No sooner had President Biden announced his plan to forgive a portion of student loans, especially for middle class and poor families, than Republicans started lecturing all of us on the importance of paying back what we owe. Never mind that this was a campaign promise, or that the cost of higher education has made borrowing to access the American Dream a necessity for millions, Republicans took it to be yet another sign that the Democrats are socialists, and that loan forgiveness is, to quote Mitch McConnell, “a slap in the face to working Americans who sacrificed to pay their debt or made different career choices to avoid debt.”
Then he said something almost too hypocritical to believe. He called it, “a wildly unfair redistribution of wealth toward higher-earning people.” Isn’t that exactly what Republicans do best, including the $2 trillion tax cut under Trump that benefited the wealthiest Americans, and made it possible for those who pay almost no taxes to pay even less? The fact is that some of the richest people on the planet, along with most major corporations, pay no federal income tax at all. In other words, they don’t pay what they owe.
Representative Jim Jordan, always quick to stoke the culture wars, put forth this profound question: “Why should a machinist in Ohio pay for the student loans of a jobless philosophy major in Los Angeles?” Ah yes, the poor philosophy major who seeks the truth and knows that the “unexamined life is not worth living” — he is the tired trope of the useless college degree, and will end up asking, “Do you want fries with that?” The truth, of course, which is stranger than fiction these days, is that philosophy majors fall in the middle of the earnings hierarchy after graduation and include some of the most remarkable and transformative human beings on the planet.
So, what about the complaint that millions of Americans won’t benefit from this program because they already paid off their debts or never took on student loans in the first place? Well, for starters, they are to be commended. Paying what you owe is important and good for those who were able to do so. But let’s be clear: many students had all or most of their tuition paid by their parents, or they attended college on academic or athletic scholarships. So, if they had to borrow at all they borrowed less. All debt is not created equal, nor is the capacity to repay it. Most of the debt relief in Biden’s plan went to the young and to Black and brown families.
None of them expected to receive this gift from their government when they signed the papers. Nor did they have any control over the increasingly unaffordable costs for tuition, room, and board. Republicans have consistently voted to reduce the share of state support going to higher education, even as they poured more and more money into sports complexes and luxury sky boxes, often in states where coaches are the highest paid of all state employees. So, when it comes to moral lessons about “paying what you owe,” let’s get real, or as Joan Rivers used to say, “Can we talk?”
The rich have myriad ways to not pay what they owe, which is how they get richer. They take small salaries offset by big dividends, so they don’t have to pay taxes on their income like the rest of us. In other words, they don’t pay what they owe. When they go bankrupt, they have lawyers to negotiate debt relief not available to the rest of us so that, you guessed it, they don’t have to pay what they owe.
They hide money in offshore accounts to avoid paying what they owe. When the pandemic hit, many took PPP loans they didn’t need, and then had those loans forgiven. It was common in those days to hear business owners talk about “free money.” What more, this well-intentioned effort to keep businesses afloat and their employees from starving ended up being abused and has suffered from more corruption and fraud than any program in American history. In other words, some of the wealthiest Americans lined up for this free money, and then did not have to pay back what they owed. Of 743 billion approved, 743 billion was forgiven, including interest.
Oklahoma’s “fighter” against all things Democratic and demonic, Markwayne Mullin, took a PPP loan of $988,700 and had it forgiven. Dozens of Republican lawmakers took millions in PPP loans and had them forgiven. So, it is just fine for the government to help business owners at taxpayer’s expense, but not college students? When many of them went to college, the cost was a fraction of what it is today precisely because the state share of higher education was much higher. And they all support free higher education for those serving in the military, but the rest of us bear those costs as well.
Given the number of self-professed Christians in Oklahoma, you would think that this unexpected debt forgiveness for students might be seen as something we talk about all the time in church — namely grace. From time to time, all of us get more than we deserve. Or we might read the parable of the Eleventh Hour Worker, where Jesus tells the story of a rich man who paid those who worked for just one hour as much as he paid those who had worked all day. They complained that this was unfair, but as it turned out, the owner had not underpaid anyone. He had just overpaid some. He asked, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
What if we could just be happy for these kids, and this little bit of good fortune. They will have more money in their pockets now, and that will benefit all of us.
The Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers is pastor of First Congregational Church UCC in Norman and retired senior minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC in Oklahoma City. He is currently Professor of Public Speaking, and Distinguished Professor of Social Justice Emeritus in the Philosophy Department at Oklahoma City University, and the author of eight books on religion and American culture, the most recent of which is, Saving God from Religion: A Minister’s Search for Faith in a Skeptical Age.