In the Oct. 3 Collegian op-ed, “Kenyon students must not buy into student debt forgiveness,” Salvatore Macchione ’23 makes two connected claims. First, he believes that Kenyon students are “borderline ‘utopian idealist’ progressive[s]” who are “blindly believing unfeasible promises” from presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Then, Macchione argues that Kenyon students’ support for student debt cancellation best exemplifies this “potentially harmful” phenomenon.
Macchione wants to be clear he is not arguing against the merits of student debt cancellation. He writes that student debt cancellation “sounds perfect—in fact, it sounds more than perfect: It’s ideal.” Indeed, student debt cancellation is a sound policy. Total student debt cancellation, as proposed by Bernie Sanders, will halt a compounding effect on U.S. wealth inequality and significantly reduce the racial wealth gap.
If student debt cancellation is a good policy, why does Macchione think that supporting it makes you an unrealistic utopian progressive? Simply put, he believes there is no way that Sanders or Warren could pass student debt cancellation—funded by a “ultra-wealth tax”—through Congress. However, this “realistic” political analysis is based on a flawed view of politics.
As evidence of the impracticality of student debt cancellation, the Oct. 3 op-ed notes that it took a year and a half for President Obama to get a tax hike through Congress in 2012. However, this analysis ignores the fact that, according to some experts, student debt cancellation would not need Congressional approval. With the stroke of a pen, the Secretary of Education could wipe out all of the student debt owed to the federal government.
Additionally, that action would hardly put a dent in the government’s finances. As Ben Beckett notes in Jacobin, “$1.5 trillion is the total amount that debtors owe the government, and only a small fraction of that is collected each year.” In other words, the yearly payments of student debt are a trivial contribution to the federal budget.
However, if Sanders or Warren did want to balance the cancellation with an ultra-wealth tax, they would indeed need Congressional approval. Macchione believes that an ultra -wealth tax proposed “during the height of a resurgence of ultra-conservative, alt-right rhetoric” is a “recipe for a flop.”
We disagree with Macchione’s thinking here. A crucial aspect of Donald Trump’s winning campaign in 2016 was his ability to criticize the failure of both Republicans and Democrats in curbing wealth inequality.
However, while Trump did not campaign like a traditional business-friendly Republican, he has certainly governed like one. Fighting for policies, like an ultra-wealth tax to fund student debt cancellation, that would deliver real benefits for working class people is exactly how a Democratic candidate could distinguish themself from Trump’s plutocratic governing record in the 2020 presidential campaign.
Macchione’s take on student debt cancellation applies to just about any progressive idea. But his argument elides the fact that while bold progressive policies, like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and, yes, student debt cancellation, are popular throughout the country, neither party has ever made them a priority.
Instead of resigning ourselves to a choice between “ultra-conservatism” and Joe Biden’s weak centrism, we should throw ourselves into the difficult, but necessary and achievable, project of mobilizing this vast majority to secure a just world. In fact, compared to making defensive compromises with right-wing forces, political mobilization on this scale is the most realistic option.