Bad Takes: The legal arguments against Biden's student debt forgiveness make no sense

While all eyes were on Elon Musk setting fire to Twitter, another billionaire spent his spare time suing to stop Biden's modest student debt forgiveness.

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Bad Takes: The legal arguments against Biden's student debt forgiveness make no sense
Courtesy Photo / White House

Editor's Note: Bad Takes is a column of opinion and analysis.

A Trump-appointed district court judge in Fort Worth last month ruled that the Biden administration cynically exploited the pandemic to try to make people's lives a little better.

Seems that the Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act, passed in 2002 by President George W. Bush, granted the Secretary of Education authority to waive federal student loans for those who have suffered economic hardship "in connection with a war or national emergency."

More Americans died from COVID-19 over the past 30 months than on every battlefield since 1775. Might that qualify as a national emergency? 

No, said Judge Mark Pittman of the Northern District of Texas. Because Hitler. 

"This here is a statute that is about emergencies," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian Netter argued before the court.

Judge Pittman was apparently unmoved. "You know, you could also make the argument that so was the authority given to Hitler after the Reichstag fire," he retorted.

Yes, a federal judge really said forgiving $10,000 in student debt for those who earn less than $125,000 a year is comparable to the declaration of martial law in Nazi Germany. What a gloriously bad take. 

Ratcheting up the pain for those awaiting for relief under Biden's plan, the Supreme Court on Thursday temporarily put debt cancellations on hold, saying it will hear arguments on the legality of the White House program in February.

Back on Earth, in December 2019, 43 million Americans held federal student loans, and about 20% of borrowers were in default. The initial COVID-relief bill, the CARES Act, temporarily paused payments on most student loans — a forbearance set to expire on Jan. 1. 

So far, 26 million Americans have applied for student debt cancellation, and around 16 million have already been approved, the Associated Press reports. If borrowers must resume payments next year, many could fall behind on their bills and default. 

While all eyes were on Elon Musk setting fire to Twitter, another billionaire spent his spare time suing to stop Biden's modest student debt forgiveness.

Bernie Marcus, who was CEO of Home Depot for almost a quarter century, founded the Job Creators Network in 2014, a neoliberal advocacy group that makes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sound like a bunch of Bolsheviks. Early in the pandemic, Job Creators Network recklessly touted unproven cures such as chloroquine as a convenient excuse not to prioritize preventable deaths over business-as-usual. They also took out Times Square billboards to blame U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for refusing to grovel to Amazon in the pathetic attempt to lure the tax-evading, worker-degrading corporation to build a second headquarters in New York City. 

This summer, the organization's Legal Action Fund kicked into gear, arguing Biden's "illegal student loan bailout" is "fundamentally unfair to the tens of millions of hardworking Americans who never went to college and are now forced to shoulder loan forgiveness for the consultant class." The group also argued the plan is "unfair to those who have scrimped and saved to repay their student loans."

It's telling when "job creators" choose to apply the logic of "moral hazard" and when they don't. Certainly not when bailing out investment banks or injecting capital liquidity into Wall Street. In those financial emergencies, government assistance is welcomed. 

Suggesting that "helping out some people is unfair because other people exist is so anti-solidaristic, so anti-worker, so anti-community that it's deserving of scorn," progressive political commentator Briahna Joy Gray said in response to such arguments. "Should childless people pay for those with children? Should people who don't have special needs pay for families with kids who do need more support? Should non-drivers pay for roads? Should people without homes support all the mortgage subsidies?"

Should people who opposed the Iraq War pay for returning veterans' healthcare? Yes, to all the above — if we're all in this together and mutually invested in one another's wellbeing and success. 

The cost of college has risen dramatically over recent decades, and thanks to high interest, we're cumulatively charging less well-off students who had to borrow money to attend school much more than those whose families could afford to pay immediately. Is that fair, according to Marcus of the Job Creators Network? 

The total outstanding student loan debt is estimated at north of $1.5 trillion, an albatross that precludes younger generations from buying homes and starting enterprises. And where do the opponents of relief think the money that wouldn't go to debt payments is going to go, if not right back into the community, to small businesses and toward further education? In short, it would go back into the real economy, as opposed to the $2 trillion tax giveaway Trump made rain on the top 1%, which largely went to stock buybacks. 

Speaking of disposable income, Marcus gave $7 million to Trump's 2016 campaign and, more recently, $1.75 million to a political action committee supporting Senate candidate Herschel Walker.

And Marcus' politics didn't leave his old company when he did. Home Deport donated more money to the campaigns of election deniers than any other contributor, including five U.S. House members from Texas — Pat Fallon, Pete Sessions, Jodey Arrington, Lance Gooden and August Pfluger — all of whom handily won reelection and all of whom, on the same day a violent mob stormed the Capitol, voted to block the certification of Biden's 2020 victory as part of Trump's attempted coup. If you were considering businesses to boycott, maybe put this big box chain at the top of the list. 

Meanwhile, most other developed countries have figured out how to make higher education affordable, with dozens offering free college outright. Tuition-free college is already a reality in seven states, most recently New Mexico. Why are these more transformative solutions off the table at the national level? 

"We are endlessly instructed, rich people will not work unless they are given money, and poor people will only work if they are not," polemicist Christopher Hitchens wrote in No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton. "These are the two modern meanings of the term 'incentive': a tax break on the one hand and the threat of poverty on the other."

We have not left the legacy of this Clintonism behind. Until market-romanticizing logic ceases its hold over everyday discourse, until we unlearn the knee-jerk zero-sum thinking that has us quibbling over who paid for what while the billionaire class openly purchases political favors, even milquetoast remedies will continue to be portrayed as some slippery slope to nightmarish socialism.

Whether in the form of a trolling billboard or an errant court ruling, don't buy it.

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