Chapter Twenty-Two

The Professional Class Weighs In

While faculty who attended the California conference were skeptical, other scholars and writers responded in an entirely different way to the College for All legislation and to the growing perception that mass student debt cancellation could actually be won. By 2020, scholarly reports and articles about the crisis in higher education began to appear with startling frequency. Unlike in 2011, debtors were now more likely to be treated with sympathy and their financial problems regarded as reflective of systemic inequities rather than as a result of their own poor judgement or bad luck.

An exemplar of the new genre appeared in the New Yorker, a citadel of liberal cosmopolitan sentiment. Hua Hsu reported on the story of Kimberly, a New York University student who was white and from a suburban middle-class family. Kimberly’s parents had made significant financial sacrifices so that their daughter could earn a degree at the school, but she ended up regretting enrolling in one of the most expensive private universities in the world.

At NYU, Kimberly had racked up tens of thousands in loans while earning a degree that did not make her entry into the labor force any easier. Upon graduation, she was offered a corporate job outsourcing labor to foreign contractors. This was a tactic to suppress workers’ wages that Kimberly’s education in the field of Anthropology had taught her to abhor. “Maybe what pundits dismiss as the impulsive rage of young college students,” Hsu wrote, “is actually an expression of powerlessness, as they anticipate a future defined by indebtedness.” In Kimberly’s case, that powerlessness was manifest as an inability to live the values that her education had valorized while also earning enough to make payments on her loans. The reporter concluded the article with a statement that would not have been made in that publication just a few years earlier. “Wide-scale student-debt forgiveness,” he wrote, “no longer seems radical.”

I was thrilled that a student debt jubilee was being portrayed as a rational response to decades of injustice in the pages of the New Yorker, and I was overjoyed that debtors’ “impulsive rage” was finally being regarded as entirely justified. Certainly, Kimberly’s story was familiar and distressing. At the same time, watching the evolution in how the media represented the struggle was agonizing. Whereas student debtors were once the unwashed, furious masses at Occupy Wall Street who wanted others to pay for their poor life choices, they were now the children of suburbanites who were only trying to do the right thing by assuring a good education for their kids.

While support for debt relief was going mainstream, I feared that underlying the shift was a panic that college wasn’t working anymore as a way for the children of the middle and upper middle classes to maintain their status. This was not a sentiment likely to fuel a mass movement to fund higher education as a public good. It was more likely to result in affluent people seeking out other ways to secure advantages for their children.  

As concern for the plight of middle-class borrowers accumulated, something else began to change as well. Many professional commentators stopped insisting that canceling student debt would be too costly. Beth Akers, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, summarized a growing consensus when she admitted to a reporter that the question of how to pay for loan cancellation had become “somewhat irrelevant.” This was a significant revision for Akers who had previously cited cost as the reason to oppose debt relief. To be sure, she still did not support a jubilee. “If it were good policy,” she said, “then I’d endorse [student debt cancellation] even without a solid price tag.” For years the Debt Collective had been harangued about our supposed budget-busting proposals. Now, conservatives were saying that cost was no longer a major issue?

This surprising reversal among some members of the pundit class was partly due to the fact that not every policy expert was on the same page. For years, those who insisted relief was too expensive only had to rebuff activists and former students, those they could easily shut down with a tsk tsk and some important-sounding statistics. Now, they had to defend their arguments to other professionals.

An intervention by a group of economists who favored mass debt relief had changed the landscape. In 2018, Stephanie Kelton and several co-authors released a study which showed what would happen to the economy if all student loans were eliminated. Titled “The Macroeconomic Effects of Student Debt Cancellation,” the paper revealed that erasing loans would be a net boost for the economy, an impact that would benefit even those without student debt. “The positive feedback effects of student debt cancellation could add on average between $86 billion and $108 billion per year to the economy,” the authors wrote. Overall, they had determined that cancellation would have a limited effect on the deficit while stimulating job creation. “Associated with this new economic activity,” they explained, “job creation rises and the unemployment rate declines.” Incredibly, debt strikers now had federal budget Math on their side.

The Debt Collective was pleased to see Kelton and her co-authors’ study finally published. We had been aware for more than a year that she was researching the topic and planned to release a report rebutting the idea, dominant at the time, that eliminating the $1.7 trillion burden would be an albatross around the neck of future generations. In fact, Kelton and her collaborators had been partly inspired to take up the issue thanks to the Debt Collective’s work. Starting in late 2017, we began talking with the economist and with several of her colleagues about launching a campaign challenging fearmongering about deficits and the national debt. After being bludgeoned with such arguments for years, we regarded refuting them as critical to a successful push for student loan relief on a broad scale

Though a campaign never got off the ground, my colleagues and I tapped these new connections to learn all we could. Over several weeks in 2017, federal budget experts, including Nathan Tankus, Raul Carillo, and Rohan Grey, met with us in New York. They gave us a crash course in how the budget worked and provided the Debt Collective with a better understanding of some of the more obscure legal and technical aspects of mass student loan cancellation. In short, they confirmed that debt relief and free college were not only desirable policies; they were possible. As the 2008 bank rescue had demonstrated, the federal government had various tools at its disposal for generating revenue when it really wanted–or when it was pushed–to do so.

One of the projects we worked on with our new collaborators was brainstorming how to talk about the federal budget using everyday language. These conversations were challenging both in terms of the content and when it came to translating the scholars’ terminology into words the rest of us could comprehend. It was obvious that changing public attitudes about debt and deficits was a long-term project that went hand in hand with winning support for public spending. We believed that The Debt Collective could contribute to that work. When “The Macroeconomic Effects of Student Debt Cancellation” came out the next year, it felt like a step forward.

We were right. The media seized on the study which took the once-marginal demand of mass student debt relief and gave it a scholarly gloss. Bloomberg published an article whose headline ecstatically proclaimed that “Erasing College Debt Helps Everyone.” New York Magazine’s contribution was called “Let’s Cancel Everyone’s Student Debt, for the Economy’s Sake.” The Los Angeles Times’ op-ed page also found religion, asserting that “eliminating student debt would be a terrific economic stimulus.” Reading these headlines was surreal. We were not just witnessing the inauguration of a new perspective on a national crisis; instead, what was being ushered in was a change to the rules for how to discuss that crisis in a serious and informed way. One could no longer hand-wave away borrowers’ complaints, just as one could no longer win the debate by saying that cancelling student loans would harm taxpayers. 

The battle lines were being redrawn, but commentators who opposed mass cancellation did not shrink away in defeat. Instead, they turned to another line of attack in a battle that had moved definitively from the streets to those forums where salaried professionals debated public policy. Some began to assert that cancellation would be “regressive,” meaning it would mostly benefit higher-income borrowers. Adam Looney’s writing at the Brookings Institute typified this approach. He produced a report showing that millions of mostly low-income borrowers were already enrolled in various programs to lower or temporarily halt their payments. Since they were not paying their debt anyway, he argued, cancelling loans would be a boon to wealthier borrowers who could afford to pay.  

This claim provoked an impassioned response from Marshall Steinbaum, who had co-authored the report outlining the economic benefits of mass relief. In Current Affairs, he fired back at Looney and other pundits. “There is a growing group of people who have student debt and are not making payments on that debt,” Steinbaum wrote. They are, he continued,

from families with fewer or no college graduates, [or they] attended for-profit       institutions. To interpret this as evidence that cancelling student debt is regressive  is a strange interpretation, and one belied by a demographic analysis of the people who are increasingly not paying back the student debt they feel forced to take on.

Steinbaum’s argument was that enrollment in a program to stop payments was a sign of economic distress, a situation most likely to be faced by poor borrowers of color. It made no sense to conclude, as Looney had attempted to do, that student debt was not burdensome for those who had temporarily paused their payments or that those borrowers would not benefit from a jubilee.

Faced with powerful counterarguments coming from other professionals, opponents of relief tried yet another tactic: they argued that mass debt cancellation would disproportionately benefit white people. Demos had already laid the groundwork back in 2015 when researchers at the progressive think tank asserted that a jubilee would exacerbate inequality between white borrowers and black borrowers, a phenomenon known as the “racial wealth gap.”

The scholars Mark Paul, Alan Aja, Darrick Hamilton, and William J. Darity, Jr published a response to this claim in Dissent where they defended Sanders’s plan for full relief as a boon for racial justice.

The Sanders plan would disproportionately benefit African American and Latino students, whose obstacles to entering higher education include vast disparities in wealth and income compared to their white counterparts. . . This wealth gap makes it especially difficult for African Americans and Latinos to finance college education and makes black and Latino students more likely to accumulate student debt, which, in turn, exacerbates the wealth gap.

The authors explained that it was the necessity of borrowing for college in the first place–a situation more likely to be faced by black students–that actually increased the wealth gap.

Back in 2012, Strike Debt had struggled to respond to the claim that organizing to abolish debt across the board was insufficiently anti-racist. Seven years later, experts had weighed in on the question. They showed that student debt relief for everyone would disproportionately benefit black and Latino borrowers. The argument lodged against Strike Debt had been effectively reversed: those arguing against cancellation were now being accused of not understanding the racial dynamics of mass relief.

In response to the scholars’ Dissent article, Demos’s Mark Huelsman, once a critic of mass relief, published what was essentially an admission of defeat: “It’s Time to Take Student Debt Cancellation and Debt Free College Seriously,” he wrote. Those in favor of universal student debt relief were winning the argument in stunning fashion.

Academics from various disciplines were now theorizing debt in a way that I had never seen before. In Boston Review, the philosopher Olivia Schwob added her own contribution. In “The Long History of Debt Cancellation,” she detailed how society’s attitudes toward debt had fluctuated over time. In the 18th century, she explained, debtors of all kinds were frequently incarcerated until they could cover their balances, leading to a rise in debtors prisons. A few decades later, once the establishment of bankruptcy laws had altered society’s conception of debt, incarceration fell out of favor. In the 21st century, in the wake of debtor activism, Schwob argued that another transformation was taking place. “The vestiges of shame that still circled the indebted,” she wrote, “are finally falling away.” I wasn’t sure that was the right conclusion. Plenty of people still felt that the debts they had taken on were their fault. But one thing was clear. From the question of who would benefit from universal cancellation to themes of punishment and shame, debt had become a preoccupation of a segment of the professional class. And many were arguing that the time for widespread relief had come.  

*****

The possibility that student debtors would win full cancellation of their loans grew dimmer just as the debate about whether such relief was even possible had finally been resolved in their favor. In March of 2020, Joe Biden took a commanding lead in the democratic primary, beating Bernie Sanders handily in the mid-west and in South Carolina where the Senator had failed to convince a significant enough cohort of black voters to pull the lever for him.

Biden was no friend to student debtors. Starting in the 1970s he had been instrumental in expanding the student loan program. Twenty years later, he had co-written a law that made private student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. Indeed, as the former Senator from Delaware where many credit card companies were based, Biden had a long record of voting in the interest of creditors. More recently, the former Vice President had declared in an interview that he had “no empathy” for young people struggling to build their lives. The likelihood of mass relief under a Biden administration seemed remote. The Debt Collective was going to have to re-evaluate its tactics once again.

New ways to challenge the federal government and creditors in the interests of debtors would have to be invented in the new forums we had made. In early 2020, after months of labor, the first iteration of our online platform went live. Borrowers who had initially joined the Debt Collective on Facebook were finding their way to a new community designed just for them. Dozens were also logging in to dispute their debts using our suite of automated tools, and content for our media page was being produced. A new student debt strike was also being planned, one that would be open to anyone who had borrowed to attend any college, public, private, or for-profit.

The Debt Collective’s interventions in the media also continued. In 2020, I co-authored a new book with Astra Taylor and a few other colleagues: Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay summarized the crisis and made the case for mass debt relief, picking up where Strike Debt’s Debt Resister’s Operations Manual had left off eight years earlier. That year, we would also produce a film, You are Not a Loan, which featured a conversation between elite academics and student debt strikers.

While still making progress in some areas, the barriers to building a real organization were becoming more obvious. The majority of Debt Collective members were still former for-profit college students. Though we relished the thought of continuing the fight with them in the years to come, we had not yet managed to attract many other borrowers into our network. Doing so was a key piece of our expansion strategy.

Our new reality renewed my concerns about internal structure–some of which had lingered since the OSDC days. In some ways my colleagues and I still did not have good answers to basic questions about the best way to set up a debtors union, including whether we should launch an official non-profit entity, incorporate in some other way, or remain committed to the kind of informal “working group” model that had been our legacy from Occupy. Even among those of us who had been collaborating for almost a decade, there was little agreement on such questions. We were a group of people whose shared vision and common language had made up for our lack of experience. Years of putting ideas into practice, though, had not made answering the big questions any easier.

Without substantial funding, the path forward did not look promising in any case. It felt like those funding streams available to an organization like the Debt Collective had been set up specifically to assure that activists stayed within narrow, authorized boundaries. As far as I could tell, that meant a future of jumping from emergency to emergency, doing the good and necessary work of helping individual borrowers who were trapped in the system.

The main function of such a disciplining effort was more insidious. It provided a way for educated professionals such as lawyers, journalists, policy experts, and media commentators to ply their trade–reaping either financial or reputational rewards–while limiting possibilities for ordinary people to participate in and lead social movements in meaningful ways.

My own attempt at establishing a professional career–whether in academia or in organizing–had finally come to an end. That winter, I made plans to leave the Debt Collective so that I could concentrate on finding regular employment, something I had not had in years. I also badly needed health insurance, something I was not likely to get from the government no matter who was elected president in 2020.

I had also realized, without as much bitterness as I might have expected, that I no longer saw much of a future for the Left, a least not one of which I could be a part. For one thing, it seemed that fighting for any kind of social democratic agenda was a vocation that only those with an independent income could afford to take up. In addition, I had become exhausted by the dominance of a kind of critical orientation towards the world and its problems. In many of the forums in which leftists had a foothold, from progressive media to academia, identifying what was wrong seemed to be the order of the day. Coming up with possible solutions and then putting ideas into practice was a less popular pursuit. I could understand why few wanted to take on that part of the work. It was messy, frustrating, expensive, and required a willingness to endure painful critiques, even ridicule, along the way. This was not a process likely to attract funding or help professionals advance their careers.

Another impediment, I had concluded, was that solutions could never be pure. Achieving even the smallest gains required winning support from lots of people, including from those we might not, under difference circumstances, want to know. Comradeship and persuasion over the long term are necessary to conduct a winning politics, but the process is often deeply unsatisfying.

When it does come, satisfaction can be very sweet. A few weeks before my departure, I got an email from Pam Hunt that served as a fitting closure to my nine years of debtor activism. The former Corinthian student had recently received a letter from the Department of Education. It read:

Dear Pamela Hunt:

We have completed the review of your application for a borrower defense discharge of your William D. Ford Federal Direct Loans (Direct Loans) under the borrower defense to  repayment rules. We have determined that your claim associated with your enrollment (or your child’s enrollment) at Everest University is approved. We determine how much debt relief to provide based on the amount of financial harm you suffered as a result of the school’s conduct. As a result, 100% of the total amount of the Direct Loans you took out to pay for your program will be discharged.

“Is this legitimate?” Hunt wanted to know. “Have my loans really been cancelled?” My heart racing, I forwarded the letter to my colleagues. We all agreed that it was real. A few other borrowers had also reported receiving the news. Hunt had owed approximately $40,000 for attending Corinthian, and every penny had just been erased. Poof. The Department’s methods for deciding which loans to cancel had never been clearly spelled out, and most debtors were still waiting. But Hunt had finally won. The reason was undeniable: five years earlier, she had joined a student debt strike. 

Chapter Twenty-Three