On Cancellation of Student Debt

By JT Haines — November 21, 2020

Student loan debt cancellation is a good idea, and we should do it. There’s too much of it, we’re in an economic crisis which is exacerbated by a global pandemic, and most importantly, it would really help people. Though we might also want to pump the brakes on the whole “you’re an asshole” thing if you have additional feelings about it, especially vis a vis those who have already paid their debt off. Hear me out.

First it should be said that, for most, having student loan debt isn’t really as much of a “choice” as it is the product of a system that has been bearing down on people for decades. The growing student loan debt burden in this country is compounded by a predatory lending system, an increasingly burdensome (for students) approach to higher education, and an economic system that is failing young people more and more just in general. As usual, this is especially true for Black people, who, according to Harpers Magazine (“Skin in the Game,” December 2020) “owe on average nearly 50% more in loans than their white peers.”

And the fact that we casually, with little debate, suspend fiscal “rules” to spend trillions on corporate economic bailouts and foreign wars is all the more reason to act boldly and urgently on student debt in the face of multiple interconnected crises.

But if we can help it, I also don’t think it’s a good idea to completely discount the people who’ve already paid off their debt — often as a function of privilege, yes, but also sometimes at great personal effort. Some folks, I’m sure, have prioritized student loan payments over things like buying a car, or a house, or even starting a family, and may rightly feel some personal sense of achievement in having done so.

I don’t know how many of those folks there are in the grand scheme of crushing debt in this country, but I do know they exist. And some may even have some feelings about it.

At this point, I’m guessing we need to address whether this is all just a thinly veiled assertation of my own feelings, or whether I myself have debt. So I’ll just tell you, yes, I do still have student debt, around $20,000. So does my spouse. Most of mine is from a public university, and I’ve been paying on it — sometimes quickly, sometimes not at all (depending on my employment status) — since 2000. Cancellation of any part of that debt would be welcome news, and would have a meaningful impact on our finances.

The fact that I still have debt though is, in my case, also the product of choice. In the face of a job market that I’ve always approached with a certain level of suspicion, I have typically prioritized savings (and employment flexibility) over paying down loans. And, having observed the growing bubble of now over $1.6T in student loan debt nationwide, I’ve also often wondered if we might see some changes to monetary policy that could impact my situation. And I’ll be very honest, that hasn’t not figured into my choices.

There is privilege in that as well. How many of us with student loans have the luxury of actually choosing how to approach it from a strictly fiscal perspective? I am aware of this. And maybe that’s a good enough reason to downplay my own choices in the larger conversation.

I also wonder though — do we really want to exclude from this conversation those who have made different and possibly very hard choices in the paying off of their own debts? Especially in light of the uncertainty about government policy which we can now assume is a factor we all should’ve been considering all along? I mean, maybe a lot of folks are focused only on the go forward, and good for them, but is it fair to demand this level of goodwill from this subset of people only?

All of which is to say, if we’re going to bail out student loan havers in any form, I think it would be fair to also include in consideration those who have — perhaps at great effort — paid off their own debt in the relatively recent past. Maybe such an inclusion applies to loans acquired and paid off in the past 20 years. Maybe it’s pro-rated in some way, or subject to certain requirements, or heck, even optional. Maybe it’s simple, or probably it’s not.

Either way, one thing we minimally shouldn’t do is call those people assholes for having thoughts about something that may have been dominating their personal financial choices for decades.

So, yes, let’s move forward with student deb relief. We’ve made a big mess, and there are all sorts of reasons to address it now. But perhaps we can also include in the conversation not only payoff date, but acquisition date too.

Finally, and as long as we’re having opinions about this, I think we can also be prepared to discount opposition from anyone who went to public university for $400 in the 60’s. Thanks for reading.

JT Haines holds a JD from the University of Virginia and a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School, with an emphasis on economics. He taught cost-benefit analysis as an assistant for economics Prof. John Brandl (1937-2008).

Mount Polley and PolyMet: What happened in Canada must not happen here

By JT Haines, Bridget Holcomb and Libby Bent | 02/26/18

Final permit decisions on PolyMet’s proposed NorthMet Mining Project are approaching, and for all the celebration of the process by politicians and company promoters here in Minnesota, we have grave concerns. We bring this message from Duluth, where we live downstream of the proposed PolyMet mine.

Last week we welcomed a delegation from Amnesty International to discuss their experience with a British Columbia copper sulfide mine upstream of their own communities. This is a group that has heard it all before: promises of safety from mining companies, claims of new technology that isn’t, guarantees of zero discharge, and assurances from government officials that it will all be fine.

Unfortunately, in 2014, the dam upstream of them collapsed, sending toxic water and tailings into nearby Quesnel Lake, effectively turning the pristine lake into a waste pit. The Mount Polley dam breach is the worst environmental disaster in Canadian history, and it is ongoing.

Local people who drank straight from the lake now drink bottled water out of fear of cancer, miscarriages, and neurological disorders. Indigenous communities are currently sitting out their fourth consecutive salmon season, a resource as important to them as wild rice is here. These downstream communities have seen no justice.

Troubling similarities

JT Haines

While this is a Canadian story, we are shaken by the similarities. The companies promised safety, but at every turn have promoted their bottom line over best practices and best technology. Government officials repeated assurances of a rigorous environmental process, but have granted continuous exceptions and variances to the company. Unbelievably, downstream communities, including indigenous communities, were not consulted on emergency response planning.

The Amnesty delegation urges us to avoid blind faith in regulatory regimes that are conflicted in mission, limited in scope, lax in enforcement, subject to regulatory capture, and which have yet to protect surrounding waters from this particularly toxic industry. British Columbians believed in their process, and that trust was shattered.

Bridget Holcomb

Here in Minnesota, PolyMet has said that the comparison between its proposal and Mount Polley is unfair, citing that the slope on its proposed tailings dam would be less steep. The Mount Polley dam failure, however, was not attributed to the steepness of the slope, but to an unstable foundation. If permitted, the PolyMet dam would be built on unstable taconite tailings on top of a wetland, at a height of nearly twice that of Mount Polley, with an upstream wet tailings design. DNR’s own consultants have pointed out the similarities. PolyMet officials either did not read the Mount Polley Independent Expert Investigation and Review Report, or they are trying to deceive Minnesotans.

Libby Bent

You might ask, where are our elected officials? Despite the clear importance to her city, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson has so far declined to publicly assert our stake in this matter. (Notably, neighboring Carlton City passed a resolution last week expressing its stake and requesting a moratorium on sulfide mining in Minnesota until a 20-year record of safety is shown.) Gov. Mark Dayton has made baffling statements that oppose sulfide mining as too dangerous for the Boundary Waters but are generally supportive of it where Duluth and Lake Superior would be at risk. Our own Rep. Rick Nolan has promoted legislation that would force a land swap to allow mining on federal lands, limit environmental review of copper sulfide mine proposals, and stop scientific study of the cumulative effects of copper sulfide mining in northern Minnesota.

For their part, the Minnesota Legislature and DNR seem unclear between them whose job it is to actually decide if this is a good or bad idea for Minnesota. Sadly, our own confidence in our elected officials and government is in jeopardy.

Driving a wedge between us

We appreciate that the boom and bust cycles on the Iron Range make the promise of new mining jobs attractive. PolyMet is capitalizing on this and dividing all of us who live in northern Minnesota by playing to emotions of trust and heritage. It is painful to see a foreign corporation drive a wedge between us, despite our shared values, and obscure the facts on which this decision should be based.

This is what PolyMet does not want us to know:

The record of sulfide mining is abysmal. Worldwide, the industry has failed and failed again to store its waste, and has left a legacy of rivers devoid of life from mining waste settling into riverbeds, ensuring that toxic heavy metals will continue to prevent life for centuries. While we may want to believe we have stronger oversight and regulations, performance in the US is horrid. According to the U.S. Forest Service 2016 study, 100 percent of sulfide mines have had spills, and 28 percent have, like Mount Polley, had outright dam failures. A 2017 U.N. report shows that catastrophic spills are actually increasing, as mining companies seek to lower costs and increase profits.

Glencore, PolyMet’s main investor, has a history of broken promises and abuse of union workers and communities across the globe. Worldwide this industry is replacing workers with robots. This is not how we continue Minnesota’s proud union tradition.

At the recent public hearing in Duluth, several PolyMet supporters borrowed a well-worn talking point and tried to shame opponents for using copper in cellphones and cars. Rarely included with such statements is the fact that we Americans throw away more copper every year than the proposed PolyMet mine would produce. To those who are truly concerned about how much copper is being used by consumers: Copper is infinitely recyclable and in abundant supply, and recycling creates jobs and reduces carbon emissions.

Our truly precious resource

The truly precious resource we have in northern Minnesota is our freshwater complex, which includes the headwaters of Lake Superior and 10 percent of the world’s supply of fresh surface water.

It is too late for Mount Polley, and we stand in solidarity with our Canadian friends as they fight for reparations for the unmeasurable harm caused to them.

It is not too late for us. It is not too late to protect northern Minnesota from a catastrophic, irreversible decision that does not have the consent of downstream communities.

The DNR is now accepting comments on the draft permit to mine for PolyMet. Please comment before March 6, and tell the DNR, elected officials, and candidates around the state that this proposal is simply too risky for Minnesota and for Lake Superior.

PolyMet has divided us for too long. It is time for Minnesota to act, and to identify a better option. We stand ready to support leadership that would unify us around true economic development that celebrates our history without risking our future.

JT Haines, Bridget Holcomb, and Libby Bent are residents of Duluth and members of the group Duluth for Clean Water, which welcomed a delegation from Amnesty International to Duluth on Feb. 12 and 13.

This piece also appeared in MinnPost on February 23, 2018.

Labor Day Message: Another World is Possible

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 7.38.37 AM

By Thom Haines — September 5, 2016

Happy Labor Day in the U.S.! Another World is Possible! Proud to be an AFSCME member!

International labor solidarity is a key component to realizing another world where people and the environment are more highly valued than profit. A vibrant labor movement in the United States acting in solidarity with workers around the world will create a politically effective force that has the power to change an exploitive system supported by the armed forces and military aid of the United States and other Global North countries.

Honduras is an especially clear example of what is wrong with the current system and what is needed to fix it. The Human Rights Delegation to Honduras Report — released last week by the Alliance for Global Justice, CODEPINK, and the Honduras Solidarity Network — helps us connect the dots. Abusive labor practices, militarization of police forces in the name of fighting drugs or communism or terrorism, killing journalists, killing union organizers, killing environmental activists like Berta Cáceres, trade deals like NAFTA, CAFTA, and the TPP, and knee jerk nationalism are all components of the same problem.

The global economic system does not want to change and will not until forced. In the United States, in spite of some hopeful signs such as the Sanders campaign and Black Lives Matter, we must admit that we have not yet achieved a politically effective force to change the world. While organized labor may be weaker than it has been, rebuilding the labor movement is possible and offers hope.

At a Keith Ellison Labor Day rally in Minneapolis on Sunday, Sen. Al Franken expressed pride in belonging to three unions. I’m only a member of one, but I am proud to be in solidarity with other AFSCME members. In the coming years, it is my fervent hope that unions grow and that we see beyond the next contract to the possibility of international solidarity. Another world is possible.

Thom Haines is an Assistant County Attorney in Minnesota, where he serves on the Minnesota State Bar Association Data Practices Committee. He is a member of the boards of the United Church of Christ Wider Church Ministries, the Mayflower Church Foundation in Minneapolis, and G Project, a 501(c)(3) supporting human rights story-telling in Guatemala. Thom is a former Teamster and CWA member, and current member of AFSCME Council 65.

Minnesota’s Snowbate: A View from the Indie Side

January 26, 2015, at KFAI studios with TruthtoTell

January 26, 2015, at KFAI studios with TruthtoTell

By JT Haines — February 18, 2015

Did you know that filmmaking in Minnesota is a $225 million dollar industry? Me neither, and I’m a filmmaker!

On January 26, I appeared on KFAI Radio’s TruthtoTell program with Siobhan Kierans as a local filmmaker to discuss moviemaking in Minnesota. Appearing on the program also were Ralph Matthews (Family Film Productions), and Lucinda Winter (MN Film Board). A few things stuck with me from our conversation, so I thought i’d follow up with some comments here.



First a little background about my company, Northland Films: We’re a three-producer collective and have been producing documentaries in and near Minnesota for about a decade. Our film Pond Hockey (2008) has been seen by nearly two million people, airing nationally on the NHL network, locally on TPT, and to multiple sold-out screenings at the Minneapolis Saint Paul Int’l Film Festival (among others). Gold Fever (2013), a film about transnational sulfide mining the Yes Men called “beautiful and empowering”, has been screened in over 200 cities in 35 countries. Gold Fever is still screening at festivals internationally (also having screened at MSPIFF), and recently won the International Federation of Human Rights Film Award at the Festival des Libertes in Brussels. We’re proud of our work.

As we continued our discussion of Minnesota’s film industry on TruthtoTell, talk turned to the MN Film and TV Board’s “snowbate” program. According to the website, the program rebates “up to 25% of qualified MN expenditures.” It states further: “above the line talent (non-resident) will be included as an eligible rebate cost (cap $100K per person), and a production that spends more than $1M in MN will automatically qualify at 25% and will be audited by an independent auditor paid for by MN Film and TV.” Snowbate guidelines can be found here.

I began to wonder — we’re local filmmakers with (I think) a relative level of success and experience, has any of this related to our work? We’ve not been a part of the Snowbate program to date. (We have of course applied for the limited number of grants that most everyone targets.) Perhaps Snowbate is a successful program towards its designed ends, but institutional support for our projects has been near zero, with most help being of the “friends and family” variety (thanks, gang!).

It has been a few years since we took a fresh look at Snowbate, but that said (and with no offense intended to the Film Board or Ms. Winter), so far it just hasn’t connected with our real-life local filmmaking realities. We’re a small shop, wearing a lot of hats, and we’re generally too busy trying to tell stories to get fully down with the types of reporting and guidelines that generally accompany larger projects. Indeed, our budgets start in the low six figures. It would be quite the project to even make it half way to $1M. In other words, our documentaries move forward by hook or crook, and in my observation this isn’t unusual. The Snowbate numbers are someone else’s game.

Perhaps it’s time for us to revisit whether we’re doing a good enough job as filmmakers in reaching out to programs like Snowbate. But it also seems possible, based on what we heard on TruthtoTell and elsewhere, that we’re also not being reached out to, and rather that programs like snowbate are actually designed to bring in big, well-heeled projects from outside of Minnesota, not support independent filmmaking in Minnesota like ours. (I understand that of the 70 applications to the Snowbate program over the last two years, two were docs.) If I’m wrong about this, that would be happy news to me.

I checked with Ralph Matthews for his thoughts, the other filmmaker on the show, and he seemed to share my question. “It’s been my interpretation, and one that I’ve heard echoed by many, that Snowbate’s goal is one to attract more out-of-state productions rather than aiding local productions wanting to focus on and employ MN talent,” he told me. He went on to add that “although most of us love living and working here, it becomes difficult not to question what our gains are to stay in Minnesota versus moving elsewhere.” I’ve heard similar thoughts from other local filmmakers, who have also shared with me some details about a bit of a split between Minnesota-based crew who benefit from outside projects coming in and those more focused on actually local projects.

Given all this, I began to wish I’d posed the question on the show: To what degree is Snowbate designed to support local filmmaking? And more generally, how are we doing for Minnesota filmmakers? The runners, gunners, writers, and producers. The people learning how to edit while they also learn how to shoot, put together a budget, and market. The people with a vision and a commitment to telling our stories. Should existing programs be aligned more closely with their realities?

I’ve reached out to Ms. Winter to see if she’d like to follow up with further insight — perhaps on ways Snowbate could be improved or even feedback on how local projects might be able to better and more easily make use of it. (I’ll be sure to publish her response as an update should I receive one.)

In the meantime, we work on films in Minnesota because we’re Minnesotans, and so far, right or wrong, programs like Snowbate haven’t had much to do with that. Obviously as a local filmmaker — but also as someone who takes note if public programs favor big business over small — I think it’d be great if Snowbate better aligned with the real business of local filmmaking as we experience it. Institutional support with this goal would certainly help us tell even more and better stories here at home.

And we do have a few ideas.

** Thanks to the illustrious Siobhan Kierans and KFAI’s TruthtoTell for having me on. You can hear the hour-long January 26 program here.


“The Shadow of Crisis Has Passed”: Reflecting on the 2015 State of the Union

President Obama, VP Biden, Speaker Boehner, SOTU 2015

President Obama, VP Biden, Speaker Boehner, SOTU 2015

By JT Haines — January 23, 2015

For many, the President’s State of the Union address this year was a bit of a feel good romp. (“Where has this been for 6 years?” and etc.) Some have argued that, to the degree this year’s SOTU was improved, it has more to do with political calculations than Obama himself, but that said, he did offer more in this address than any SOTU I can remember, with a couple of potshots at the troglodytes to boot. Let’s take a look at some of what the address did, and didn’t include.


Here are three of the better excerpts:

Money: “To everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”

War: “The question is not whether America leads in the world, but how. When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military – then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world.”

Climate: “2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does – 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century…The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.” (emphasis mine)

The President of the United States saying these things out loud is a progress of sorts to be recognized. A full transcript of the address is available at NPR.


Not surprisingly, the address also glossed over some pretty key facts and context. Here are a few of the more important facts that I believe were not properly represented in the address:

Incarceration. With 2.2 million people in jail, the United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate. (Highest!) [Harvard Mag] Incarcerated drug offenders are up 1200% since 1980, and 75% of prisoners locked up on drug-related charges are African-American. In his book “Blowing the Roof Off the 21st Century,” Robert W. McChesney makes a compelling case that these developments are due in significant part to economic forces, including the increasing privatization of prisons. This is plainly immoral, and key information to include when one is boasting about crime rates. #NotInSOTU.

Inequality. Income inequality in the US is at its worst since 1928. [Pew Research] The top 1% of the world’s population owns at least 40% of its wealth. [Vox] This was #NotInSOTU.

Military Spending. The US spends more on the military than the next 10 countries combined [NBC], outlays which are increasingly privatized. We have military bases and operations all over the globe. We are an empire. #NotInSOTU

Planet. We have lost half of our wildlife on this planet in just 40 years due to human exploitation and habitat degradation, threatening all life on this planet. [World Wildlife Fund] This unbelievable and urgent development, tied directly to our economic system, was #NotInSOTU. Not remotely.

These are just a few examples of crucial topics I did not hear honestly addressed in the SOTU. We also heard very little if anything about drone killings, infringements on civil liberties, police brutality, and the absolute urgency and reasonability of the demands of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. (For more of what wasn’t in the address, check out Seattle City Council Person Kshama Sawant’s “Socialist Response to the State of the Union” and Ralph Nader’s “Swings and Misses“.)


There was value in the President’s 2015 SOTU, and we should both appreciate his inclusion of certain matters as well as demand action to accompany the words. Obviously, even in the best of times with the best of intentions, it would be impossible and perhaps even unwise for the President to take up all subjects of concern during the State of the Union address.

We must also, though, have our eyes wide open. A mere two days after Obama declared ”The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong,” the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and its 17 nobel laureates moved the Doomsday Clock 2 minutes closer to midnight, citing climate change and nuclear proliferation. [CNN] That clock now sits at 11:57.

I wonder if those guys were watching the same speech we were.