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First-Year Seminar (101-6-22)


Politics of Debt


Stephen C Nelson
847 4912589
601 University Place # 238
Office Hours:

Meeting Info

University Library 4770: Tues, Thurs 2:00PM - 3:20PM

Overview of class

It is reasonable to assume that most of us owe (or will at some point owe) money to creditors from whom we've borrowed funds. Debt is a pervasive feature of financial life in the United States: many people have outstanding (and sometimes large) debts in the form of student loans, credit card bills, open lines of credit with banks, or home mortgages. The U.S. government has also built up an impressively large debt load over the past seventy years. (Currently topping $28 trillion, or around 130% of total U.S. gross domestic product. Which is to say: the U.S. federal government owes a lot of money to a lot of creditors.) But while debt touches most people's lives in some fashion, the complex history and politics of modern debtor-lender relations remains, for most, essentially unknown territory. The central purpose of this course, then, is to deepen our understanding of how we got to this point. How did debt - both private and public - swell to current levels? How were markets for debt built? What were the politics of some key turning points in the history of US government debt? How do gendered and racialized differences in the terms of access to credit produce and reinforce social inequalities? When do debt markets break down and how do societies recover from debt crises? Under what conditions are debts honored and when can (and should) debt contracts be repudiated? Should we be worried about the big increases in many countries' debt loads in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Learning Objectives

  • Deepen their understanding of the political history of American and global markets for debt;

  • Better understand how legal and social inequalities govern access to credit;

  • Work with different theoretical perspectives on finance and debt market regulation;

  • Delve into the details of the debt-fueled 2007-10 crisis in the American financial system (and subsequent spread of the financial crisis to the rest of the world);

  • Improve their abilities to use analytical frameworks and empirical evidence when talking and writing about important debates in this issue area;

  • Build and sharpen their social scientific research and writing skills.

Teaching Method

Discussion-based seminar with some lectures

Evaluation Method

Seminar participation: 25%
Three shorter papers (5, 10, 20%): 35%
Final paper: 40%

Class Materials (Required)


Class Attributes

WCAS First-Year Seminar

Enrollment Requirements

Enrollment Requirements: Reserved for First Year & Sophomore only