Student debt cancelation is subject to a devilish two-pronged attack that might give it eternal life. Our $1.7 trillion in student loan debt is destined to be the Dracula of American politics.
On one side stand generally well-meaning (mostly white) liberals who probably won't understand the nature of our political moment until they're against the wall, sobbing and choking on their mucus. These libs deal in good faith and want to take an X-Acto knife to every one of society's most deep-rooted, vexing problems. They want to means test shit out of existence, including the crushing student debt that has all but ruined a generation forced into college classrooms. Americans should be relieved of student debt, they say, but any program designed to provide that relief must not offer a shred of help to anyone who can afford store brand beans and four gallons of gas per week.
On the other side stand right wingers who talk a good populist game – Silicon Valley elites are censoring your Holocaust denial memes, things of that nature – but have absolutely no intention of pursuing a populist agenda. They are self-admitted actors and actresses playing the bad-faith politics game to perfection. Knowing their far-right base won't swallow the traditional conservative bullshit economic message the Republican Party peddled for half a century, this new breed of conservatives attack student debt cancelation by knowingly lying about who will benefit from debt relief. The working man won't see a dime of that money, they rage. Only college graduate elites will reap the benefits of the insidious left-wing scam to undo college loan debt. Force the libs to pay their loans forever. They must be owned.
It's just another government handout to the rich and powerful, the right bawls. And who can blame them in a nation that gives $1 million in emergency COVID relief funds to Tom Brady (net worth: $500 million)? It's terribly believable.
The result of this double-sided assault on efforts to cancel student debt is a population with no understand of whose lives would be made materially better with the stroke of the president's pen. Like every major political issue, there is no truth, no reality through which one can form an opinion. Would canceling college loan debt be best for the racial and ethnic minorities I hate? For the rich bastards I loathe? The libs with their fancy degrees and their mortgages and their Volkswagen SUVs? Who's gonna benefit from this, because it sure as hell can't be me and mine.
Good faith has melded with bad faith in the student debt discourse to make a fucking disgusting political cocktail that guarantees inaction on one of the most critical economic issues in our crumbling empire. In the meantime, it serves as high-grade jet fuel for our fascist moment, breeding the sort of economic resentment that hardens into fear and hatred.
The Means Testers Have Inherited The Earth
I know a little bit about the good-faith student debt crusaders. About a decade ago, I worked for them in Washington, D.C.
I was in the communications department of an organization dedicated to making college education more affordable amid brain-melting rises in higher education costs across the United States. These folks' hearts were in the right place. They wanted nothing more than to halt the exponential rise in college costs and help create a higher education system in which someone could earn a degree without taking out loans they would be paying down for the rest of their time on this mortal coil. I joined meeting after meeting (after meeting after meeting) where organization officials hammered out talking points that would change the college loan discourse years after the lending floodgates had opened and thrown a seven-ton anchor around the necks of young people doing what they had been told to do: Get a college degree and advance oneself in the workplace.
But when student debt cancelation came up, these folks would instantly shift from idealists to the most skeptical cynics. Any proposal made by a member of Congress that would rid Americans of student debt was instantly thrown on the trash heap if such an effort would conceivably help a rich kid, or even a comfortable middle class kid. No help for the teen driving a new car. No help for the kid with new golf clubs.
Such a stance betrays a lack of political savvy. More bluntly: It makes you kind of a dumbass. Liberals cry about issues that "shouldn't be political": Abortion, guns, education, fair and free elections. You know, things that are inherently and entirely political. The same goes for student loan debt. The solution shouldn't be political, my colleagues at the student financial aid group said, flummoxed that college debt had become a fiercely debated partisan issue. It shouldn't be political so we won't treat it as one, they decided. Theirs was a terminal case of West Wing brain.
Going their route – pinpointing the neediest Americans with low incomes, particularly folks of color – is a road to either nowhere or to hell. It's a perfect formula to create a resentful, distrustful populace in a country that is still dominated by white voters bursting with rage and resentment.
The only successful government program is a universal program, or something close to it. Canceling student debt must apply to everyone or it will never apply to anyone. This is a political reality in a country where everyone hates and distrusts each other, where everyone is competition, where it's always you or me in a zero sum game. Liberals' failure to embrace universal student loan debt cancelation is a devastating missed opportunity to improve the economic prospects of an entire generation with a politically popular policy.
The Biden administration has taken the X-Acto Knife approach to student debt relief, canceling more than $9 billion in college loan debt for Americans who were defrauded by criminal for-profit colleges that thrived in the early 2000s and those who have been deemed by the federal government as permanently disabled. Good for them. It's not nothing. But it's close to nothing considering the eye-watering $1.7 trillion student debt price tag.
The left has to fight the horrid impulse "to tinker at the edges of the quicksand drowning many of their core constituents," Tressie McMillan Cottom, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, wrote in a recent New York Times column.
College loan debt certainly hurts black Americans more than any other group, but the graph below shows the universality of dealing with bone-crushing student debt. We are (somewhat) equal in our misery. Perversely, that's a good thing. It means a real solution would be widely desired.
McMillan Cottom dismissed the bad-faith pearl clutching that comes along with suggestions that Americans should be relieved of their life-destroying college loan debt. This, McMillan Cottom said, has nothing to do with personal responsibility. In fact, people took responsibility for their futures when they followed the shitty advice of their misguided parents and high school counselors and advisors and sought a degree at any cost. They did what they were told to do, what they thought was right.
Those are worries of an out-of-touch chattering class. No one drank enough beer in college for the last 30 years to deserve a student loan balance that increases even as the debtor attempts to pay down the principal. The message that some people don’t deserve debt relief is a politics of grievance. If you cannot craft a political message that acknowledges that we turned the greatest vehicle of social mobility into a debt machine, then you are not good at messaging. This is the right message: We messed up. Our bad. Make it right. Cancel the debt.
The debt young people absorbed during their college years has utterly negated the benefits of a college degree, McMillan Cottom wrote. "This debt crisis is the outcome of a set of foreseeable market forces and policy decisions. Every student who took on debt under those conditions did so under circumstances that made it impossible to make better choices," she wrote, calling the means-testing of debt cancelation the "wrong solution." "No one, not even graduates who now earn a lot of money, deserved odds as bad as the ones we created."
She's right, it turns out.
Obviously facts and reality don't mean shit to political discourse. We're emotional animals who make choices based on the way we feel; there is no rational aspect to modern politics. No sensible argument is going to win the day. But if facts are of some fleeting interest to you, consider the following: One of out five recipients of food stamp benefits has a college degree; one in four Medicaid recipients has earned a postsecondary degree; millions of degree earners are having their wages garnished and their tax returns withheld; and many owe more on the loan today than they did after graduation.
This is far more than a sensible economic issue. It's a deep-rooted moral issue. College debt is ruining lives. One in 14 student loan borrowers report suicidal ideations due to the persistent stress of making their payments. For those who took out loans, earned a degree, and are now unemployed, that rate spikes to one in eight. Survey respondents who owed more than two times what they earned were nearly three times more likely to report suicidal ideations compared to borrowers who owed less than their monthly earnings. And these thoughts of suicide came as the government acted to temporarily relieve student loan payments.
College debt is fueling despair like almost nothing else in the last, desperate days of our empire. Millennials are giving up on the prospects of a better, more stable financial life. They see nothing but dark at the end of the tunnel. Since the start of 2020, the rate of millennial renters who say they'll never own a home has increased by 60 percent. They went to college, they got their degrees, and it meant nothing. Millennials' parents and grandparents did the same and were rewarded with good-paying jobs, homes, the ability to comfortably have and raise families, and that thing people had before end-stage capitalism took hold: Disposable income.
Canceling student debt isn't a delicate issue. There should be no tinkering around the edges of this hideous goliath of an economic comet aimed squarely at millennials and zoomers. It does not require a scalpel. It requires a big fucking sledgehammer.
Muh Old Waitress Mom
The reigning Queen of Bad Faith Laura Ingraham packaged the right's arguments against student debt cancelation nicely in a recent Twitter post that was subsequently ratioed into the Upsidedown.
“My mom worked as a waitress until she was 73 to help pay for our college, even helped with loan repayment,” Ingraham posted. “Loan forgiveness just another insult to those who play by the rules."
Ingraham, a wealthy woman in the conservative movement for the better part of three decades, was either lying to trigger the libs or is a huge, steaming pile of shit who made her poor fucking mother do back-breaking work to pay down her loan debts until the lady was in her 70s. Ingraham posted this without an iota of awareness that such an arrangement – an old woman working herself straight into the grave to help pay her daughter's college debts – is fucked beyond description. Perhaps more than any right-wing post in recent memory, this one shows how corrupted the conservative brain has become. Drudgery as a medal of honor. It is the peak of bleakness.
She was, of course, lying. Ingraham was a speech writer for the Reagan administration in the late 1980s before serving as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She was certainly able to pay back any loans she required – if she actually required any – without help from her poor old mom busting her ass in a diner. Her Twitter post was intended to turn bad faith into good faith, reinforcing the idea among her ardent followers that if one tries hard enough and sacrifices enough – even their mother's golden years – one can get ahead.
J.D. Vance, an U.S. Senate candidate from Ohio who is carrying on the proud tradition the fascist Ivy League grifter, took the militant approach against college loan debt forgiveness in a Twitter post that called debt cancelation "a massive windfall to the rich, to the college educated, and most of all to the corrupt university administrators of America. No bailouts for a corrupt system."
He urged congressional Republicans to fight student debt programs with "every ounce of energy." Immiserating millions by strapping debt to the backs of young people and systematically destroying the last vestiges of social mobility is Vance's greatest passion. You gotta respect it.
Republicans know that if they want their backers to oppose anything, they need only to describe that thing as a benefit for the elite. The marked shift of college degree earners into the Democratic Party since 2016 makes it easier than ever for a professional liar like Vance to oppose college debt cancelation as a gift to the well-off among us. He knows it's not true; many thousands of his potential future constituents would have their lives instantly changed if the Biden administration canceled student debt. It doesn't matter that it's not true. The right has transformed college debt into a culture war battlefield. Like everything else in America, the cancelation of student debt has been subsumed by tribal politics. Own the libs, even if it means you can't buy groceries.
Undoing The Rawest Deal
I didn't have to take out loans for college. My parents paid for the whole ride: Every class, every book, every transcript. I knew then and I know now how deeply fortunate I am to have graduated from a university without the horrors of monthly student loan payments looming over my head like the Reaper's scythe.
My first job was at a local newspaper in the Maryland suburbs. Paychecks for starting reporters were paltry, to put it mildly. It didn't much matter to me because I didn't have a loan payment due on the 15th of every month. A couple of my colleagues at the paper graduated with piles of loan debt and would make passing comments about skipping meals so they could make their payments. I laughed because I thought it was a joke, a way of dealing with the burden. It was not. These college degree earners, these professionals, indeed went without food sometimes to ensure they could pay Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae or whoever the fuck played the gangster waiting outside their door with a tire iron on the 15th of the month.
I felt guilty about this. Call it survivor's guilt. I don't know what it was, but it felt deeply wrong.
I had a friend in the early 2000s who wanted more than anything to go to film school in Florida. He worked a restaurant job and saved up and talked to lenders seemingly three times a day every day. They offered the same response with every call: You're going to need a co-signer for your loan. My buddy's dad tried to co-sign. The lender said no. His brother tried. Again, no. With no other way to get my friend to his dream school, the family pleaded with his grandfather to co-sign. With much hesitation, he did, and my friend was off the Florida.
It was there that he would quickly run out of cash from his monthly loan and call the private lender for another fix of that sweet, sweet debt. You might not be stunned to learn the lender was more than happy to send my buddy another grand or two or three. What's that? You need another four thousands? Sure, we can do that. We're here for you.
He was an eighteen year old with an unlimited line of credit, no financial literacy, and no idea how interest rates work. He took and took and took. The lender gave and gave and gave. My friend left school with a degree and more loan debt than he'll be able to pay if he lives for a hundred years. His economic prospects ended the moment he got into college, just as millions more took on so-called good debt because they were told that was the thing to do.
For-profit colleges and scheming, conniving, amoral student loan lenders were set loose on unsuspecting young people looking to better themselves. Who set them loose? Policy makers did. Why? Because capitalism demanded it, because capital must grow or die, even if that means ruining the lives of millennials (and in some cases their parents and grandparents who co-signed for the loans). Capital grew. Capital was happy. Good for capital.
This can be made right. I don't think Republicans' bad-faith arguments against student debt cancelation can alone stop relief efforts. The combination of centrist thumb twiddling and toxic good-faith politics combined with conservatives' venomous bad faith will, however, end any chance we have to unburden those who were duped into signing up for the rawest deal in the nation's history.
Throw the scalpel into the ocean. Give us the sledgehammer.
Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13 for maximum alienation.