“Pick Up the Pen, Joe”: Biden Faces Rising Pressure to Cancel Student Debt

The Debt Collective is planning an action on April 4 at the Department of Education to urge the Biden administration to fulfill a campaign promise to cancel student debt before federal student loan payments restart in May. Debt cancellation would give relief to some 45 million borrowers who owe nearly $1.8 trillion in student debt. Education should be treated as a human right and not as a commodity, says Astra Taylor, co-director of the Debt Collective. Not only has Biden failed on his campaign promises, but he has made it easier for lenders to prey on student borrowers, adds Braxton Brewington, press secretary with the Debt Collective.

TRANSCRIPT

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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

President Biden is facing mounting pressure to fulfill a campaign promise and cancel student debt for 45 million people. A moratorium on federal student loan payments, that’s been in place since the pandemic started, is scheduled to end May 1st. In total, borrowers owe nearly $1.8 trillion in student debt. The Debt Collective is planning an action April 4th at the Department of Education. The group’s message: “Pick up the pen, Joe.” In January, dozens of Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the Biden administration urging the White House to release a memo that the Education Department put together looking at President Biden’s legal authority to cancel student loan debt.

We’re joined now by two members of the Debt Collective, a group with its roots in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Braxton Brewington is the press secretary of the Debt Collective. And Astra Taylor is the author of the foreword to the collective’s book, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition. Her latest book, Remake the World: Essays, Reflections, Rebellions.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Astra, let’s begin with you. Talk about what you’re demanding right now.

ASTRA TAYLOR: We are demanding that President Joe Biden pick up the pen and cancel student debt. This is a pledge he made on the campaign trail, of course, because of grassroots pressure over the years, because debtors sounded the alarm about student debt, and because groups, especially the Debt Collective, actually laid out the policy mechanisms through which federal student debt can be canceled.

And it turns out that this is one of the campaign promises that the president can deliver on on his own, without being stymied by Republicans or members of his own party. He has the authority to cancel student debt, thanks to the Higher Education Act. Congress already granted the president and the education secretary the authority to cancel student debt. In fact, President Biden, during his career as a senator, voted to authorize the Higher Education Act multiple — to reauthorize it multiple times. So, he, in fact, was part of the constituencies that granted the president — now him — the authority to do this. So, the Debt Collective has already penned the executive order for him. And we’re building political pressure to say, “You have to keep this promise, because so much is on the line with so much of your agenda stalled and sabotaged by members of your own party.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And why is it that the president has not acted? Even he had a memo from his own administration telling — the Department of Education, telling him that he could move forward. Why hasn’t he done so, in your view?

ASTRA TAYLOR: Well, this is really interesting. The Debt Collective had to submit a FOIA, a Freedom of Information Act request, to prove that this memo existed, because what the Biden administration was saying, what his press secretary kept saying, is, “Well, we’re waiting on this memo about our legal authority,” which is ridiculous, because the fact is this legal authority — it’s called compromise and settlement; again, it’s part of the Higher Education Act — is the same authority they are using to cancel the interest as part of the COVID payment moratorium that they extended until May 1st. Again, they only extended that payment pause to May 1st because of grassroots pressure, because of people organizing and demanding that. So, they are pretending they don’t have an authority they’re actually using.

Why are they doing this? I mean, you know, one can only assume that it’s because of a ideological, you know, belief that we should treat something like education — instead of treating it as a public good, a democratic good, a right, you know, as something that should be treated like a commodity. You know, the fact is, Biden was part of the generation that built the student lending system. As we know, he was a major force in the 2005 bankruptcy “reform” bill that actually stripped protections from student borrowers. So, you know, people are very invested, on multiple levels, ideologically and economically, in the system as it currently exists. But that’s how so many things work. And so, the answer to that is to keep organizing, to keep pressuring, to keep sounding the alarm about this crisis and, you know, force them to do the right thing, which is to cancel not just $10,000 or $50,000 of student debt, but all of it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Braxton Brewington, I wanted to ask you about some of the players in this student loan industry. There’s SoFi, for instance, which I think spent more than $600 million for the naming rights to the Los Angeles stadium where the Super Bowl was held. And SoFi’s CEO, Anthony Noto, told Yahoo Finance a few months ago, about this moratorium — he says, “It was our largest business, it was our oldest business … that business has been running at about 50% of the pre-COVID volume for the last 20 months.” In other words, SoFi has been losing money, according to their CEO, as a result of this moratorium. Your sense of how these companies — and there are many of them, like SoFi — what they’re doing to the administration, the pressure they’re mounting to get rid of the moratorium?

BRAXTON BREWINGTON: Well, that’s exactly right. What we know is there’s a huge profit motive behind the ideology of keeping 45 million student debtors indebted to either private loan companies, like SoFi, or even to the federal government. We know that student loan servicers, like Navient, have spent tens of millions of dollars just in the past year alone lobbying the Biden administration to turn student loan payments back on, even though they have countless documented accounts of taking advantage of individuals and being predatory in nature. So, along with this gross profit incentive that is behind the incentive to keep individuals and debtors, there’s also this economic incentive.

Even within the Biden administration, you have the Domestic Policy Council, Susan Rice, Carmel Martin, folks that are within the Biden administration who also have this economic ideology similar to what Astra just named, which is that debtors simply knew that payments were going to restart, right? They have this idea that maybe the pandemic isn’t so bad and that individuals are able to restart payments. But we know that’s just simply not true. Ninety percent of individuals say that they — of student debtors say they’re not going to be able to restart payments.

And so, the simple answer here is cancellation. But the motives are more than simply political, which largely people would say is a very obvious choice, to cancel student debt, for a president to do. But the motives go beyond political. They’re also economic, and there’s a very, very evil profit motive behind it.

AMY GOODMAN: Braxton, I wanted to ask you about a speech that Joe Biden gave on the economy when he was president-elect. It was in November of 2020. He said $10,000 in student loan debt should be canceled immediately.

PRESIDENTELECT JOE BIDEN: The legislation passed by the Democratic House calls for immediate $10,000 forgiveness of student loans. It’s holding people up. They’re in real trouble. They’re having to make choices between paying their student loan and paying their rent, those kinds of decisions. It should be done immediately.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Braxton Brewington, what’s happening with that?

BRAXTON BREWINGTON: He has failed to keep that promise. Not only did he promise $10,000 immediately for every single borrower, he said if you went to a public college or any HBCU or minority-serving institution and make under $125,000 a year, that he’d wipe all of that student debt out, as well. So, now we are more than a year into the Biden administration, where he said he would wipe out student debt unilaterally, immediately, and that $10,000 was a minimum — actually, it wasn’t a cap, it was a minimum — and not only has he failed to keep this promise, he has actually become more predatory on student loan borrowers, right? His DOJ is, you know, making it very difficult for people to file bankruptcy in the courts. Public service loan forgiveness, the waiver has failed hundreds of thousands of individuals who are currently being denied their rightfully owed cancellation. So, not only has he failed to keep that promise, the Biden administration is actually being quite harsh on student debtors.

And only because of the pressure that the Debt Collective and other allies have put on the Biden administration is it why we have a federal student loan moratorium now that’s extending through May. And we’re going to have to keep that pressure up to make sure that he fulfills that promise and goes beyond it to cancel student debt.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Astra Taylor, I’d like to ask you last week, Reuters reported that President Biden will ask Congress for a defense budget of more than $770 billion for the upcoming fiscal year. That’s more than President Trump requested. How do you square this increased military spending while at the same time all of these millions of students and former students with crushing debt are still being unaddressed in long terms?

ASTRA TAYLOR: Yeah, those two things are deeply connected, because when it comes to fulfilling a promise like canceling student debt, the thing we hear is, “Well, how are we going to pay for it?” Right? The point is that we can’t afford not to cancel student debt. Canceling student debt will boost the economy massively. It will help narrow the racial wealth gap. It will help people move on with their lives, buy homes, start families, all of this. But there’s always money for the military. There’s never money for working people. What we need to do is stop funding war and fund college for all, go back to the model where education is a right and public education is provided for free.

So this resonates with our call for debtors to come to Washington, D.C., on April 4th, in advance of that May 1st deadline. We’re having a massive debtors’ assembly and protest. It’s important that people support that. If you have student debt or someone you love does, this is the time to act. We need to put the pressure on now. And April 4th is, of course, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. And he called out the triple evils — right? — of racism, economic exploitation and militarism. And it resonates with the call to cancel student debt. Student debt is a racial justice issue. It intensifies economic inequality. And it is connected to militarism, because, again, it’s an indication that we don’t spend on the public goods we need, like education; we spend on war. And also, student debt helps the military recruit people, right? It’s a major driver of enlisting in the Army. So, we need to get to the root of the problem, but we will only do that by building power together. And that’s the Debt Collective’s slogan, right? You are not alone.

AMY GOODMAN: Astra, we have to leave it there. Astra Taylor, Braxton Brewington, members of the Debt Collective.

That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.