#1513 The Morality of Debt and Forgiveness (Transcript)

Air Date 9/14/2022

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JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: Welcome to this episode of the award winning Best of the Left Podcast in which we shall take a look at the history and hysteria behind debt and debt forgiveness while Biden is canceling student debt and opponents of the idea are reacting in the most predictable way possible, because they misunderstand that the relationship between debt and a morality.

Clips today are from Democracy Now!, The Intercept, The Thom Hartmann Program, UnF*cking the Republic, The Majority Report, and Now and Then, with additional members-only clips from UnF*cking the Republic and Now and Then. And stay tuned at the end of the show for my explanation of how money fundamentally warps our sense of morality.

Cancel It All: Debt Collective's Astra Taylor on Biden Plan & Need for Full Student Debt Relief - Democracy Now! - Air Date 8-25-22

AMY GOODMAN - HOST, DEMOCRACY NOW!: President Biden has announced plans to cancel as much as $20,000 in student debt per borrower to help as many as 40 million people. The president outlined his plan during a speech at the White House Wednesday.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If you make [00:01:00] under $125,000, you get $10,000 knocked off your student debt. If you make under $125,000 a year and you received a Pell Grant, you’ll get an additional $10,000 knocked off that total, for a total of $20,000 relief. 95% of the borrowers can benefit from these actions—that’s 43 million people. Of the 43 million, over 60% are Pell Grant recipients—that’s 27 million people who will get $20,000 in debt relief. Nearly 45% can have their student debt fully canceled—that’s 20 million people who can start getting on with their lives.

AMY GOODMAN - HOST, DEMOCRACY NOW!: President Biden also announced plans to extend a moratorium on all federal student loan payments through the end of this year. As Biden walked away from the podium, reporters shouted questions. Listen closely.

REPORTER: Mr. President, is this [00:02:00] unfair to people who paid their student loans or chose not to take out loans?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Is it fair to people who in fact do not own multibillion-dollar businesses if they see one of these guys give them all a tax break? Is that fair? What do you think?

AMY GOODMAN - HOST, DEMOCRACY NOW!: Response to Biden’s student debt cancellation plan has been mixed. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said, “Today is a day of joy and relief.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell condemned Biden’s plan as “student loan socialism.” Meanwhile, the NAACP President Derrick Johnson has said, “Canceling just $10,000 of debt is like pouring a bucket of ice water on a forest fire,”. Many student debtors also say Biden’s plan doesn’t go far enough. This is the artist and writer Maddy Clifford of the Debt Collective.

MADDY CLIFFORD: And what we’re doing with the Debt Collective is really pushing and applying that pressure, because a full cancellation is [00:03:00] also — it’s like, “Oh, you’re asking for too much. You’re asking for too much.” I’m asking to be back at zero. I’m asking for a fair chance to actually build wealth. They’re always telling us it’s not enough, and two years ago, $10K was a ridiculous thing to ask for, and now we’ve just won it. So, what that tells us and what shows us is that we have to keep fighting.

AMY GOODMAN - HOST, DEMOCRACY NOW!: Those are the words of the artist and writer Maddy Clifford, speaking after President Biden unveiled his plan to cancel as much as $20,000 in student debt for millions of borrowers each. In a moment, we’ll hear more from Maddy Clifford, who’s featured in a short documentary from The Intercept titled Freedom Dreams: Black Women and the Student Debt Crisis.

But first we’re joined by Astra Taylor, who co-directed Freedom Dreams. She’s also an organizer with the Debt Collective, an organization with its roots in the Occupy Wall Street movement. She wrote the foreword to the Debt Collective’s book Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition.

Astra Tayor, welcome back to [00:04:00] Democracy Now! First, respond to President Biden’s plan, the executive order yesterday.

ASTRA TAYLOR: Well, it’s important to be very clear that the Debt Collective has always fought for full student loan abolition and free public college for all, to stop the crisis of student debt at its source. So that is our position, that’s what we think needs to happen. But President Biden did not campaign on that. He was boxed in and forced to campaign promising some debt relief. This proposal he offered yesterday doesn’t even meet the full threshold of his campaign promise; nonetheless it is a stepping stone for this movement. It’s a milestone.

So my reactions are mixed. It’s bittersweet, because assuming — there are some problems in terms of the fact that they are requiring people to fill out applications to get this relief, but assuming people do that, then, yes, up to 20 million people can have their balances wiped out. That’s absolutely game changing. We’re seeing [00:05:00] messages from people hearing from friends and family that they’re crying, that their lives have been changed. But also, $10,000 or $20,000, for millions of people, doesn’t touch the interest that’s accrued and capitalized. It won’t reduce their monthly payments, and we need to keep fighting for those folks, as well and we will.

So, mixed reaction, but this is incredibly significant when you think about where we began as a movement not that long ago.

AMY GOODMAN - HOST, DEMOCRACY NOW!: And what do you say to those who say this is bailing out the higher education-industrial complex, that they should be lowering their tuitions? They’ve got, together, billions of dollars in endowment. Why should they be bailed out?

ASTRA TAYLOR: Oh, we’re definitely not bailing out the higher education system right now. We’re bailing out human beings who have been told for decades that the only path out of poverty is to pursue an education. The United States has substituted labor policy — we should have been strengthening unions, providing a jobs guarantee — with telling people, “Hey, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Take out student debt, so [00:06:00] that you can then have the credential you need to be employed.”

The thing is, again, these policies do need to be coupled, debt cancellation plus restructuring the political economy of higher education so that public colleges are actually public again, and that people can go to school and pursue higher education if they want to, without the burden of debt. But we’re going to have to fight that fight.

There’s often a false opposition in the way people frame this thing, and often people who point out that student debt cancellation doesn’t get to the root of the problem have no intention of fighting for the solution, again, which is free public college, but that’s what we are going to do. That is the horizon that we at the Debt Collective and a growing coalition of allies are working towards.

AMY GOODMAN - HOST, DEMOCRACY NOW!: Mitch McConnell saying, “President Biden’s student loan socialism is a slap in the face to every family who sacrificed to save for college, every graduate who paid their debt and every American who chose a certain career path or volunteered to serve in our Armed Forces in order to avoid taking on debt.” Astra?[00:07:00]

ASTRA TAYLOR: So cynical. I mean, first off, I am one of the millions of people who did have to pay their debts. I paid it in full. I do not want anyone else to have to suffer just because I did. Social progress means that other people do not have to suffer through something that previous generations did. And the fact is, polling shows that most people have that attitude. Most people are not as selfish and cynical as Mitch McConnell. In fact, student debt cancellation is more popular with people who didn’t go to college than people who did, probably because they understand that the costs are rising so fast, they’re prohibitive. So, this is something people are really celebrating.

And, of course, let’s not forget that where was this grave concern when large corporations and millionaires were getting forgivable PPP loans, which on average were worth about $90,000? Where were they when the banks were getting bailed out, right? Where were they when the government was buying billions of dollars of bad corporate debt? So it’s just very [00:08:00] cynical.

And I think you can judge a policy by its enemies. The fact that people like Mitch McConnell, Betsy DeVos, and others are so upset shows you that this is, for once, a form of debt relief that’s going to help working-class and poor people.

Freedom Dreams: Black Women and the Student Debt Crisis - The Intercept - Air Date 8-22-22

NINA TURNER: Let me give my testimony, if I might, if I may, that I am a first generation college graduate and I tried to break the cycle of poverty in my family's line. Everybody has a hope and a dream for better. And debt, because you decided to go and advance yourself through higher education, should not happen in this country. No how. No [00:09:00] way.

Student debt punishes poor and working class people for pursuing higher education, ensnaring individuals and entire communities in compounding interest and fees. Today, student debt is a nearly $2 trillion weight, crushing 45 million people, with women and especially Black women disproportionately burdened. Student debt is a trap and it is also a teacher. Debt teaches us that education is a commodity, that we need to choose degrees and careers based on pay, that we are alone in our financial struggles, that we don't deserve to be free.

MADDY CLIFFORD: I owe over $120,000 in debt. I didn't talk about it, anytime I did I automatically felt ashamed.

SHAH NOOR HUSSEIN: [00:10:00] I am probably about $80,000 in debt, and up until recently I think my word was shame too, but while you were talking Maddy, I was actually like, it's regret.

MADDY CLIFFORD: I decided to go to college because I'm a nerd. I love education, I love school, and I thought to myself it doesn't matter how much it costs, it's going to pay off.

ARIES JORDAN: I had to go to school. I'm from a family of educators. They were the first generation in their family, in our family, so it's, " you have the opportunity. You're going to college."

SHAH NOOR HUSSEIN: I was really adamant on moving towards my career goals, and so I just pushed myself into this master's program without thinking, how am I gonna pay for it?

NINA TURNER: A lack of intergenerational wealth and other structural inequities force women, and Black women in particular, to borrow at disproportionate rates, and wage discrimination makes it that much harder to escape. For every dollar white men make, black women earn 61 cents—a lifetime loss of almost $1 million.

MADDY CLIFFORD: [00:11:00] We've been told, working class people, that as long as you get an education then you will have job prospects, you'll be able to take care of your family, you'll be able to have a future. I really used to blame myself a lot and I used to feel a lot of shame, and then I started to look at the policies and I'm like, wait a second, is it personal responsibility or is it really bad policy? And I realized it's bad policy, straight up.

DR. RICHELLE BROOKS: The inaccessibility to higher education is preventing us from being able to take care of our families. The inaccessibility to higher education is keeping us in poverty.

Student loan debt was never explained to me. There was never a person that sat down and said, "Hey, here's how you're gonna pay for college."

That means over time we're growing further and further in debt due to these inequitable systems.

I originally borrowed $203,000, and that balance has since grown to $238,000. I loved [00:12:00] being in the classroom, but teachers just do not make enough money to survive in LA. Ended up with a master's degree and then a doctorate, and then I became a principal, which is pretty much the highest position you can be at a school, and I'm still not making enough money to pay my student loan debt balance.

I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place when I'm talking to my students about their plans for their post secondary education goals. I'm teaching them to navigate the system in a way that I wasn't taught, but I'm still fearful for them and there's days that I'm just filled with regret.

That balance doesn't leave that $238,000. It's there with me every second of every single day. You go work for these high tech companies, you can make $250-300,000 and not have to worry about how you're gonna pay back this debt. I could have done that. I'm smart, I could have done that, but I took on this commitment to become an educator and I'm being penalized for it.[00:13:00]

MADDY CLIFFORD: Actually, the roots of the student debt crisis started in California. It started around the time of the 60s and 70s when people were becoming really revolutionary. The Black Panthers were going to college. More women were going to college, and at the time college was actually free in California.

NINA TURNER: In 1966, Ronald Reagan, the newly elected governor of California, burnished his image by attacking the anti-war and racial justice movements taking root on university campuses. He proposed rolling back California's program of free public college and charging tuition. Taxpayers, Reagan said, should not be subsidizing intellectual curiosity.

DOCUMENTARY: We have been and are providing a premium service, an education superior to most and equal to the best. So far, those receiving this education have not been required to share in the cost.

DR. RICHELLE BROOKS: When Black and Brown people [00:14:00] started going to college in California, that's when you see public education fall away, and so the burden of paying for education was placed on families.

ARIES JORDAN: I feel like this is another way to block access to education. Our grandparents are coming off of integration, so we running up in those schools, Black people, like we gonna get our education, but now we still got this debt though.

Hidden History of Student Debt - Thom Hartmann Program - Air Date 8-25-22

JEFFERSON SMITH - GUEST HOST, THOM HARTMANN PROGRAM: I want to talk to you about what's been on the minds most listeners today, which has been the Biden announcement to relieve $10,000 worth of student loans up to $20,000 or eligible received Pell grants. I wanted to get your thoughts on either your reaction to it and/or your thoughts going forward of what needs to happen now.

THOM HARTMANN - HOST, THOM HARTMANN PROGRAM: Well, I wrote about this in today's op-ed for Hartmann Report.com, and my take is that student debt is an evil thing. It's destructive to a nation. Every other developed country in the world does everything they can to encourage students who are capable of getting a college education to get one. And of [00:15:00] course they also encourage students, people who are capable of getting a trade school education, to do that as well.

But this is about college. And one of the reasons that other countries do that is because it's an investment in the vitality and intellectual health of your nation. It's literally an investment in the future of your nation. We know this from the experience of the GI Bill. Both my father and Louisa's father went to college on the GI Bill. My dad dropped out after two years. Her dad actually got his law degree and ended up the assistant attorney general for the state of Michigan. And what we found was that because people with college educations make more money than people without, they also pay more on taxes. And so not only did the roughly 8 million, I think it was -- I'd have to go back and look at the numbers, but anyhow -- not only did the millions of young men and women who went to college on the GI Bill produce an explosion, a technological explosion for America in the seventies and eighties, the GI Bill from the fifties and sixties, inventing the transistor and the integrated circuit and sending into the moon and, you know, quack, quack, quack -- the internet and everything [00:16:00] else.

But also for every $1 that the federal government spent on the GI Bill, the federal government got back more than $7 in tax revenue over the 40 year period that they never would've gotten had they not made that investment. So not only is student debt an evil thing that was brought to us by the Reagan administration -- prior to the Reagan revolution, there was no functionally, no meaningful student debt in America. When I went to college in the late sixties, I knew one guy who had a student loan and he was working on his master's degree and, for graduate school, it wasn't unusual you'd get a loan. But basically for undergrad studies, you could -- I worked at Bob's Big Boy as a dishwasher and pumped gas at the Esso station across the street. That's how I paid for my tuition. That was not unusual.

So I think it's a start, $10,000 or really it's $20,000 more than half of people getting there are gonna get 20,000 bucks. And, it's a start in the right direction. It points us toward the idea that education should be a right, rather than a privilege in the United States; and that when we provide [00:17:00] education at no cost to people or at low cost to people, then that benefits not just them and not just their families, but it benefits the entire country. And it benefits us way beyond the cost. This isn't even arguable or debatable anymore.

JEFFERSON SMITH - GUEST HOST, THOM HARTMANN PROGRAM: What's your response? And maybe it's exactly that, right? Maybe it's just a sort of restatement of the fundamental principle. But what is your response? Cuz you know, the common counter arguments, right? The common counter arguments are well, I paid mine; or why should I have to pay for somebody else's; and that's sort of one category and the other category is, well, there's a one time fix, right? It's a one time giveaway. It's not even a fix for everybody. It's a fix for some people. It's a little bit of help for some other people. And it's just a one shot deal. What are your responses to those counter arguments?

THOM HARTMANN - HOST, THOM HARTMANN PROGRAM: Well, yeah, some people paid off their student debts. God bless 'em. And good on them. But, just because a society or a country has decided to do something evil to its people and some of its people have survived that, doesn't mean that we should continue to inflict that evil on other people and continue to punish people who got swamped [00:18:00] by it in the undertow. It is wrong to have student debt in this country. And every step we can take toward minimizing and reducing that is a good step. And, with regard to that only being a one-off solution, similarly, this is a positive and appropriate step toward the goal of ending the need for student debt in the United States. There are literally hundreds of thousands of American students who are going to college for free right now in Germany, France, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Norway, Finland, Denmark, they all offer free tuition to Americans -- well, to everybody, to anybody.

And so it's just crazy that we're sitting around having these conversations. The other argument that I got in a Twitter fight with somebody this morning about is basically was saying, well, only a certain portion of our population is ever gonna go to college. Why should we all bear that cost? And that's the same bizarre logic that back when in the seventies and eighties, when really the eighties and nineties, when Limbaugh used to go off on public schools and being paid for by property [00:19:00] taxes. And he would say, I don't have any kids. Why do I have to pay property taxes for these brats to go to school? Let their paren -- rah, rah, rah, privatize, educate. And the simple fact is that even if you don't have kids, having an educated populace benefits everybody in the country. It benefits all of us in ways that are obvious and direct and in ways that are very subtle and indirect, like new inventions and new societal and technological steps.

So it's a pathetic and weak argument. I mean, you got Republicans out there who took literally millions of dollars in loan forgiveness for PPP loans. I have a list of them in my article today. And they're whining about working class people getting 10,000 bucks off their student loans. Give me a break.

JEFFERSON SMITH - GUEST HOST, THOM HARTMANN PROGRAM: Yeah, no, it's not an opposition to helping people. It's an opposition to helping people. It's an opposition of bottom up bailouts rather than top down bailouts.

THOM HARTMANN - HOST, THOM HARTMANN PROGRAM: Oh, yeah. And these are the same people who will tell you, it destroys incentive. You don't wanna damage [00:20:00] young people by giving them things on a platter because that destroys incentive. And that's why we shouldn't be providing free college education. Kids should have to work for it so that they value it.

But the simple fact is that these are the same people who will go to the mat to prevent there being any inheritance tax on their billionaire donors' kids. It makes no sense.

Bidens Big Student Debt Announcement: PITOTWIU for the Indebted Masses - Unf*cking The Republic - Air Date 8-28-22

MAX: In our student debt episode, we made a couple of predictions. Towards the end of the episode, I mentioned that Biden was going to do what he’s going to do, and it will be “marginal and somewhat helpful.” I also guessed that it would be $10,000. Speaking of the latter, I’m no psychic. This was Biden’s campaign promise. But in fact, he sweetened the pot by adding an additional 10 grand for those who are Pell Grant recipients.

So for anyone criticizing him for doing too little, it should be noted that for a significant portion of debt holders on the lower end of the income spectrum, this is really big news. In fact, it’s going to [00:21:00] wipe out a pretty healthy amount of total debt and unshackle millions of borrowers altogether.

On the political front, the responses have been predictable.

Conservatives were locked and loaded to criticize this as a bailout to the participation trophy generation, which overlooks so many crucial points about the character and cost of debt that has accrued in the past 20 years. As the loyal opposition, they don’t have to be nuanced. They just have to be angry and prey on a perverted sense of injustice that lower-income individuals and families are getting some relief, while others in the past did not.

I won’t patronize Unf*ckers with a long diatribe about the inconsistency of this stance. [Sure you will!] OK, just a little. For shits and giggles, just so we can map out helpful talking points, here are some general responses:

If you own a home, you get to deduct mortgage interest. If you rent, you don’t.

If you’re a middle income [00:22:00] wage earner, you pay 6.2% toward Social Security. Those who earn more than $147,000 a year stop paying once they hit this number, which makes Social Security a regressive tax. Thanks, Alan Greenspan! [I hate you!]

More than 5 million business owners had PPP loans from 2020 completely forgiven. This money was treated as below-the-line income and therefore is non-taxable. In other words, free money.

So far, the average budget impact estimate of forgiveness is around $500 billion over ten years, with some assumptions we’ll review about in a minute. The Trump tax cuts cost the nation about double that amount, and potentially more. [I hate you]

The increase in college tuition has doubled the rate of inflation over the past 40 years for a whopping total increase of 1,100%. So your old debt is not the fucking same as the new debt.

There are senior [00:23:00] citizens who have student debt payments deducted from their Social Security payments.

Call back to our Corporate [Ir]Responsibility episode, it’s estimated that wealthy individuals and corporations are hiding $36 trillion offshore to avoid taxes. Of that amount, Americans are responsible for $10 trillion of it. So do tell me again about fairness. Go on. [Aw, horseshit!]

And then, in the ultimate fucking HA-HA, conservatives pushed for liberalization of trade agreements so they could move manufacturing jobs offshore. Then they told workers to go to college and retrain for service jobs. But, without trade union protections, the very same conservative employers were able to pay workers less and make them "at will" and more vulnerable, which led to wage stagnation among middle and lower class workers who couldn’t afford the fucking student debt they were told to take on to get that mid-level management and service fucking job. And now there are even some Republicans saying the quiet part out loud that this giveaway will reduce the incentive for poor people to enlist [00:24:00] in the military, which should tell you exactly how fucking expendable poor people are in this country where Republicans are concerned!

Republican Veteran Concerned By Negative Military Recruitment Amidst Student Loan Forgiveness - The Majority Report - Air Date 8-29-22

SAM SEDER - HOST, THE MAJORITY REPORT: One of the issues that I think many Republicans have, and frankly I wonder how much the the Fed also is involved in this. With the Fed raising its interest rates, and doing so at a time where inflation, the rate of inflation, seems to have abated significantly, I could see the argument, "we need to see this for two or three months to really buy into it," but things are starting to loosen up with supply chains, the economy is reorienting to the different buying habits of people coming out of COVID.

But one of the things that has always driven military enlistment has been the inability of people to find jobs or to feel some type of economic pressure. And at the very least you gotta hand [00:25:00] it to this Republican, Michael Waltz from Florida, he is saying the quiet part loudly.

REP MICHAEL WALTZ: Here nor there, I have to tell you as a veteran the law that Biden, and the excuse that Biden is using for this, a 2003 law intended to help veterans going to fight after 9/11, as a veteran myself, this is a slap in the face.

And the other piece that not a lot of people are talking about is that the military uses educational benefits as a key recruiting tool. The military right now is in a recruiting crisis, and if young people, 17, 18 year olds say my debt's just gonna get erased for free, I don't have to go crawl in the mud, I don't have to go put my life on the line for the country. It's going to take this recruiting crisis actually from again, from bad to worse.

So not only is it unfair, not only do 60% of working Americans not have college degrees and get no benefits, many members of my family successfully paid off their debt and worked hard and [00:26:00] did the right thing, but it's actually going to negatively impact the recruiting for our military as well.

SAM SEDER - HOST, THE MAJORITY REPORT: So wait, you're saying that we've lost one of the tools to bribe people into putting their lives on the line and killing other people by educating our population? That sounds like a bad thing.

EMMA VIGELAND - CO-HOST, THE MAJORITY REPORT: And that paired with a labor market where workers have options and wages are increasing. This is a recipe for disaster.

SAM SEDER - HOST, THE MAJORITY REPORT: Not to mention, we should also say that the idea that $10,000 is going to change the recruitment decisions of people is absurd. Now, if we were to basically allow for a free college option in each state, like we used to back, frankly, in the 50s and 60s. I mean to some extent, this is what they're afraid of, is the idea that like, "wait a second, if we do not discipline people enough we're not going to get people to do the things [00:27:00] that most people aren't interested in doing, like going and shooting other people."

MATT LECH - PRODUCER, THE MAJORITY REPORT: It's not a coincidence that Ted Cruz says slacker baristas while Starbucks workers are unionizing. These are the two things that they're freaked out about. Also, just to note on the recruiting stuff, part of the reason they're having trouble recruiting people join the military is obviously this sort of stuff, but also, the right-wing has been telling rural communities that if you join the military, you'll become woke and trans, which hasn't helped either.

Larry Summers had quoted at the end of this Intercept article saying, "we proclaimed in June that to quell inflation," and I think he mainly means labor inflation, we need "two years of 7.5% unemployment, or five years of 6% unemployment, or one year of 10% unemployment." So that's just how they think about those things.

SAM SEDER - HOST, THE MAJORITY REPORT: And I don't believe that's actually the case. I think the concern is that wages have risen, I don't know what it is, 6-7%, inflation as year over year 9%. But the problem that they're [00:28:00] having is that the rate of inflation has now stopped. I think there is actually genuine concern that the rate of inflation is going to stop in terms of prices, and that it's going to settle back down because there has been a lot of gouging, and soon that relative discrepancy... and we know wages have not driven inflation because inflation is greater than wages in terms of the wage inflation is less than the price inflation at this point.

But what they're, I think, very worried about is this happening, the dynamic shifting. Because wages are not gonna go back down. At this point, wages are not gonna go back down short of 10% unemployment, but prices on commodities certainly are going to, I think drop. Certainly in terms of what's happening with housing starts in this country, and once you get manufacturing back on and there's no more massive shutdowns in [00:29:00] China, et cetera.

And I think they are terribly worried exactly about things like what's happening with Starbucks. What's happening with Chipotle what's happening with Amazon. I think they are afraid of an ascendance of labor power. And this is not about curbing inflation, it is about curbing wage increases.

EMMA VIGELAND - CO-HOST, THE MAJORITY REPORT: These are the ravings of people who understand that they're losing leverage over a working population. Sean Hannity said it yesterday, " now my employees are going to get $10,000 of student debt relief," and he said this is a bad thing. This is absurd. This is socialism.

SAM SEDER - HOST, THE MAJORITY REPORT: Did they hop on the microphone and say, "wait a second boss. I don't know."

EMMA VIGELAND - CO-HOST, THE MAJORITY REPORT: I made that same joke about someone spitting in Ted Cruz's coffee about Sean Hannity last week. Like he better watch out. Some of his interns might have a thing to say. That is what they're worried about. They're worried about losing leverage over a population of workers, and that's what student debt does. It's a disciplinary tool in order [00:30:00] to get people to do what you want and to work in the way that you want and in industries that you want, and that includes the military.

That's the reason why college for all, hasn't had more legs because it's a relatively cheap program in terms of what is proposed from out of the Bernie Sanders campaign and out of the left right now, it's one of the easiest to implement if we wanted do it. It's just not that difficult, but the reason it's not being done is because then the federal government loses its leverage over millions of kids. How else are they gonna get people in the military?

SAM SEDER - HOST, THE MAJORITY REPORT: I don't think it's just the federal government. I think the concern is, if you have all these people who have graduated college and they don't have to spend the rest of their life paying it off, then it opens up a whole wider array of options they have in terms of what they're gonna do with their lives. I don't have to run to Wall Street to make money, or I don't have to, become whatever it is, I can go and be a social worker. I can go and be a dancer. It opens up, essentially, [00:31:00] all the options that people have.

EMMA VIGELAND - CO-HOST, THE MAJORITY REPORT: And that brings us back to the caricature of the barista who got a degree that wasn't worth a damn, that's what Ted Cruz was saying. I don't remember, I'm paraphrasing. They want, if you are going to take out student debt, you better contribute to capitalism in a way that they find is sufficient, because otherwise you're perceived as worthless. And so that's their entire caricature a college student who might have a humanities degree, God forbid, but that's not profitable.

MATT LECH - PRODUCER, THE MAJORITY REPORT: Also. I would just say like in the history of capitalism, serving coffee is actually pretty important job for 400-500 years. So like they actually have a pretty important role in the economy.

BRADLEY ALSOP - PRODUCER, THE MAJORITY REPORT: And it's hard. It's hard work. The caricature of barista is one of the most preposterous thing the right does. It is an immensely, immensely difficult and important job.

Forgiving (and Unforgiving) Debts - Now & Then - Air Date 9-6-22

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON - HOST, NOW & THEN: [00:32:00] I do find the whole emphasis on morality and on individual bankruptcy as a moral issue really interesting, because as you started out by saying, debt is in this early period about morality, but at the same time, a society that is trying to expand economically needs to be able to leverage debt in order to make more capital available. So if you’re operating from the premise that going into debt is a moral failing and can land you in this purgatory that you can’t get out of because you’re stuck in this prison, who’s going to start borrowing to be an entrepreneur and to make a business grow. So we start to get this division between the morality of individual debt: are you a good person or a bad person? Did you waste money on the finest wig or food?...

JOANNE FREEMAN - CO-HOST, NOW & THEN: You’re really into the sloops, the wig. You’re in [00:33:00] the moment, Heather.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON - HOST, NOW & THEN: ...or are you a good debtor who has borrowed money to make a good idea happen and it just didn’t take off. In which case, that does not get defined as a moral failing. You can have a business fail in a way that you can’t have a household fail. One is a moral failing, and one is not.

JOANNE FREEMAN - CO-HOST, NOW & THEN: One is, you could almost argue, an admirable risk. Certainly in the early United States, speculation, in positive and negative ways, is rampant, right? It’s new, there’s land changing hand and new land opening up, and people are speculating on anything and everything in that time period. And so, in a sense, if you’re engaging in that kind of practice, you might make a lot of money, you might lose a lot of money. One could argue that certainly there’s something admirable to that, that you can’t put that kind of a stamp on someone who spends too [00:34:00] much personally and goes into debt.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON - HOST, NOW & THEN: It is an interesting distinction though, that borrowing in a household economy, if you will, is a moral decision and borrowing in a market economy is something that’s good for the country. So in the one hand, we’re happy to chunk you into prison. And on the other hand, we want to make it possible for people to borrow like that without bearing undue penalties.

In the 19th Century, this concept that it's a good thing to borrow for a business runs into the extraordinary expansion first of the early 19th century and then to the period after the Civil War, because of course the Civil War really just jumpstarts the national economy. All of a sudden, they’re feeding the troops and they’re putting horseshoes on the mules and they’re mass producing guns and rain slickers and candy and, then after the war, railroads and everything sort of gets jumps started in a hurry. So you, first [00:35:00] of all, want to be able to free up capital. You also want to be able to make sure people are willing to create these new businesses without fear. So one of the things that happens after the Civil War is a real change in the concept of incorporation and the idea of companies being able to incorporate and to raise money and to act as entities without having the personal individuals responsible for the debts of the company.

So they start to play around with, What is a public good? And we get the railroads. Is that a public good, or are they just there for money? And shortly after that, they’re going to stop worrying so much about public good, and just go for a whole new financing structure. You know, it’s funny, these things seem like they shouldn’t be interesting. The divorce of people from having their own personal funds and reputations on the line with their companies is actually structurally really, really important. But then the other thing, of course, that happens is we get bankruptcy laws. And bankruptcy laws try to [00:36:00] mediate, if you will, between the borrower who, you know, took risks, right?, and the lender who’s like, “Whoa, doggies, pay me back,” and to make sure that you come up with a solution that is fair-ish to both of them. So the idea of bankruptcy legislation is to make sure there is a structured way in which a business can come apart, and perhaps even have a managed period of repaying debt rather than simply being like, “You suck, we’re throwing you in jail.” And with luck, that should both give entrepreneurs more willingness to borrow, and it should make sure that lenders aren’t in real trouble in the risks that they’re taking.

JOANNE FREEMAN - CO-HOST, NOW & THEN: Here’s my question about, again, post-Civil War versus pre-Civil War. So I know that there’s any number of financial panics in the decades before the Civil [00:37:00] War. And sometimes, a year or two, three after a panic, there would be some kind of bankruptcy law that would arise, and then when things got more stable financially, it would be repealed. So 1837, there’s a panic. 1841, there’s some kind of bankruptcy law. Things get settled. 1843, the law is repealed. So that’s very specific. That’s not changing the nature of how people see debt. That’s like, “Ah, there’s a panic. People are in debt. We have to do something. Oh, they’re not in debt anymore. Okay. That’s the end of that.” So does the view of indebtedness as… You’re laughing at me.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON - HOST, NOW & THEN: That’s like Congress in a nutshell, right? “We’re panicked. We have to do something,” and then, “Oh, never mind. Everything’s good.”

JOANNE FREEMAN - CO-HOST, NOW & THEN: No, exactly. Exactly. “Oh, it’s better now.” The end. So is there a way in which post-Civil war indebtedness and the way that the state deals with it changes?

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON - HOST, NOW & THEN: I think that depends on who’s holding the debts and what [00:38:00] the political moment is. So after the 1873 panic and the money downturns in the 1870s, for example, people were complaining that there shouldn’t be any kind of debt laws because, as the Sacramento Daily Union put it, “A rascally debtor could threaten his creditor with a recourse to the law, and that would enable him to walk away from the deaths that he had incurred.” The Sacramento Daily Union was very against the idea of people who didn’t have a lot of money having access to funds. And so, for example, it complained about post-bankruptcy laws as being fraudulent, because remember, in this period, we have all sorts of fights over money, and over what money means, and over the fact that, increasingly, capital is concentrated in the American east for weird reasons. And the west and farmers and entrepreneurs really want to access to capital, and they go into fairly heavy debt. And then when you get a downturn, [00:39:00] they freak out and say this wasn’t fair because of the way the system is structured. And so on those things, people take a political side. Either you want the bankruptcy legislation to protect the people who just got munched, or you don’t want it because you’re defending the creditors. But we end up getting a foundational bankruptcy law in 1898. And I think that’s a really significant law, because when they write that law, it’s written under the McKinley presidency. William McKinley was very much a representative of business interests, as was Congress at the time, and they wanted bankruptcy law to stop the booms and busts to make it possible for there to be a system whereby you could borrow money and you could have a hope to get paid without having to go through these sort of ratchets back and forth between the rights of the debtors and the rights of the lenders.

And when they signed the law in [00:40:00] 1898 - an Act to Establish a Uniform System of Bankruptcy - it was in fact supposed to be able to free up capital for entrepreneurship without taking out the personal aspect of that freeing up of debt in a way that it hadn’t been up until that point. But for me, the interest of that middle period is that we have the morality argument and then we also have the idea that you want people to take on debt because it’s good for the economy, essentially. You just want to regulate it so it doesn’t become a moral issue in the streets. But that is a really interesting window into the idea of people borrowing for an education. Because the idea of borrowing for an education intellectually looks as if it is an attempt to leverage debt for a public good, the same way you want entrepreneurs to say, “Yeah, I’ve got [00:41:00] this great new winch, you want them to be able to - it's my 19th century household here - you want them to be able to get that money so that they can have the best new whatever and take it on the market. And if it doesn’t work well, oopsie poopsie, at least they tried.

JOANNE FREEMAN - CO-HOST, NOW & THEN: Education loans is a way of, in one way or another, whoever’s providing the money, is investing in people to do something that ideally will better the larger good, or will better some good. It’s a different way of investing in society.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON - HOST, NOW & THEN: So it seems like those loans should be thought of in that sort of a way.

Bidens Big Student Debt Announcement: PITOTWIU for the Indebted Masses Part 2 - Unf*cking The Republic - Air Date 8-28-22

MAX: So that’s the initial shot. $10k for all student debt holders, $20k for Pell Grant recipients. Going back to our original episode, we noted how the default trends along racial lines are so significant that nearly 40% of all Black student debt holders who started school [00:42:00] in the 2000s have defaulted on their loans. A sizable chunk of these Pell Grant recipients are indeed from Black families in the United States, so this will offer a great relief to help shore up this disparity. Further, in terms of equity, this helps align with the dramatic increase in total indebtedness, given the rising cost of higher education, as the average debt burden over the past decade has gone from $24,700 per student to more than $36,000.

What this implies is that there is still going to be a tremendous amount of debt in the country, but that payments will return to something theoretically more aligned with prior decades with respect to income. So closer to parity with the past for those screaming about fairness. There is a talking point out there in the ether about how this isn’t really helping the poor or the middle class because college is viewed as a luxury, something for high class people. But this doesn’t square with the facts, as we also pointed out in the original [00:43:00] episode. So remember this additional truism should you be challenged on this idea. Wealthy people pay as they go. They are not the ones holding the debt.

Let’s get some additional perspective by adding together some real numbers here. These are national averages for monthly household expenditures. The average household in America spends:

$3,000 on rent,

$800 in transportation from car payments to fuel, insurance and service or public transportation,

$320 in utilities from internet to heat,

$250 on personal clothing and accessories,

$600 on food,

and $430 on health insurance.

Without student loan debt, that’s $64,800 in out-of-pocket expenses to run the average household. After state and federal withholding taxes, this household with zero dollars left over would have to earn [00:44:00] $87,000 a year just to break even. That's without student debt.

The average household income in 2022 is estimated to be…wait for it…$87,000 a year.

And how does that line up with this targeted program?

PRESIDENT BIDEN: More than 90% of those in line for relief make under $75,000 a family.

MAX: Right. Thanks, Joe. The average student loan payment, according to the [old NY] Fed [data,] is about $393 a month. EducationData.org extrapolated this even further and updated the with a current estimate of $460. Other sources estimate that the number is closer to $300 for those “actively paying” their loans, which implies to me that they’re accounting for defaults to drive down the average. So let’s just call it $400 a month for argument’s sake. And that assumes that in this average household, there’s only one person with student debt.

Student debt is just one of myriad reasons why households incur credit card debt. [00:45:00] Those figures I rattled off don’t include any additional money for out-of-pocket expenses or retirement savings. We’re just talking about the bare fucking minimum to get by. That’s why even $125,000 isn’t such a fantastic number anymore in the United States, which is a ridiculous thing to even say out loud, because it should be. Even at $125,000 and the bare essentials we described above, you’re talking about $25,000 a year left over every year to go toward paying down debt, discretionary spending, emergency spending or saving for retirement.

That's what we want. That’s the point of working, right?

So the fact that Pell Grant recipients are potentially having their debt almost entirely wiped out, or that the vast majority of borrowers are going to have some relief, doesn’t mean that we’re minting new millionaires who beat the system. This plan gives Americans a little bit of breathing room to make better, healthier decisions. And for all of those yelling and screaming about [00:46:00] inflation and how this undoes everything the Inflation Reduction Act accomplishes to bring down inflation, let’s all remember a couple of key points.

First off, extra money in the pockets of low income and middle class Americans didn’t cause inflation to skyrocket. We’ve covered that, so Unf*ckers have this down. Wall Street’s commodity gambling habit to find yield in the markets and corporate greed from “taking price” contributed to the lion’s share of inflation on most household goods and transportation costs. Supply chain issues from the shut down in China contributed to the bulk of inflation on raw materials. None of this came from Americans with a little extra spending cash from government checks. In fact, we also demonstrated that the vast majority of stimulus funds to American households went to paying down credit card debt, catching up on mortgage payments and rent, or buying more food.

So please, please, don’t let anyone get away with saying [00:47:00] that not paying student debt is going to unleash such outsized consumer spending that it will drive prices higher. It’s just not true.

OK, what else, Joe?

PRESIDENT BIDEN: No one with an undergraduate loan today or in the future, whether for a community college or a four-year college, will have to pay more than 5% of their discretionary income to repay their loan.

MAX: Okay. So my initial prediction was that we wouldn’t do anything to fix the structural issue of the system. I’ll explain where this was right in a bit, but I have to give the administration credit on this point. This is a really, really important piece of the puzzle. Right now payments can’t exceed 10% of household expenditures and they’re proposing to cut that in half. Important caveat: this doesn’t appear to be settled; it’s a proposal, but there’s nothing yet to indicate that it isn’t within the power of the executive branch to do this. Even more impressive [00:48:00] is this: Joe?

PRESIDENT BIDEN: After you pay your loan for 20 years, your obligation will be considered fulfilled if it hasn’t already been fulfilled, meaning you won't have to pay any more. Period.

MAX: Impressive. One last thing. If you did happen to catch our original episode, you might remember that we ripped apart the farkakte [Yiddish for ‘fucked up’] process that public service employees like charity workers and military service members have to go through to get their loans forgiven. I won't play the clip from Uncle Joe because it's a bit meandering and this is definitely still being worked out, but he's promised to streamline the process and give retroactive credit for service in order to qualify.

Suffice to say, if they can really get this done, it will be a blessing.

So the top level part is easy to digest. But these other features he’s touting are still being worked out, so it’s important not to get too far ahead of ourselves. The 20-year cap on payments, 5% income threshold, and public service streamlining are all important [00:49:00] but remain open questions until they become official policy, or withstand challenges from yet-to-be-seen sources.

And there are more questions.

It’s estimated that the size of student debt forgiveness will cost the government anywhere between $320 billion and $600 billion over ten years. There’s no official CBO analysis as of yet, nor do I expect that the analysis will be done until other key aspects of the program are defined. Like, which income years will apply? As of now, it seems as though the government will evaluate your income from the prior year’s tax return. Well, what if you lost your job since then? Will this extend over the ten year budget window, which is what most of the budget models assume? If so, this assumes that new borrowers will be eligible for relief as well. But how often? How many times can you apply for it?

Forgiving (and Unforgiving) Debts Part 2 - Now & Then - Air Date 9-6-22

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (ARCHIVAL): Young people now in college must be equipped to live in the age of intercontinental ballistic missiles. However, what will then be [00:50:00] needed is not just engineers and scientists, even though these will be of vital importance. We must also have a people who will keep their heads and, in every field, leaders who can meet intricate human problems with wisdom and with courage. In short, we will need not only Einsteins and Steinmetzes, but Washingtons and Emersons.

JOANNE FREEMAN - CO-HOST, NOW & THEN: That is so not of this moment, when we’re shooting down the humanities, right? That that’s not something worth investing in.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON - HOST, NOW & THEN: But see, this is one of the reasons that I’m a fan of Eisenhower. And I’m not by any means suggesting he did everything right, but he had been trained not only in military tactics and all the things that one learned at West Point, but he also spent a year with a man who was determined to train him in the humanities, and he had this really broad view of [00:51:00] leadership.

JOANNE FREEMAN - CO-HOST, NOW & THEN: Leadership isn’t just technology. It’s people.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON - HOST, NOW & THEN: So when they decided to create a pathway to make it easier for people without a lot of money to go to college, they called it the National Defense Education Act. I believe it was actually Eisenhower who established the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and the person in charge of the education is Elliot Richardson. But what I’m interested in here is that they’re arguing at first for both a need- and a merit-based scholarship program.

JOANNE FREEMAN - CO-HOST, NOW & THEN: There is a debate at first, when this begins to be discussed, initially through the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, about whether it should be a scholarship or a loan and what each means, what each has to do with merit, what each has to do with the values inherent in them. I mean, in and of itself, that’s fascinating, that they can generally agree that this is an [00:52:00] investment that’s worthwhile, but how to invest that money and what that suggests about the investments and the people taking them is part of what’s being debated here.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON - HOST, NOW & THEN: So Eisenhower liked the idea of scholarships, made sense. Like if a good student wanted to be educated, it made sense for the government to invest in that student. And this, of course, is going to be before we have the real establishment of the well-funded public institutions in the 1960s. So he’s focusing on the individuals, and yet there was another serious body of lawmakers who did not want simply to hand money to people being educated, they wanted them to put skin in the game by asking them to take out a loan.

JOANNE FREEMAN - CO-HOST, NOW & THEN: And the logic behind that is, you can hear it in the words of Republican New York Representative Stuyvesant Wainwright, he likes the idea of loan system, and he says that a loan approach “Conforms to your philosophy of [00:53:00] God helps those who help themselves". No give outs here. We’re not going to give out money. We’re going to give loans, and then the loans have to be paid back.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON - HOST, NOW & THEN: But doesn’t that sound just like borrowing for a corporation in the 19th century? You wanna have skin in the game. We want to make sure that you’re really going to be creating value for society with a loan. And logically, to me, if that’s the philosophy behind these, they should be structured in such a way that they can be forgiven in the same way that business loans could be forgiven in the 19th century, as opposed to the way that we talk about them nowadays, which is entirely in the first model you talked about, which is morality. Somehow you did something wrong by deciding you were going to invest in yourself and take a gamble on contributing to society in a way that is so monetarily valuable that you can pay this loan back. I mean, just to me, it doesn’t make logical [00:54:00] sense. We’ve got morality. We’ve got the business model. Then we’ve got the concept of student loans that are based in what looks to me like the business model, but we’re judging them on the morality model.

And you know how I feel about things that look intellectually inconsistent. And maybe this goes back to the idea that you talked about, is when did we get bankruptcy legislation, firm bankruptcy legislation in the 19th century for businesses. And that is that with the expansion of these loans, higher education expands dramatically. And it not only expands into poorer White populations, but of course, into minority populations. And with that, that shift into minority populations, then we seem to be jumping back to the morality vision.

JOANNE FREEMAN - CO-HOST, NOW & THEN: So, wait, are you saying that when things become more diverse, suddenly everybody’s focused on the morality of the people involved?

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON - HOST, NOW & THEN: I actually think I would say it more strongly, that [00:55:00] the idea that it’s great for people to invest in the economy and in themselves is just great, so long as they’re White, basically. And let me push that a little bit further, because with the rise of these loans, and then President Johnson’s Higher Education Act of 1965, which dramatically expanded the loan program, it also dramatically expanded higher education. And that seems like it would be a societal good, by taking college access from about 3.6 million students in 1960 to 7.5 million, more than doubling it, by 1970, you would think that we would think that was a good thing. And yet, of course, by the 1980s, there is a dramatic attempt to scale that back. The idea that we’re educating this many people in college is not a good thing, that rather than growing up to be a certain kind of [00:56:00] American, they are challenging the status quo, and that is not a good thing. And so then somehow we get thrown back into the concept of morality.

JOANNE FREEMAN - CO-HOST, NOW & THEN: Part of what we’re saying here over and over again is morality sort of looms, and then it gets pushed out of the way in favor of investment and then the morality kind of looms again, and then it gets pushed out of the way in favor of investment, but that it’s never fully swept aside, that giving loans, citizen loans in some way, education or not, that there’s a moral component to them that is seemingly inescapable when it applies to an individual, not when it applies to a business.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON - HOST, NOW & THEN: See, I don’t think it’s inescapable though. That’s what I think what’s bothering me so much about this whole thing intellectually. It’s that we did the whole morality thing with the debtor’s prisons, and yet we decided as a country early on that that wasn’t a good way to make sure the country continued to grow, that we wanted to have a way to leverage debt in such a way that people could invest in businesses, in whatever. So then in the 1950s, someone says, [00:57:00] “Hey, well, businesses are all great, but let’s really invest in what is the most valuable part of our society, which is our minds.” Then once we did that, and it really seemed to take off and seemed to work, the inclusion of all those minds in society suddenly threw us back to say, “This is all about morality, and having borrowed for this, you’re a bad person.”

JOANNE FREEMAN - CO-HOST, NOW & THEN: in the 1950s and the 1960s, if you’re going to apply for a loan as a student, you have to swear, actually, two oaths. One is to the Constitution and the United States of America, and the second is that you are not involved with organizations that “teach the overthrow of the United States government by force or violence, or by any illegal or unconstitutional methods.” So they’re saying, Okay, loans, right? We’re not giving things away. We’re going to give money. It needs to be paid back. But [00:58:00] as long as we’re doing that, if you’re going to get that kind of money, you have to swear an oath to your morality, to your values, to the fact that you’re going to support the government, that you’re not going to act against the government. And obviously, that’s going to be controversial. Why is that oath only happening for students? The morality component is a way of reigning in something that opens opportunity in one way or another, but it’s always sort of hovering there as a way to pull in or exclude people from the opportunity that that kind of investment, that kind of money is empowering.

HEATHER COX RICHARDSON - HOST, NOW & THEN: As I said, when we started this, illuminating that you really can’t think of debt in America without thinking about the way we have constructed a moral component around some of it and a market component around other of it. And when we focus on what is bad debt versus [00:59:00] good debt and what that means for a society.

Final comments on morality and money

JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: We've just heard clips today starting with Democracy Now!, discussing Biden's proposal, the high price of education, and cynical arguments against debt forgiveness. The Intercept explored education as a commodity and the legacy of Reagan ending free college. Thom Hartmann explained the evils of student debt and how it is counterproductive for a healthy society. Unf*cking The Republic dispensed with some of the terrible arguments against debt forgiveness. The Majority Report looked at the way debt drives people into the military and makes employees easier to control. And Now & Then explained the history of debt and morality. That's what everyone heard. But members also heard a bonus clip from Unf*cking The Republic, diving deep into the benefits of the debt forgiveness policy, and Now & Then looked at the ways morality is applied differently to different debts.

To hear that and have all of our bonus contents delivered seamlessly to the new [01:00:00] members-only podcast feed that you'll receive, sign up to support the show at bestoftheleft.com/support, or shoot me an email requesting a financial hardship membership, because we don't let a lack of funds stand in the way of hearing more information.

And now to just wrap up, I have some thoughts on how money manipulates our perception of morality. To start, here's a quote from David Graeber's book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. "If one, owes a favor or one's life to another human being, it is owed to that person specifically. But if one owes $40,000 at 12% interest, it doesn't really matter who the creditor is. Neither does either of the two parties have to think much about what the other party needs, wants, is capable of doing, as they certainly would if what was owed was a favor, or respect, or gratitude. One does not need to calculate the human effects. One only need calculate principle, balances, penalties, and rates of interest. [01:01:00] If you end up having to abandon your home and wander in other provinces, if your daughter ends up in a mining camp working as a prostitute, well, that's unfortunate, but incidental to the creditor. Money is money and a deal's a deal. From this perspective, the crucial factor is money's capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic and, by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene".

And, from where I stand, the cost of higher education and the system built up around it to put entire generations of people into debt for decades and all of the ramifications that come from that, absolutely qualifies as outrageous and obscene. You know, occasionally people will mention that money is the root of all evil. And if they're very unlucky, they'll be in the vicinity of someone who will pipe up and correct them. That actually [01:02:00] the quote isn't about money, but the love of money. That's the real problem. And they're right about the quote. But I still beg to differ. One need not be a greedy lover and hoarder of money to allow financial concerns to preempt moral concerns by confusing one for the other. When a financial debt owed becomes a measure of morality, the game is already lost, particularly when the debt was accrued under false pretenses, which I certainly think student debt in the U.S. was, with endless promises of college being the golden ticket to high paying jobs that would make all those student loans you take out functionally irrelevant. And this is really not that different than the liar loans banks were motivated to hand out that ultimately led to the housing and financial crash in 2008. Then as now, a large portion of the population that cannot see through the rhetoric of debt standing in for morality [01:03:00] and see the sand the whole argument is built on, are blaming individuals for the collective situation we find ourselves in rather than recognizing it for the systemic problem that it is.

Now immorality frequently hides behind veneers of morality, particularly structural immorality, as that's basically the definition of how an immoral system can manage to perpetuate itself. That's how you get arguments defending or downplaying slavery, saying that because the enslaved people and their offspring are better off - giant air quotes there - in the United States than they would have been in Africa, then slavery was justified or it wasn't that bad or, at the very least, we certainly don't owe them any kind of reparations. That's just attempting badly to justify blatant immorality by cloaking it in a veneer of something vaguely moral [01:04:00] sounding.

Here's another extreme example to help make the point. There was a slave ship called the Zong which had a tough crossing of the Atlantic with its cargo of enslaved Africans. Dozens of the slaves died and many others were sick. The captain began to worry about the profitability of the trip if the slaves kept dying. But then remembered that they were classified as cargo, not passengers or any other category of human, and were therefore insured as cargo. And he realized that they could likely make more money through insurance fraud than any other option. And by insurance fraud, I mean murdering the rest of the slaves on board and then submitting a claim saying that they had to be jettisoned because the trip was taking longer than expected, which was true, and that they were running out of water, which was not true. But if it had been true, taking that action would've been completely legal. [01:05:00] And we know about this because of the trial that followed and all the debates came out. But I'm using this example because it's so extreme that no one today could dispute the immorality of murdering enslaved people to cash in on an insurance policy. But at the time the only crime that was investigated was insurance fraud, not murder. And it was even mentioned by the captain's lawyer that it would be madness to consider such a charge because one cannot murder cargo.

So once again, something deeply immoral was hidden behind a veneer of morality simply by reclassifying people as objects. And based on the letter of the law, the rules of society that everyone has to live by, it was legal to throw enslaved people into the ocean. If it's legal, then how could anyone argue that someone who takes that action is acting [01:06:00] immorally? Now, I don't think that charging high tuitions or high interest rates is akin to murdering slaves, but the veneer of morality granted by laws and social norms is not actually so different. If it's legal to charge high tuition and large fees on the loans, aims to tell people that going to college is the only way to have security in life, and then people sign their names agreeing to take on those loans, then how could anything about that possibly be seen as immoral?, is what our culture tells us to say. So when we debate issues of morality today, we very often speak past each other because we're not talking about the same version of morality. Those defending the debt system of education are defending the veneer that has been draped on top of a deeply immoral system, which simplifies it down to the idea that the moral thing to do is to pay one's debts, just as one would return a favor from a friend. Sounds simple. But those of us arguing for debt [01:07:00] cancellation aren't saying that the whole idea of debt and obligations is immoral. You should return that favor from your friend. We're saying that financial obligations, particularly those built on a system of flawed reasoning, just as all of the rationales for slavery throughout time - and there have been many - we now see clearly were all built on flawed reasoning. Those obligations should not fall under the category of morality at all. We're not debating the logic behind paying one's legitimate debts. We're arguing that these debts we're never legitimate to begin with.

As always keep the comments coming in at 202-999-3991 or by emailing me to [email protected] That is going to be it for today. Thanks to everyone for listening. Thanks to Deon Clark and Erin Clayton for their research work for the show and participation in our bonus episodes. Thanks to the Monosyllabic Transcriptionist Trio, Ben, Ken, and Brian, for [01:08:00] their volunteer work, helping put our transcripts together. Thanks to Amanda Hoffman for all of her work on our social media outlets, activism segments, graphic designing, web mastering, and bonus show cohosting. And thanks to those who support the show by becoming a member or purchasing gift memberships at bestoftheleft.com/support, through our Patreon page, or from right inside the Apple podcast app. Membership is how you get instant access to our incredibly good bonus episodes in addition to there being extra content and no ads in all of our regular episodes, all through your regular podcast player. And if you wanna continue the discussion, join our Best of the Left Discord community to discuss the show or the news or other shows or anything you like. Links to join are in the show notes.

So coming to you from far outside the conventional wisdom of Washington, DC, my name is Jay, and this has been the Best of the Left podcast coming to twice weekly thanks entirely to the members and donors to the show from bestoftheleft.com.


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  • Jay Tomlinson
    published this page in Transcripts 2022-09-14 17:32:09 -0400
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