When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) presented her plan to cancel student loan debts and make public higher education free on Monday, it drew immediate criticism from two fronts.
The first, led by right-wing commentators such as Ben Shapiro and Philip Klein, gamely attempted to frame the policy as a form of moral hazard. If we start bailing out over-indebted students, Shapiro mused, where does it stop? And isn’t it “a slap in the face,” Klein wrote, to everyone else who paid back what they borrowed?
The second was exemplified by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), a competitor of Warren’s in the presidential race, who said at a town hall days after Warren’s big reveal that while she’d love to give them all free college degrees, she just can’t. “I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs. I do,” she told college students in New Hampshire before plugging an alternative proposal to make college more affordable. “Don’t look. It’s not there…I wish I could do that, but I have to be straight with you and tell you the truth.”
But the economic evidence suggests absolute student debt relief would return broadly shared economic rewards more than ample enough to outweigh its topline costs. And there’s been a bedrock shift in the country’s political character over the past few years, from which the underpinnings of many of Warren’s big-idea policies have emerged. The crisis in student lending specifically has invited Americans to confront and question some old moral math, according to protest movement expert and reporter Sarah Jaffe.
“[T]his generation in particular is starting to question…the morality of the people who issue the loans in the first place,” Jaffe said in an interview. “[P]erhaps the people who issue these loans in the first place don’t have a right to collect on them. So instead of talking about the morality of you or me or Joe down the street who’s not paying back his loans, we’re talking about the morality of the lenders.”
Warren’s decision to propose forgiving trillions in student debt in her presidential platform is best understood as a moral conversation, the product of one of the most widely maligned and misunderstood protest movements in modern history: Occupy Wall Street.
A generation of people were sold a blueprint for success. Go to college, make good marks, meet the people who will give you your career, and soon you’ll be earning enough to enjoy the comforts that matter: a dignified home, well cared-for children, and a secure and enriching retirement.
These Americans kept dutifully to this path. But the 2008 financial crisis smashed up the traditional infrastructure of economic mobility so thoroughly that when they reached road’s end they found a dizzying void where a job market should have been. Professional opportunities nonexistent, a generation of people who’d gone deep into hock to get a head start on salary-and-benefits life found themselves working part-time hourly retail or jerking shots of espresso for the adults who’d made it through the crisis intact.
“This generation in particular is starting to question…the morality of the people who issue the loans in the first place.”
In the first years of that massive shock, these economic refugees remained isolated from one another — desperately awaiting the return of the world they’d been promised, and doing so alone, just as the individualistic mode of American capitalism prefers its footsoldiers.
During his 2011 State of the Union Address, then-President Barack Obama properly characterized their plight as one in which “the rules ha[d] changed in the middle of the game.” But by the following summer, the diagnosis had yet to yield a cure. And with youth unemployment at a record 18.4 percent, a dramatic shift was underway. With little or no help coming from an establishment that bailed out the banks then imposed austerity on everyone else, they turned to one another, organizing in Manhattan’s tiny Zucotti Park. That little green rectangle would become a radicalizing incubator for people betrayed by the old philosophy of how one makes it in America.
Their improvised community was immediately mocked and vilified by media and political powers, with even would-be allies deriding them as a clown-car rabble. Behind the cheap shots and baffled condescension, though, Occupy Wall Street’s deriders seemed angry that kids these days didn’t trust the world to bounce back. The fundamentals of the economy were strong, and the dirty kids should Get A Job, Sir.
The movement, dismissed as many as a barely coherent gathering of squatters and malcontents, was slow in appealing to would-be sympathizers. “At first I was super annoyed,” Alexis Goldstein said of her initial visit. Goldstein had previously worked in finance herself and would eventually help the occupiers earn some rare positive press by presenting a sophisticated and technical 300-page comment letter to five federal regulators about a new rule.
“I was like, what is this! This is a mess! We need to put someone in charge, we need a time limit on what people say, what is this consensus thing?” Goldstein remembered in a recent interview. But she kept coming back, and slowly came around. “I remember thinking, huh, maybe the point isn’t to do this really fast, maybe the point is the process.”
The kids’ choice of process was partly a byproduct of discovering they’d been lied to about how the world would work for them.
“There’s nothing they’ve seen that says to them if you work hard and play by the rules you’ll be rewarded. It’s more like if you were born into wealth you’ll ruin it for everyone else and leave them to figure out some way to get by, and there’s no justice,” Goldstein said. “That’s the history they’ve lived.”
Even as fretting old-heads accused them of pervasive narcissism, they chose organizational practices based on anti-selfishness, inclusion, and a broad rejection of the authority-based hierarchical ways of the people who built their plight. And one product of that process was a radical reimagining of how student debt could be dealt with in a post-crash world.
“This system’s been a huge failure for years, it’s trapped everybody we know in debt, and it has to be erased.”
“My first days at occupy were very exciting, very thrilling,” said Ann Larson, an Occupy participant who’s helped organize the radical student debt resistance movement under various banners ever since. “It was buzzing [with] this sense that things were going to change…We’d been stuck in these decades of neoliberal hell, and it felt like an opening.”
On one of her first visits to Zucotti Park, Larson heard over the oft-mocked “People’s Mic” that a group was meeting to talk about student debt issues. She joined their conversation, sharing what she knew already from her own experience researching higher education models and learning more from her peers. Soon they were a working group, one of dozens spawned from Occupy’s rigorously inclusive and leaderless ethos.
Total outstanding federal student loan debts were ticking toward the trillion-dollar mark that fall as the group discussed how best to defy the lenders and the system that backed them. Nobody was talking about just cancelling all that debt out just yet, Larson said, but coming together had shown these underwater borrowers they didn’t have to accept the shame and isolation debt’s moral power imposes.
The lightbulb moment came in September or October of 2011, as the Occupiers batted around an idea to have student borrowers make payments into escrow instead of to their loan servicers, to gain negotiating leverage without being portrayed as deadbeats.
“There was a sense that we’re all still payers. Pay the money, just not to those creeps,” Larson said. “And at some point…we realized as a group we actually need to stop cooperating. This system’s been a huge failure for years, it’s trapped everybody we know in debt, and it has to be erased. And it’s only in the context of a movement like Occupy where thousands of people are coming together where it actually seemed possible.”
Over the next few weeks, the group turned their debt-cancellation epiphany into an organizing drive around a Debt Refusal Pledge. Read back today, the four-point pledge they released in November 2011 looks like an Axios summary of Warren’s college finance proposal. In fact, Warren’s plan, in certain ways, goes even further. For example, Larson and her Occupy peers initially called merely for interest-free college lending and a federal program to cover the cost of public university tuition. Warren is proposing a system where no one has to borrow at all for college because the government covers not just tuition, but room, board, and books.
But the pledge’s central radicalism – which earned a huge amount of media coverage, almost all of it careful to remind readers that it was a pie-in-the-sky fantasy – even Warren couldn’t improve. Both documents call for erasing all outstanding higher-ed loan debts.
It’s a remarkable trajectory by any standard. But it’s also just one representation of the lasting mark Occupy left on a whole generation of people, the New York-based activist and early Zucotti Park occupier Yotam Marom told ThinkProgress.
“Movements make impossible things possible. They take ideas and thoughts and feelings that seem to be on the margins and they put them at the center, they make them alive, and then people in power have to respond to them,” Marom said. “That’s why we have people like Liz Warren and Bernie Sanders – Bernie had always been there, but nobody gave a shit until [Occupy].”
Professional economists who have studied debt forgiveness in the years since Occupy have argued that it would deliver massive prosperity dividends to debtors and the paid-off alike. But Warren’s critics, cost-conscious centrists and reactionary right-wingers alike, are equally confident in their premise: People will hate this. The American political character is too fundamentally selfish for people who paid back their loans to embrace a debt jubilee for everyone else.
“Millennials are getting older…and yet they aren’t moving rightward at all.”
This certainty reflects a longstanding political adage: Young radicals age out of their touchy-feely phase as they start to own things they want to protect. The belief that voters organically move right over time explains both the predictable right-wing ridicule of Warren’s debt relief proposal, as well as the Democratic establishment’s suspicion that a bold idea aimed at boosting the fortunes of millions of vulnerable Americans will come back to haunt them. The life trajectory of 1960s campus radicals makes it easier to understand why Warren’s critics are so confident.
But what if they’re wrong?
“This idea that millennials will get more conservative as they get jobs and are able to buy houses and cars, that might be true if they were able to do those things,” Jaffe said. “But they haven’t been.”
There’s evidence of a generational shift away from the Ronald Reagan-Gordon Gecko ethos Warren’s critics treat as enduring. The Pew Research Center reported in January that two-thirds of Americans 37 or younger think governments should do more to solve societal problems. A slim majority of voters younger than 35 prefer socialism to capitalism. Union membership is growing among workers younger than 35 even as it continues to sag overall.
For what it’s worth, at least one Republican pollster, Kristen Soltis Anderson, has been in loud and persistent agreement with this premise.
“What is striking for millennials is less about the partisanship and more about the ideology,” she wrote, for the Washington Examiner in March of 2017, “It’s not just that Democrats have held a consistent advantage over the GOP with this generation (and they have – by massive margins), it’s that the proportion calling themselves liberal Democrats has increased substantially since the 2012 election.”
“Millennials are getting older,” writes Anderson, “and yet they aren’t moving rightward at all.”
Such isolated stats are hardly dispositive. But for some sociologists, like Ruth Milkman, who has studied Occupy and other millennial-led protest movements, these left-turn indicators signal something real.
“It’s not just a youth effect, it’s a general experience,” Milkman said, noting that where today’s young voters graduated into the 2008 crisis and its aftermath, the 1960s radicals matured at the height of American economic and cultural power and expansion. “There’s probably a grain of truth to that view that some people who conscientiously payed every month are going to be annoyed, but overall I think there’s a lot of sympathy — and not just among millennials — for the amount of debt that’s out there.”
While Milkman cautioned it’s folly to predict future political shifts of any demographic group, she said for now at least the left tilt “is real.”
The risk Warren’s critics run in discounting that shifting ideological window is not just about the severity of the crash and recession, either. Even if this cohort does lean more and more into what’s best for themselves over time, Occupy organizer Marom said, the experience of class-based direct action is cultivating a completely different understanding of what their own self interests look like, laying the sort of foundation upon which wide-scale debt forgiveness can be understood as not just a hippy-dippy fantasy, but as a tangible, widely-shared boon to all.
“I don’t see the poles being the capitalists are out here thinking about themselves and what’s best for them, and the socialists are over here on a cloud thinking about other people and being nice,” said Marom. “I’m not some benevolent, I’m just a dude who [says] this is what I want because it’s going to be best for everyone I know, for me and my daughter, my parents, my friends.”
This piece has been edited to provide additional clarity.