Forty-five million Americans now owe a total of $1.7 trillion in federal and private student loans.
For many people, that debt is the biggest drag on their adult lives. It prevents them from buying a home or starting a family or investing in their future. They are stuck in a perpetual loop.
This crisis has led to calls to cancel all that debt and liberate an entire generation of Americans — something I instinctively support. But when you start to think about all the obstacles and trade-offs, you quickly realize how politically fraught such a proposal would be. Is there any way to do it fairly? What about the millions of people who spent decades paying down their loans? And what about the people who didn’t go to college because they didn’t want the debt — how would this land for them?
So I reached out to Astra Taylor, documentary filmmaker and author of the 2019 book Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. Taylor has become a leading advocate for debt forgiveness, and she treats it as not just an economic problem but as a small-d democratic problem. We talk about why that is and how it shapes her argument.
If you’re looking for a snapshot of the wider debate around student debt cancellation, read this exhaustive essay by my Vox colleague Emily Stewart. Here I wanted to focus on the case for forgiving student debt and why Taylor argues it’s just one part of a much deeper struggle for a just society.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Your argument requires that we think of debt less as a financial instrument and more as a form of top-down power. How so?
People who are in debt have to worry about making that next payment. It’s a source of anxiety and stress. It changes your psychology. If you don’t make your payments on time, you’re penalized harshly. Your credit scores are trashed, and that limits your options in terms of being able to rent an apartment or secure a job. The stakes are enormously high. In some places, if you default on your student loans, your license can be taken away so you can’t even do your job.
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.
Ronald Reagan famously said that the state shouldn’t be in the business of subsidizing curiosity, so then the question is, “Well, what should the state be in the business of?” And right now, it’s in the business of lending to students so that they can then have a chance at social mobility. But that compact has totally broken down. That myth was sold to us for decades and it has collapsed.
You’re calling for “economic disobedience.” What does that mean?
I come from the tradition that sees social change as a struggle. It would be wonderful if we lived in a political reality where we just had to make the best arguments and propose rational policies. I think there’s a very persuasive argument for education as a public good, for health care as a public good. But that’s not the way politics works. It’s not actually just about persuasion and deliberation. It’s about power.
Debt has become a disciplinary form of power. Over the last few decades, as debt has exploded, it has disempowered people. Every time we sign a lending contract, it feels like an individual act, but that obscures the fact that it’s part of a broader social and economic phenomenon. We tend to see poverty and debt as personal failings, but it’s really the product of failed policies.
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.”
Biden has suggested forgiving up to $10,000 of student loan debt per borrower, which would eliminate the burden for roughly a third of borrowers. That’s a good start, right?
That was Biden’s promise, and it’s important to acknowledge that he never would have promised anything if debtors hadn’t been organizing for the last 10 years around this. Because Joe Biden is someone who was in the opposite camp. He’s someone who famously pushed to eliminate what limited bankruptcy protections student borrowers had around private loans.
So Biden campaigned on the immediate cancellation of a minimum of $10,000. And that was for everyone, for any borrower, across the board. Then he also promised the cancellation of all undergraduate student debt for people who went to public colleges, HBCUs, and other things. But he hasn’t done these things. And he actually has the power to do it.
But $10,000 is woefully inadequate because the average Black borrower owes over $50,000 in debt four years after graduation [and that was 2016 data, so things have likely gotten worse]. The average student debtor graduates with around $30,000, and it goes up every year. So for a lot of people, many of whom have six figures [in debt], $10,000 is a drop in the bucket. It just won’t make a material difference in their lives. And I think the question of justice comes in when we say, “Well, what is just about leaving the rest of this debt?” And instead of accepting the burden of rationalizing eliminating it, I ask, “What’s the rationalization for leaving it there?”
Does Biden actually have the power to do this unilaterally?
Student debt forgiveness is something that the Biden administration has the executive authority to do. So it’s not like it’s some extraconstitutional overreach. This is authority granted thanks to the Higher Education Act of 1965. Congress granted the Secretary of Education the ability to cancel student debt. But it’s obviously one of these executive moves that you can’t undo once it’s done.
I’m trying to see this from the perspective of someone who spent years paying down their debt, or someone who wanted to go to college but decided against it precisely because they didn’t want to take on the debt. These aren’t necessarily arguments against doing it, but it is part of the political calculus, right?
Yeah, but I think a lot of these concerns are raised in bad faith. They’re raised by people who work for conservative think tanks quite often. And they pretend to be suddenly concerned about equity and whether student debt cancellation disproportionately benefits the privileged.
My main response to these concerns is that they still think of the problem in terms of the individual, which is how debt trains us to think. We sign a loan contract and then we’re responsible for paying it back. But there are broader social benefits to canceling student debt. Some of the money now going to the federal government would instead circulate in the broader economy. It would allow people to improve their economic circumstances, to take more risks and be more entrepreneurial. It would also go a long way in closing the racial wealth gap.
Lastly, I will say that student debt cancellation is very popular across the political spectrum because it impacts people across the political spectrum. It’s one of those things where I can imagine a world where you would lead with that, where you would lead with the social good, where you would lead with the fact that it’s popular even with Republicans, and articulating those broad social benefits.
But not all of those arguments are bad faith, right? The main objection I hear, even from people who are sympathetic to the idea of debt cancellation, is that it’s economically regressive, not progressive, because higher-income people — college graduates — would benefit disproportionately.
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.
The people who are making the arguments that student debt is regressive are fixated on targeting, “Well, who gets this Pell Grant? And who will get this tiny amount of debt cancellation?” because they’re not coming from a broader framework devoted to distributing wealth more equally. That’s what I mean by bad faith.
And we can’t make this point enough: student debt is regressive. Student debt cancellation is not regressive. Student debt is regressive because if your parents have the means, they pay for you to go to college. As AOC famously said, “The children of millionaires and billionaires do not take on student debt to go to school.” And that is absolutely true.
If only to grease the political tracks, do you think we’ll need some kind of reparations for people who already paid their student debts?
If that was on the table as part of a deal for debt forgiveness, sure! I’d just say that that’s not how we approach other forms of social progress. For example, it’s tragic that some people didn’t have access to the Covid-19 vaccine. But we cheer the fact that other people will have access to it, right? Hopefully people will see that they’ll benefit because perhaps their children, or their loved ones, or their friends, will be able to pursue higher education without the weight of these debts.
I’d also stress again that this isn’t the only policy. The federal government can erase any debts it’s owed. So it could erase debts for farmers. It could erase debts for veterans who go to its hospitals. This should be coupled with all sorts of policies that aim to reap the benefits of a debt jubilee.
Erasing student debt would make a lot of people’s lives a lot better and hopefully set the stage for the deeper fight. It’s part of the pathway to where we need to be, but it’s not the whole piece.
So what’s the real goal of debt forgiveness in your mind? To liberate indebted individuals? To boost the economy? To close the wealth gap? To make our democracy more democratic?
All of the above. The Debt Collective is not just a student debt organization. We are trying to open a new avenue in the fight against inequality. So just like the labor movement organized people on the wage gap, we see a complementary motive organizing around indebtedness, where people can connect their personal struggles to the lack of public goods and make demands of the state, and to collectively push for debt cancellation.
To your specific question about college, pushing for free college has a double meaning for me. It should be free in the sense that it doesn’t cost anything, but it should also be free in the sense that it frees people to pursue the things they’re interested in and to become whole citizens. In other words, contra Reagan, the state should be in the business of subsidizing curiosity because that is good for society. That’s good for democracy.
And it’s worth fighting for.