Enough With the Unseemly Whining About Student Debt Forgiveness!

Photograph Source: Bryan Alexander – CC BY 2.0

The greed, self interest and racism of US citizens never ceases to amaze and appall me.

President Biden was dragged, against his own wishes, into using his executive authority to cancel a paltry $10.000 in federally insured student college debt for all those former students with current income of less than $125,000, and an extra $10,000 in forgiveness for those former students who had qualified for Pell Grants — a need-based federal scholarship frant limited to students whose families had annual incomes of below the poverty time at the time they were attending college.

Now most Republicans in Congress or running for Congress — an institution known appropriately as a “millionaires’ club” because so many of its elected members either ran for office having millions of dollars in assets or became millionaires in office because of the corruption of the US political system — are opposing this Biden executive order, claiming it will be inflationary, will cost too much, isn’t fair to taxpayers. But perhaps even worse, are many ordinary Americans, most of them upper middle class or wealthier, who are grousing because they paid off their student loans on their own and don’t think their taxes should have to go to fund a cancellation of debt for poorer former students who have not repaid theirs.

How pathetic is that!

You want unfair?  Check out the incredible tax breaks that the heavily lobbied US Tax Code gives to the ultra rich and just wealth, including everyone from the upper middle class to billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft’s Bill Gates!, not to mention gifts like the $7500 tax credit taken off the tax bill of anyone rich enough to buy electric cars, which start in the range of $40,000 unless you count the Nissan Leaf which is a tiny car that has a range of just 125 miles on a charge.

Wealthy upper-middle-class people— the smug types who complain most about debt forgiveness as “unfair” — get their investmant income (appropriately called “unearned income” in the tax code) taxed at a lowere capital gains rate than the person earning a wage or salary income. They slso get tax subsidies for installing solar power panels on their roofs, or windmills and  heat pumps for their homes while low income people can’t even get assistance paying exorbitant energy bills for heating and air conditioning.  Rich people even get subsidies for installing double-glazed insulated windows on their homes while poor people aare stuck with drafty old windows with single-glass panes.  Wealthy people get to deduct the cost of offices in their homes as long as their homes are big enough for them to vouch that the room is only used for business, but poor people who may run some small business from their small apartment or home don’t have the luxury to meet that requirement as they have to locate their business operation in the kitchen, living room or a bedroom.  And guess who pays for those wealthy-person tax breaks?  Poorer people with their taxes!

The entire system is rigged in favor of the wealthy and everyone knows it, but when something is done that is designed specifically to help the poor be able to afford an education without ending up not being so buried in debt that they can’t get started with their lives after graduation, or even to finish getting their degree, those who did repay their loans complain because those now finally getting some assistance from the federal government are supposedly  “getting away” with not having to pay back $10,000 or $20,000 of their debt.

This kind of callousness is unseemly and actually from a national interest perspective plain stupid.  Look at Europe (not counting the UK which is almost as socially effed-up as the US), where in most if not all countries higher education is provided free to all who are qualified to go forward with their studies beyond high school. People in those more enlightened lands view a college education as they view elementary and secondary education, as being good for the country, as indeed it obviously is. The more educated a public citizenry, the more advanced the country will be, the more competitive in global economic competition,  the more creative, and, on the evidence of many surveys, the happier too.

In Finland, a country I came to know from several lengthy stays there living with a Finnish family, college is not just free, but the government pays a student stipend which, as I recall, was about 600 Euros a month six years ago (about $700 at the time) which was to cover student living expenses. (Note: that is not just a benefit to students, but to the parents and grandparents of college students who will not, as is often the case with American parents and grandparents, have to go into debt in their old age, perhaps even re-mortgaging their home, to see that their progeny get a good education and chance in life.

I have to believe a lot of the whining and selfishness being expressed over even Biden’s rather stingy offer of debt relief ($10,000 these days won’t even cover a semester’s school costs at many public state universities), is actually rooted in outright or subliminal racism. It’s a racism based upon a false belief that most of the recipients of such debt relief will be black and brown people and (heaven forfend!) immigrants.  Here I must mention that in many European countries, foreigners can also go to college free — why? because it’s great for international relations, and if some of those students, once educated, elect to seek residency or citizenship, they will inevitably raise the educated quotient of the country.  But here’s the truth about who benefits most from student debt relief:  while it’s true that institutionalized racism in the US means that a larger percentage of black and bown families are poor, but nonetheless, whites remain the largest single impoverished racial group in his country.

So why don’t the selfish whiners join the rest of Americans and demand that public colleges be made free for undergraduate education?  It’s good for everyone, including the country’s national interest.

The other thing we should all be demanding is that colleges do away with a generation of administrative bloat and increasingly outrageous salaries.

Over my adult live of some 55 years, I’ve watched as virtually all American universities, including the one I grew up near in Storrs, CT,  the University of Connecticut, where my father was an engineering professor, and the one I got my BA at, Wesleyan University, have gone from having a president, provost, a bunch of school deans and maybe a Financial Director, and a teaching faculty that included elected chairs who were just faculty members themselves, to enormous bureaucracies with multiple vice presidents, associate and assistant provosts of this and that, associate deans and assistant deans, directors of this and that (what the hell is a director in a university or college?), program managers, office managers and who knows what else (and often department chairs who are considered administrators, are selected by deans, and get paid extra),. Meanwhile top salaries for presidents have passed $1 million counting perks like free presidential mansions and luxury cars, and even second and third-tier academic bureaucrats walk away with $4-500,000 a year. (I’m not even talking about coaches of  big sports like football and basketball.)

So here’s an idea: Let’s end the rampant corporatization of higher education, and demand a law limiting public university administrative staffing to a salary budget from president on down, including provost, dean and other top positions not directly involved in teaching classes to 10% or maybe 5% of the total teaching faculty salary budget. Let’s also say that no public university president’s salary including perks should exceed $250,000 and that other positions, like provost and dean should come in at less than that cap — perhaps $200.000.

Private universities could be pressed to cut their costs too by the federal government simply saying neither they institutionally nor their faculty and students individually can receive federal grants and loans unless those schools adhere to those limits on administrative size and compensation.

Meanwhile, if the Biden administration and the US Dept. of Education discover that the debt relief being offered has indeed gone primarily to the poorest students, they should find out how many are still crushed by debt and up the ante with another round of $10,000 debt relief for all.

CounterPunch contributor DAVE LINDORFF is a producer along with MARK MITTEN on a forthcoming feature-length documentary film on the life of Ted Hall and his wife of 51 years, Joan Hall. A Participant Film, “A Compassionate Spy” is directed by STEVE JAMES and will premiere Sept. 2 at the Venice Film Festival. Lindorff is also writing a book on Ted Hall titled “A Spy for No Country,” to be published in Fall 2023 by Prometheus Press.