In 1920, the world’s most famous economist, John Maynard Keynes, was digging through old books on the economy of the ancient world, when he discovered something startling. All his life he had been taught that civilization depended on ironclad financial certainty. Without a stable currency and dependable debt contracts, commerce could not exist. Governments that meddled in such matters were thought to be asking for social chaos.
But the documents he perused on Ancient Greece, Rome, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia showed him something else entirely. Throughout history, political leaders had abolished debts and managed the value of their currencies—another way to revise debts—as routine matters of government policy. Keynes was electrified. A year earlier, he had staked his reputation on a call to cancel the largest debts the world had ever seen—those accrued by the governments of Europe during World War I. If these debts were not cleared, Keynes had argued, the international trading system would break down, leading to misery and another war. Predictably, the financial establishments on two continents responded to this apparent heresy with alarm. Now Keynes had discovered precedent for his ideas — thousands of years’ worth, from Hammurabi in ancient Babylon to Solon of Athens.
Indeed, debt relief has always been the handmaiden of debt itself. In the United States we have a formal legal process for eliminating nearly all forms of debt: bankruptcy. When debts become unbearable, people file for bankruptcy to have them discharged in court. In the 15 years preceding the pandemic, more than 14.3 million people filed for bankruptcy, and in the decade prior to the pandemic, more than 20,000 businesses filed for bankruptcy every year, with a high water mark of 60,837 in 2009. Debts are discharged every day in the United States, and have been for decades.
Not that you would know from the apocalyptic conservative outrage emanating from social media and cable television this week. When President Joe Biden announced his new student loan relief program on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decried it as “socialism” and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney called it a naked attempt to “bribe the voters.” Reason magazine’s Robby Soave declared it a “fuck you to every financially responsible person in the country.” These reactions belie centuries if not millennia of economic history.
Capitalism would collapse without debt relief systems. Businesses get in trouble all the time—both good businesses that would work fine without a few onerous debt deals, and bad businesses that need to be liquidated or restructured. Sometimes bad things just happen. People get divorced. They get injured and are overwhelmed by medical bills. They get laid off. They have to pay for a parent’s funeral or care for children with special needs. And yeah, some people just don’t know how to manage their money and buy things they can’t afford. But we do not consign such people to never-ending financial servitude as a result of unforeseen circumstances, or even totally reckless spending habits. We have a formal process to eliminate debts and start over, with a reasonable chance of living a healthy financial life.
But not for students who borrow money to attend college. In 2005, Congress passed a law that made it next to impossible to discharge almost any form of student debt. Even the most creative consumer lawyers estimate that only about $50 billion—less than 3 percent of the $1.75 trillion in outstanding student debt—had the potential to be wiped away, but only if students could persuade a court that they had been egregiously wronged, by say, non-accredited programs or institutions that didn’t actually offer degrees.
Biden’s new student debt relief program exists because student debt is currently ineligible for the ordinary process that Americans use for extinguishing excessive debts.
There’s no real reason why student debts should be so much more onerous than others. Let’s be clear about the supposedly reckless gambit that student debtors embarked on. They didn’t go to a casino, or buy a Maserati or make bad bets on meme stocks. They tried to get an education—exactly what parents, teachers and financial advice columnists have been telling kids to do for decades if they want to live better and more profitable lives.
Nor is there anything particularly unusual about the government paying for education. According to the Urban Institute, state and local governments spent $311 billion on higher education in 2019 alone. The federal government, meanwhile, spends more than $75 billion a year on higher ed, excluding the student loan program. With an estimated cost of $300 billion, Biden’s student loan relief program is more than a drop in the bucket. But considering that the federal government has provided almost no student debt relief in the 17 years since that 2005 law, it’s not exactly a splurge.
Nor are the recipients of Biden’s aid particularly wealthy. The plan flatly excludes anyone who makes more than $125,000 a year from participation. According to an analysis by the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model, about half of the money will go to borrowers in the bottom half of the income spectrum, with only 2.5 percent of folks breaking into the top 10 percent receiving relief. The median personal income in the United States—the 50 percent line—is $35,800. This makes sense once we consider the actual demographics of the typical American college student, who is not an Ivy Leaguer bound for the 1 percent. About 40 percent of all undergraduate students attend community colleges, about one-third of whom take out student loans to help pay for their education. The average community college borrower graduating with more than $13,000 in debt. There are also racial disparities in student debt: According to a Brookings Institute analysis, Black borrowers shoulder roughly double the amount of debt to attend college that white borrowers do.
There are perfectly reasonable critiques that can be lodged against Biden’s program. The plan isn’t comprehensive—only $20,000 can be discharged, and this only for borrowers whose incomes were low enough to qualify for Pell Grants. The program looks the way it does because it is the only solution to this problem that our current politics will bear. It would be far better to reform the higher education financing system than to simply wipe out a big chunk of higher ed debt. In a better America, students wouldn’t have to pay any more for a college education than they do for a high school education.
But we don’t live in that America right now. In time we may be able to reform the broader higher ed system, but for now, providing reasonable debt relief is the best our government can do.
Biden’s student debt relief initiative is no wild, unprecedented idea. Governments pay for education and eliminate unsustainable debts. That is how the world has worked for centuries.