The election of 2016 forced us, like so many Americans, to reconsider much of what we imagined we knew about our country and our society. For example, only a few months ago there was a growing, nation-wide movement for tuition-free higher education. At the time, we proposed debt forgiveness for the many Americans – the figure now stands at 43 million – who carry the burden of student loans.
Now, all three branches of government are under the control of ideologues who espouse a harsh and individualistic brand of conservatism. That forces us to ask ourselves: How can we pursue such an ambitious and visionary goal when we are confronted with a direct challenge to the communitarian ideals that have guided this nation to its best achievements?
And yet, individually and together, we have reached the same conclusion: this is a more important time than ever to reaffirm our bravest and highest values. Jubilee – the ancient concept of debt forgiveness as an affirmation of community – reflects those values. We can reject the reactionary principles that the right wing represents by embracing the concept of a student debt jubilee as the symbol of our long-held community values.
Democratic societies are founded on two, seemingly conflicting principles: individual liberty and collective responsibility. If individual liberty is taken to an extreme, society collapses in an orgy of Darwinian competition. If collective responsibility is taken too far – something that has not happened in this country but has occurred in communist totalitarian states – personal freedoms are trampled under the iron heel of the state.
We have always been plagued by the sins of racism and greed. But, in its finest historical moments, including our recovery from the Great Depression and the years during and immediately after the Second World War, our nation seemed to find a better balance between individual and community values. During that time, it is important to remember that public colleges were practically tuition free in almost all states. Students could “work their way through college” without incurring debt in most cases.
This was the great opportunity the community gave to the younger generation so it could build a sustainable and prosperous future. In return, an educated and prosperous society led to sustained economic growth.
Unfortunately, the last several decades have seen us tilt toward individualistic extremism and the runaway greed of the wealthy few. Our finest community values – “ask not what your country can do for you,” in John F. Kennedy’s words, “ask what you can do for your country” – have been crushed by an economic and political philosophy of selfishness and predation. The result is a growing wealth and income gap and, as a sad side effect, reduced trust in each other. We are losing our cohesion as a society and as a nation.
This trend has challenged the notion of government as a force for good and public service as a higher calling. The Republican Party has led this trend, but the Democratic Party has far too often indulged in it as well, by diminishing the value of government and overselling the virtues of privatization, a “public-private partnership” concept that in reality leads to the transfer of government resources to the ever-wealthier few.
Donald Trump is the very personification of this destructive trend. He embodies the vision of a society where every rich person is out for him- or herself. He and his cabinet reflect the notion that government is a place where the powerful go to increase their own fortunes. His plans apparently include further giveaways of public resources to private interests, who would then use them to make an unequal society even more unequal. He campaigned on a promise of tax cuts that would enrich those who are already wealthy while crippling (or ending altogether) programs that help those in need.
It is time to reaffirm a vision of society as a community where people come together to help one another. Government is a fundamental tool of our national community. It is a way for us to come together and help one another. One of the right’s most successful and misleading tactics was to convince many Americans to think of government as an alien and occupying force. It is not. In a democracy, the government is us. The first three words in the Constitution are, “We, the people.”
We need to renew our sense of a sustainable community by fighting for immigrants’ rights, women’s rights, the rights of religious minorities – and the rights of the young, the indebted, and those who are trying to build a meaningful future in an economy that is currently unsustainable.
Today more than 43 million Americans collectively owe more than $1.4 trillion in student debt. They owe this debt because we as a society chose to abandon our collective obligation to educate the young people who will build our future. This debt is haunting many of us from the cradle to the grave. It is preventing young people from forming households, from buying cars, from having children, from starting businesses, and from realizing their dreams in a million different ways we can’t imagine.
This debt is also holding our economy and society back. It is robbing us of the creative contributions these Americans can make, and it is depriving our economy of the stimulus effect their spending and their behavior could provide.
This debt must be forgiven – and not just some of it, but all of it. It must be forgiven because these Americans do not deserve to be punished for our loss of collective values. It must be forgiven universally, because an unjust debt is always unjust. It must be forgiven because we can all benefit, materially and morally, from the act of forgiveness. And it must be forgiven as a sign that we have emerged from a dark period of selfishness to an age of renewed community.
The election of Donald Trump has reawakened something in millions of Americans. For them, this is a frightening and troubling moment. But it is exciting to see women lead marches against oppression. It is heartening to see Americans stand up for immigrants and refugees. The future is still ours to build together, as a national community. It is the right time to liberate 43 million Americans from the oppressive burden of student debt – for their sake, and for everyone’s.