Now we need to debunk Republican propaganda claiming the opposite and move on to win real higher-education reform
The Biden administration has done a genuinely good thing in taking the first step toward really dealing with the US student loan crisis. Before yesterday’s announcement canceling $10,000 of student loan debt ($20,000 for those who received Pell Grants) for all borrowers making under $125,000 a year (under $250,000 per year for couples filing taxes jointly), there were over 43 million people being needlessly penalized for trying to get an education beyond the 12th grade, according to a helpful explainer in USA Facts.
Once the new reform goes into effect, there will immediately be millions fewer people laboring under such a financial burden because they owe less than $10,000 for their loans. And millions more that will see a significant cut to their loan balances.
True, more could and should have been done given that there is over $1.6 trillion in student loan debt and rising. And only around an eighth of that amount is about to be eliminated. President Joe Biden has the power to drop the means test on the new reform. He could also have gone with the $50,000 debt cancellation plan pursued by left-leaning Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren—or canceled all student debt—but he did not.
In part because he, like his Democratic Party, is unreservedly capitalist in this era and believes that people should pay individually for things that are considered public goods in more civilized countries (and in the US as well, once upon a time) like higher education. And also because he knew that conservatives had already been attacking the possibility of doing anything to reduce student loan debt for millions of people as being a giveaway by the working class to rich elites. A balloon of an argument that deflates the moment one starts discussing who is most negatively affected by being forced to carry student loan debt (working people, notably the working poor, according to Talk Poverty) and how much the federal government spends on higher education ($3 billion in FY 2022, according to Times Higher Education (registration required)) relative to, say, the outrageously huge military budget ($768.2 billion in FY 2022, according to PBS, even before tens of billions of extra defense dollars were sent to Ukraine).
Similar to the right-wing talking point that working people have to pull ourselves up by our (imaginary) bootstraps and not “live beyond our means” … or ever ever expect government to “give” us anything. Exactly what major corporations and the rich never do. A very relevant recent example of capitalists sticking their greedy paws into the public till being the semiconductor industry getting handed “$39 billion in direct federal subsidies” as part of a “$280 billion package designed to encourage semiconductor manufacturing and research in the United States,” according to Left Business Observer editor Doug Henwood, writing in Jacobin. Free money that the high-tech millionaires and billionaires who respectively run and own the top ten semiconductor companies will immediately use to buy back their own stock, Henwood points out (echoing Sen. Bernie Sanders)—further enriching themselves by jacking their own stock prices while adding nothing to the American economy. Something those very corporations already did between 2010 and 2021 to the tune of $168 billion spent buying their own stock. So why wouldn’t they do it again with fresh new taxpayer dollars being sent their way?
In any event, Biden and his advisors clearly thought it better to deny right wingers rhetorical ammunition by means testing the $10,000 per borrower that will ultimately be forgiven. Leaving further student loan debt cancellation for another day. Perhaps after the midterm elections, if the Dems end up doing better than was expected just a few months back … before Roe was struck down and before this new reform was announced.
Or perhaps not. The conservative blowback is particularly fierce on any government program that actually benefits millions of struggling poor, working, and middle-class people. Just a day after Biden made the student loan relief plan official, as I write this, I tried typing “student loan” into a search engine and was greeted with a barrage of articles from pundits and talking heads across the US screeching that working people are somehow being ripped off by the cancellation of student loan debt.
And already, friends of mine from the same white working-to-middle-class background as me are parroting reactionary talking points like, “Wonder what debt I can enter into and wait for the rest of the country to pay it off?” To which I can only say, “If Sens. Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz were to hand you a razor blade, would you cut your own throat with it?” Because if anyone thinks the craven servants of corporate power pushing such ideas are looking out for working people, they are sadly mistaken.
No, in this case, the usually hapless Democrats—themselves craven servants of corporate power most of the time—have really done something that benefits average Americans (and immigrants … sorry not sorry, nativists). Definitely to win the midterms. But also, I’d like to think, out of some distant memory of their past pro-worker platform leading to long term political success.
Meanwhile, the Republicans, and the far right ideologues at their core, want to crush even the barest wisp of a notion that working people should expect any benefits from a government that they simultaneously intone was founded “for the people.”
So this is fun. A real teachable moment to be sure. Which is the point I will leave readers with this time out. If you can see how a basic reform like canceling student loan debts benefits working people, study up and start debating with your right wing friends and family.
Ask them questions like: Why is it good for the government to shovel money at corporations and the rich but bad for it to spend money on higher education (and education, and healthcare, and childcare, and elder care, etc, etc)? Why should all of our tax money enrich the already enriched but not the working people that create all wealth? What is a government for? Who should it serve?
Break those political silos. Talk it out. Lead horses to water. Be prepared for their counterarguments and defeat them with fact-based, reasoned argumentation. Expand your debate topics from higher ed to a host of other critical issues. And maybe this November won’t lead to a hard right victory after all.
Then we can start thinking about getting the feds to cancel all student debt and winning fully-taxpayer-funded higher education for all. A fight that will need to be taken as much to the Dems as to the Repubs.
Apparent Horizon—an award-winning political column—is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, editor of the Somerville Wire, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.