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We’re Talking About the Student Debt Crisis All Wrong

Let’s skip the bad-faith arguments and do what’s best for millions of Americans

Some 45 million Americans owe over $1.7 trillion in student loan debt. Before you even start to consider the deceptiveness of lending practices, the value of a college education or the capitalist standards of financial responsibility, you should acknowledge what an immense drag that is on the health and stability of our nation. It’s more money owed than for credit cards and auto loans. It’s more than double the amount the U.S. allocates to the Defense Department and military forces each year. When you hear complaints that millennials aren’t buying homes or having kids, you can be sure that the burden of student loans is playing a role in those trends.

But try telling that to these people.

Heading into a Biden presidency, student loans are a hot topic — because he’s poised to cancel at least some of them via executive order shortly after taking office. This is fantastic news for the millions of indebted, and therefore for a Democratic Party that needs to materially improve the lives of voters if it wants to continue beating back the tide of Trump-style fascism. And, clearly, a population rescued from an economic sinkhole is going to act like it, putting the dollars earmarked for loan repayment into families, properties, businesses and investment accounts. Everyone stands to benefit from that, but some are hung up on the feelings of individuals who have already sacrificed to pay off their own student debts. Won’t they be mad?

To that, I think we can easily say: Fuck ’em. Their bitterness is not the basis of good policy, nor a relevant case against it. Speaking only for myself, I finished repaying my student loans a couple years ago, and I have no desire to see others feel that strain. With some pundits, the “fairness” argument remains coded; the culture warriors, meanwhile, make it known that they believe liberal arts college grads deserve to be punished with mountainous debt for taking that one gender studies class, or not fully understanding the contracts they signed as a teenager.

Bottom line: It’s just vindictive, and it has nothing to do with how to best approach the social stagnation bred by widening debt. It ranks the profits of predatory lenders as more important than everything else.

The sooner we stamp out the canard that this is a handout to an irresponsible generation, the better. Debt forgiveness may stanch the bleeding for now (student loans are a chilling factor in depression and suicide) yet it does not address the inequities that led to the crisis in the first place. It ought to be the first step toward delivering higher education that’s free and accessible to whoever wants it. The U.S. would gift itself with the informed, skilled workforce vital to any dream of prosperity, and the economy would benefit from tens of millions of young people with cash to spend. Canceling debt is a temporary solution at best if you have no plan for controlling costs in the years ahead, as it does not preempt the next wave of loans. In fact, you could say it’s imperative to rush past the bad-faith objections to eliminating the current debt — do so now, with the stroke of a pen — and start working on long-term changes to the university system.

But really, no need to give the debt fetishists the time of day. They want what’s worse for a demographic they don’t like instead of what’s best for all. Let them stay angry. It’s their thing.

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