I say many of the things here, probably get discarded and not taken seriously, as calmly and studiously as I try to make them. I've thought about sending photocopies of the writing of a Graeber or Zizek to government workers, but gov't workers are often more programmed than a computer itself. While real social change often comes from the ground up, people often don't take action unless it comes from above. I am not anti-child support by any means, for it's crucial with struggling families who have innocent children to provide for, but it is a mechanism that merits serious scrutiny and reform.

I would ask that the average American who in any shape or form believes in this capitalist system -- from right-wingers to establishment Democrats -- open themselves up to the fact that we are not always aware how unfree we are and how much systems have control of us. The current Pope described capitalism as a "subtle dictatorship" -- sometimes we can see the dictatorship part clearly, but struggle with its subtlety.

update: Learned recently that child support agencies can/will also suspend hunting and fishing licenses as well as business and professional licenses. The absurdity of the latter should be pretty self-evident if someone is struggling to pay their obligation, but overall it creates a situation in which government has all the power: first it giveth, then it taketh away.

* this one was extremely Kafkaesque and disappointing, because I researched it heavily and from one source was eligible for my passport, but was ultimately rejected for owing back-money according to another source: this is that problem with dysfunctional, confusing bureaucracies, who ultimately have the power/final say.

Friday, July 28, 2017

On an age-old question (is life really better now than it was?)

One of the interesting things about being alive, at least to me, is, no matter where one finds oneself in history, to think about the question of how much better or worse off one is in contrast to the past or probable future.

Slavoj Zizek engages in this in his recent book Trouble in Paradise: from the End of History to the End of Capitalism (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014). He cites Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (NY: Harper, 2011), which gives a very sunny account of life today:

[we are far better off than our] Stone Age ancestors. The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going erratically upwards for 10,000 years and has rapidly accelerated over the last 200 years: calories; vitamins; clean water; machines; privacy; the means to travel faster than we can run, and the ability....  [etc. etc.]

Zizek is kind with Ridley and, while taking issue with the notion that we're better off today, grants that Ridley is overall correct in his listing of specific improvements humanity has enjoyed as history has progressed.

One thing that jumped out to me as idiotic in Ridley's assessment is the increase in privacy. Sure, we may have private bathrooms we can access and apps that at the push of a button allow food to be delivered to the privacy and comfort of our homes rather than going down to the alehouse for some mutton and homebrew, but we live in an age of unprecedented surveillance. A few minutes at a website like or a similar agency will show that as technology has rapidly increased and evolved in the last, say, 30 years, so have abusive ways in which big tech and government have colluded to spy on largely innocent technology users. Some tech companies more than others have resisted government demands for information about their users -- notably, Apple and Yahoo -- but disturbing stories continually emerge: the government used the Geek Squad to gain information without a warrant (or even reasonable suspicion) when people took computers in for repair; the TSA/Customs apparatus demanded social media passwords from international travelers at airports; net neutrality has been threatened for years and the current FCC Chairman is formerly a lawyer for communications giant Verizon; I could go on and on but would instead refer you to EFF or Fight for the Future for details. Not to mention the self-disclosure and oversharing people online take part in! A heavily-surveilled nation lets its own citizens do a lot of the spying and keeping tabs on each other....

In the physical world, there has also been the rise of security cameras, baby monitors*, and even the way technology has changed human behavior in that, when an incident happens in society, many people's first action is to film it with their smartphone (rather than, say, help a victim of crime). There is the rise of drones attached with cameras. Cyber-bullying. Revenge porn. The USPS photographing mail to alert recipients what mail is on the way-- but what is happening to these photos, and who is seeing them? Spying has always been an industry but this industry has exploded with the advent of technology in the late 20th century and early 21st century. Ridley's claim is absurd.

I would also argue that access to clean water has of course improved as sanitation and other improvements have occurred, but it's funny that Ridley is so optimistic, when the 21st Century is predicted to be one of significant resource wars**, water being a key resource to be battled over.

If we look at conditions in the Dark Ages, brought about by the fall of Rome around 500 AD and lasting more than 1,000 years, of course we for the most part have better lives than "back then." (Keep in mind I am applying a utilitarian assumption here.) Even the chapters on the Black Plague in Jerry Langton's book Rat: How the World's Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top (NY: St. Martin's Press, 2006) show that life is in many ways better, especially in first world nations, where we don't generally have to worry about rats and fleas and bubonic plague wiping out a mind-boggling amount of the population in gruesome ways. People even only 200 years ago used to die of milk sickness. What the hell is milk sickness?! The fact that I don't know shows that I don't have to worry about it, as people in history once did.

So what we find is that we exchange improvements (dying from milk sickness is not a worry these days) for new horrors (the prevalence of government spying and one nation under surveillance). Interestingly, the very first paragraph of William Manchester's influential book on the medieval mind and times,  A World Lit Only By Fire (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1993), gives an overview that could as equally apply to 700 AD as it does today's postmodern, late capitalism times:

After the extant fragments have been fitted together, the portrait which emerges is a melange of incessant warfare***, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.

One of the most entertaining and insightful explorations of then vs. now is Russian sci-fi authors the Arkady Brothers' classic Hard to Be a God, in which a future human culture is able to move throughout the universe with relative ease and find an Earth-like planet nearly indistinguishable from Earth itself, who seem to be stuck in their own middle ages, but unable to progress out of them like we did. They send an emissary -- basically, a spy -- into this backwards culture to simply observe, but not make direct impacts on the culture (such as, hey guys, here's how to wash your hands, here's how to make a printing press, etc). The emissary tries his best but becomes so frustrated that he ends up slaughtering the entire village. Two film versions have been made -- a clunky one (with a cameo by Werner Herzog) in 1989 and a better one by Aleksei German in 2013. As good as the latter one is, I would still highly recommend the source novel.

I could say a lot more about this topic, and indeed many books have been written and debates had. In my own time I have witnessed the amping up of the police state (through both Republican and Democratic administrations) in the U.S. after 9/11, and when I look at memoirs like Cotton Joe Eddy's Hobo (2002) and Werner Herzog's Of Walking in Ice (1974) I wonder if these type of open road, on-foot explorations of the world are even possible in a post-9/11 world. (To be fair, Herzog does encounter some police on his mid-70s on-foot journey from Munich to Paris, and I haven't yet finished Hobo.) Serial killers still exist, but with the advent of high technology to track and capture them, the more fashionable (and pragmatic) thing to do is for people to be mass shooters and terrorists who go out in a blaze of glory along with their victims; can you imagine a killer like The Zodiac getting away with he did in this day and age? 

But I think we need to be careful basking in the sunshine of a perceived greatest-overall-prosperity-ever-in-human history mentality. There is still massive income inequality, social injustice, economic injustice, widespread suffering and tragedy, and we are teetering on the brink of converging global crises: overpopulation, global warming, resource wars, mass extinction, environmental pollution and destruction, fiscal instability, war, and, as always, X-factors of things we cannot possibly see coming. In the words of the band Godflesh, it may very well be a "New Dark Ages." 

* This may seem like a petty example, and these monitors have sometimes caught baby sitters doing harm to children, but if you include the movement to make even the dullest of household appliances a "smart" appliance -- thus vulnerable to hacking, spying, and abusive use -- you get an Orwellian situation. Note the recent rise of Amazon's Alexa home robot, who does everything from play songs to dim lights, and who, if asked whether "she" is connected to the CIA, will remain silent.
** We could easily employ a term such as "peak water," just like "peak oil," to describe the tipping point that has been reached wherein water -- or any resource that's been exploited and/or polluted via global capitalism -- is no longer an easily-attained necessity to be taken for granted.
*** I was born during the Vietnam War and have lived through the Cold War, multiple Middle East wars, the ongoing and indefinite (and profitable) War on Terror, as well as goofy things like the War on Drugs.