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Davis, California

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Column: U.S. Bank direct action

In Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, gangster Mack the Knife pleads his case to the audience, asking, “What is burgling a bank compared to founding a bank?” When weighed next to the massive expropriations perpetrated by the banking industry, Mack suggests, a few pilfered cash boxes are insignificant.

Yet, as we have seen time and time again, outrage stands in inverse proportion to the scale of the crime.

It should come as no surprise, then, that when protesters staged sit-ins at U.S. Bank, bystanders immediately complained they were an awful inconvenience. By preventing people from accessing their full range of financial services, they argued, the protesters horribly alienated the student body.

These naysayers fail to see the bigger picture. As tuition rises, students are forced to supplement their already massive student loans (now over $1 trillion nationwide) with additional debt. That’s where U.S. Bank steps in, with its wide array of credit cards.

According to a Sallie Mae study, one-third of undergraduates will put tuition on a credit card. And, of course, student indebtedness spiked after the financial crisis: In 2004, 69 percent of graduating seniors had paid off their credit cards but, by 2009, that number dropped to a mere 15 percent. The average senior will leave owing $4,100 on their cards.

Burdened with debt and facing grim job prospects, this generation of students goes forth into a bleak future.

But, there’s money to be made for the top one percent! Seeing our misery as a business opportunity, UC Davis struck a sweet deal with U.S. Bank. Now UC Davis gets a royalty for every new university account the bank opens and, in return, U.S. Bank receives perks like free advertising, exclusive access to campus events and space on our AggieCards. After 10 years, UC Davis hopes to bring in nearly $3 million from the program.

It’s a win-win for administrators and bankers, who both go home with loads of cash from impoverished students.

So, U.S. Bank exploits students through exorbitant interests on their tuition payments and everyday expenses, profiting off economic ruin, and that’s just ducky. But, if student protesters delay a bank customer for an hour, by God, we should get our ire up. The nerve of some people!

It’s a very old argument. Any action a social movement undertakes will be criticized as annoying, disruptive and rude. For many, the right to go about one’s daily business speedily and undisturbed is more sacred than the right to economic security and justice.

Whenever there is a strike, we’re told it frustrates the public. Whenever there’s a demonstration, it’s said to hinder traffic and commerce. Whenever an activist delivers an impassioned speech, the critics demand they tone it down so as not to offend the moderate and the apathetic.

But protests always bother someone. I imagine that many busy individuals had to readjust their schedules when civil rights activists occupied Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, or when Egyptians took back Tahrir Square. Luckily, protesters passed over these minor concerns and dealt with more pressing matters.

This tired complaint is usually followed by a bit of meta-criticism: How does this help get protesters’ message across? If I don’t understand what is happening, the argument goes, then nobody will.

It could very well be true that Occupy UC Davis needs more explanatory literature for the uninformed. They have offered countless teach-ins and discussions to explain their position, including at the initial U.S. Bank occupation, but they might not have reached out to all passersby.

Nevertheless, this critique betrays a misunderstanding about the purpose of direct action. Occupying a bank is not a form of outreach or a publicity stunt. The primary goal of the action isn’t to raise awareness among students, because students have no say in what U.S. Bank does. Even if campus opinion was squarely against the bank, it wouldn’t make a difference as long as no one acted.

The only opinion that matters to U.S. Bank is that of its shareholders and the only thing shareholders care about is their bottom line. The occupation strikes at the bank’s profits, forcing them to pay attention to the protest’s demand: banks off campus.

Certainly, the Occupy movement should hold every direct action up to careful, collective scrutiny. Some forms of protest are counterproductive or politically retrograde. But, when they do, they would do well to ignore the idle carping of complacent onlookers.

JORDAN S. CARROLL is a PhD student in English. He can be reached at jscarroll@ucdavis.edu.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Jordan Carroll–who died and made you king? Just because you are yelling the loudest and enjoying this newfound publicity does not mean people agree with your radical views. You don’t speak for students, faculty or staff here. YOur 15 minutes is over.

  2. Dear Mr. Madison,

    I disagree with the idea that these decisions are made freely by students. A college diploma is a necessity required to compete for what few middle-class jobs there are, and it’s becoming increasingly expensive. The numbers show that rising credit card debt and student loans correlate with the great recession and the inflating tuition bubble. This debt, then, is not a matter of individual choice: it’s a desperate reaction to the crisis. One could argue that students are free to drop out of universities when their tuition outstrips financial aid, free to go out and face an even more difficult job market than if they had completed school, free to try their luck at a downwardly mobile, lower paying position. Or that students are free to take out high interest loans that will enchain them to the banks for the rest of their lives. But this is an impoverished notion of freedom. Students would be genuinely free if they could make decisions about their education without onerous financial constraints imposed by administrators and banks.

    US Bank clearly thinks that its presence on campus brings it more business, along with all the exclusive privileges and perqs doled out by the university. Would the bank bother having a branch here if it didn’t?

    Regardless, it’s not just a matter of the bank: the university has made a deal with the debt industry without our consent. UC Davis, as a public institution, shouldn’t exploit its position to funnel profits into a private bank. It’s true that students will probably go down the street to find another bank, which will give equally grievous loans, but that doesn’t mean that we should allow our university to be complicit in it.

    JC

    • Mr. Carroll –

      I see your point, however, you brought up many new issues in your response while only briefly responding to the one I concentrated on; that of students have the free will and intelligence to shop for loans. I’m not sure what you suggest as an alternative here. Would it be an option where a certain financial institution, whom which the student body deems acceptable, be the mandatory loan provider? Or are you expressing outcry against the idea of loans themselves, especially to pay for education? I believe you fall behind the latter, and will address that response and skip the former.
      Higher education is a privilege to those who partake in it. Its main purpose is to educate those enrolled so that they provide some quantifiable positive addition to the economy, be it both state and federal (I’m referring to state funded universities/colleges with this comment). This privilege is provided to those who are bright enough to use it to succeed and contribute after they finish, at a price. Since we live in a capitalistic society, this service (a term which I will use to describe the post-GED/diploma education from here on out) comes at a price, for which each and every university is in competition to provide this service to the prospective students. The stronger the caliber of the university, the stronger the ‘weight’ of the degree, the more opportunities at the campus (a direct correlation between tuition at either vocational schools or universities and student services/activities is seen). Therefore, as demand becomes greater for this education, and as the quality of education always improves, the price inevitably cannot remain constant. By implying that higher education is ‘too expensive’ and that the loans required to take them out are too high, you are essentially asking for a price ceiling on higher education tuition/fees. I believe I don’t have to lecture you on the negative ramifications of price ceilings on such an important sector of our economy.
      Tuition (be it loans, hard earned money, parent’s money, ect.) should be considered an investment by each student in themselves. This investment should be made with the consideration that the career they achieve afterwards must provide them with a consistent salary so as to pay off the loans after graduation, along with adequate living expenses. Choosing the proper school is like setting up a complex set of equations that must be optimized for maximum financial and personal gain. If John Smith is interested in majoring in Randomology, he must first look at the tuition costs at schools, loans options, and then furthermore the average salaries upon graduation. If Randomology jobs are very hard to come by and have little salary, then a school at which tuition is high (lets assume because the faculty are top notch and the program is esteemed) is a poor choice in terms of personal investment. I would argue that many students, especially in the state school systems, do not optimize this equation for themselves and use higher education (read college) as an experimental phase. This is not an unacceptable choice, however, it is unacceptable that taxpayers should pay for this grazing period.

      Now, notice nowhere in this breakdown did I mention the 1%, people with careers who pay taxes, and other residents, or that higher education is a right. Many arguments made by Occupiers is that tuition for their education should be provided by taxes, or someone else, or ‘the rich’. Firstly, it is not any other citizen’s responsibility (maybe your parents’) to bankroll another’s education simply because they have more money. Secondly, let’s return to my concept of this personal investment equation. You can see that the equation for determining a school, loan choices, career, and future prospects, is complex for just a single person. If you attempt to incorporate into that equation the interests of taxpayers to bankroll education for every individual, you infinitely complex the prediction ability of that model and it becomes impossible to determine. Basically, my point with all of this jabber is that higher education is a privilege, and it should not be subsidized by taxpayers, nor should it be considered a ‘right’ in a free market state such as the USA. There is zero accountability of students to re-invest in the taxpayers who might fund their education. There exists some correlation between return on investment of funding science/engineering programs (this leads to many large tech/engineering/science startups which provide countless jobs) but not so much for the other disciplines. Therefore, to be fair to all students, tuition should not be completely subsidized by taxpayers. Not to mention it’s an excellent life lesson for student’s to experience the rewards of hard work in their own personal investments (themselves). Students already have access to numerous forms of financial aid that are taxpayer funded, and yet they clamor for more. Seems quite greedy to me.

      Cue your citing Sweden or Canada or some other socialist country’s educational system.

      JM

      • “Therefore, as demand becomes greater for this education, and as the quality of education always improves, the price inevitably cannot remain constant.”

        This economic analysis has no tether to the facts. Neither demand nor quality of education changed much in the past five years and yet tuition has nearly doubled at UC Davis. It’s obvious that the tuition increases aren’t caused by the market – they’re the result of a combination of state defunding and administrative expansion.

        Moreover, the ballooning cost of education isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Tuition nationwide is going up. So, even if graduating high schoolers did somehow calculate their future earnings and weigh them against the costs, they would still have no choice but to pay more money than the previous class of students for the same or lesser education. (Oddly enough, as tuition increases, more classes are taught by low-paid, overworked adjuncts and grad students. Funny that.)

        Not to mention the fact that tuition increases often occur once students are already enrolled. There’s no way for our rational actors to foresee the Regents’ latest price hike.

        Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for someone with a high school diploma is 8.7 percent while the unemployment rate for someone with a Bachelor’s is 4.1 percent. (I would not be surprised if this was higher for someone in their teens or twenties.)

        The choice, then, is predetermined in advance. Those who can should go to college, and those who go to college will pay more, and many of those who pay more will be forced to pay with loans, including those offered by US Bank.

        As for the taxpayer, all students pay taxes, so I’m not sure where this imaginary antagonism would come from. Either way, I believe that paying for a student to learn genetics, psychology, or Chaucer for four years would be a more worthy use of the fictitious taxpayer’s money than a predator drone or a bank bailout.

  3. Mr. Carroll
    I fail to see how US Bank is the culprit in the issue of students taking out credit cards to pay off loans and/or tuition. You make the grand assumption in your argument that students have no other choices, as if walking downtown 5 minutes away is a terrible inconvenience to students trying to determine ways to pay thousands of dollars. Surely, students will automatically take the nearest option and do no research into the loan options they have with other banks, and just accept US Bank’s. This is naive and terribly immature to blame a bank for offering credit cards. You would have a point if the banks forced all students to open accounts and or loans, but this is not the case by any means. Your argument is weak in support of these protesters. Students are free individuals of this country, and have the liberty to make adult decisions about financial issues they have. US Bank provides an option, not a demand. Give it a rest.

    JM

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