New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been one of the most vociferous and articulate advocates for student loan forgiveness, repeatedly pushing the Biden administration to make a big and bold move when it comes to its campaign promise to address the $1.7 trillion student debt crisis financially crippling many Americans and stifling the economy.
She has warned against actions whispered about that would forgive up to $10,000 in student debt, insisting that such a paltry and effectively inconsequential amount would anger both critics and advocates alike and constitute mere lip service to an otherwise substantial and potentially transformative platform of Biden’s campaign.
Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez, in discussing the issue of forgiving student loans, underlines just how transformative Biden’s pending action can potentially be not just for the American economy but for American culture, society, and democracy, if executed in a bold and thorough way that fully addresses the crisis not just in economic terms but in terms of American values overall.
Her commentary has sought to transform—and indeed, rectify—the way many Americans understand their self-interests in very narrow ways and determine, generally to their own detriment, what other Americans deserve.
Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez’s advocacy for student loan forgiveness has, perhaps in slightly different language, recast and asked Americans to reconsider the distorted, self-defeating, and damaging ways our nation deploys a meritocratic belief system that encourages Americans often to seek to withhold support for other Americans that would actually benefit us all.
She takes on those critics who say, “Well, I paid off my student loans. Why should my taxes help to pay someone else’s debt they willfully chose to take on?”
And in taking on this prevalent criticism, she invites Americans to consider their self-interest, what benefits them, in larger, broader, and more enlightened ways.
Here’s what she said early last May in articulating a key position in the debate over student loan forgiveness:
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Not every program has to be for everybody. People with apartments pay for first time homeowner benefits. Young people pay for Medicare for our seniors. People who take public transit pay for car infrastructure.
“Maybe student loan forgiveness doesn’t impact you. That doesn’t make it bad. I am sure there are certainly other things that student loan borrowers’ taxes pay for. We can do good things and reject the scarcity mindset that says doing something good for someone else comes at the cost of something for ourselves.
“An example: If a person is blessed enough to be in a position to have paid off their loans, maybe they have a home now and benefitted from first time homeowners programs that people crushed by student loans help subsidize when they aren’t able to buy a home because of student debt. It all comes around. It’s okay. We can support things we won’t directly benefit from.”
What Ocasio-Cortez expresses here—and asks us to reflect on—are a set of values and a worldview that advocates not only for the narrow issue of student loan forgiveness but also for a new premise, a different foundational value, for American culture, politics, and economics as a whole—one that recognizes the inevitably collective dimension of individuals’ lives in America and asks us to see more clearly and definitively how are individual interests are interdependent with, or dependent upon, and also supported by the social and economic relationships we inescapably enjoy.
Each of us achieving our best and most as individuals necessarily requires the support of others—which, to be frank, Americans typically don’t like to recognize, much less celebrate.
But there may be no greater truth than that articulated by a 19th-century German philosopher who said, “The free and full development of each is the precondition for the free and full development of all.”
Indeed, the highest functioning and most productive and creative society, it would seem obvious, is one which each individual has been able to freely and fully develop their talents and abilities to share with everybody else, with the social whole, in serving the public good.
Ocasio-Cortez’s comments ask us to recognize that not only do we very much rely on support from others to make our individual and social lives possible, but also that it thus benefits us to support those upon whom we rely.
She expands the debate beyond student loan forgiveness to give us a broader lesson in civics and reality.
If you were or are a first-time home buyer, if you are a senior citizen relying on Medicare, if your children attend public school, if you benefit from workers educated in the public school system, and on and on, you are benefiting from the support of taxpayers who may not be in the same position to enjoy that support.
I teach at a small state university that provides access to higher education to a lot of students who would not have many, if any, other options to pursue a college degree. I see what they become and how they transform their lives and develop over time, graduating with a far greater abundance of skills and talents they developed that they can offer the world than they had before entering the university.
The return on the investment is inordinate.
And as I watch our students graduate, I am invariably reminded on Stephen Jay Gould’s words:
“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
Indeed, the distorted meritocratic belief system that insists masses of Americans are less deserving of education, of investment in them, or less capable or intelligent, is a self-defeating one for we as individuals who depend on our neighbors and for the nation’s economy and culture as a whole, for sure.
This belief hobbles American progress.
Ocasio-Cortez’s advocacy for student loan forgiveness is much more than that; it’s advocacy for a larger, smarter, and more effective vision of the nation that recognizes and develops each individual in democratic fashion for the good of us all.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.