An Unnecessary Persistence of Misery
Student debt in America needs to go. It's hardly the only ill that needs fixing but it will help us all (not just those whose debt is cleared) and it will help those who come after us.
All of this forces us to think very narrowly about education. When you’re enrolling in college, and you’re taking on a vast sum of debt, it changes the way you think about what you need to do. It makes you think about the need to get a return on investment. That’s the disciplining function. If you’re young and want to think about how best you can contribute to society, if you want some time to pursue your curiosities, you think, “Well, damn, I can’t do that because I have to be pragmatic and pay all this debt back.” This distorts the whole framework for education. You go to school knowing you have to take on a bunch of debt and you shape your education around the singular goal of being able to pay it back.
We say in our book Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay that “The problem isn’t that we’re living beyond our means. We’re denied the means to live.” You’re in debt because your wages don’t cover your daily needs. You’re in debt because what you’re offered is student loans and not public education. The reason you have to put medical bills on your credit card is because there isn’t universal health care. So under these conditions, we think it’s justified for debtors to push back and to revolt. And so economic disobedience is a way of saying, “We have to push back, just like civil disobedience pushes back against immoral laws. Civil disobedience is about doing an accounting and saying, “This might be the law, but to enact my values, I might have to break it.”
Student debt cancellation isn’t the end-all and be-all. It’s one policy among many. If we care about targeting relief, then you don’t do it through student debt cancellation. You do it by taxing income and wealth. This is one of those things where it kind of breaks your brain. It shouldn’t even be a debate. Let people go to college for free and earn what they earn, and let’s try to create justice in that, in terms of access to college if people want to go. But then let’s tax people, tax their income, and use that money to fund public services. And I also believe that you don’t make good jobs by making more college graduates. So let’s improve the jobs that exist so that you don’t have to get a college degree to earn a living wage and have a dignified life.