Published in  
June 27, 2019

On Student Debt

In the biblical parable of the prodigal son, a wayward boy (let’s call him John) demands a large chunk of his father’s wealth.

Wandering off into a bohemian horizon, he eventually squanders his inheritance on frivolous gestures and needless partying. He ends up poor and returns to his brokenhearted father, depraved and ashamed. To John’s surprise his father rushes to him when he notices him in the distance, embraces him, and welcomes him home with open arms. The prodigal son is treated like a prince, and his father throws a huge party to celebrate his return. When John’s brother comes back home from work and sees a celebration for his younger brother, he gets angry: he’s lived by the book, he’s worked hard, he’s avoided debt, he’s made sedulously wise decisions to help his father’s business – but he’s never had a party thrown for him. In a private moment, the elder son protests bitterly, defending his virtue before his father, demanding justice. The father’s response is warm and tender, piercing through a paradigm of scarcity that allocates value on a merit scale, opening him up to the grace of gift: “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

There are probably reasonable objections to executing universal, sweeping legislation of the kind that Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar are proposing. But when you critique the desire to cancel out all student debt because it is unfair to those who have paid up their own debt, or because one feels the debtors should have known better than to make those fiscal choices in the first place, you may be working from one or two operative assumptions: one, the world is fair only when we get what we deserve and are responsible for (you reap what you sow); and two, there is simply not enough to go round.

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These assumptions are instigated by a neoliberal capitalist/moral system that supposedly awards virtue to the “entrepreneurial” (the deserving) and dismisses entire groups of people for not making the cut of worthiness. Hidden from view and from popular consideration are the structural challenges that make it impossible for people to thrive and live well, especially those who slave and work hard in a system that promises to be neutral and meritorious – but proves resilient in maintaining power dynamics that perpetuate inequity. What is also socially censored from intelligibility is that this moralistic system invents this scarcity and ordains a measurement scale to divide between the deserving and the non-deserving. More critically, it hides away the fact that what keeps us alive, what keeps us breathing, creative, and functional in a wide and utterly complex universe is not earned or awarded to us because we are good or deserving.

In short we live because of gift. We thrive because of grace. There are entire ecological systems that die just to produce a single iPhone. There are African villages that have learned to live with huge dumps of toxic throw-away commodities shipped in from the West just so that the West can live with the illusion of a “green economy”. Diatoms die in order to produce the oxygen we need. These are the invisible worlds that subsidize our very existence. The myth of balance that tells us we are “self-made”, or that we get only what we deserve, or that if we got more than what we actually worked for we are hurting others, makes for a very poor economy.

By moving beyond the shackles of merit, the Calvinian imperative to earn our own salvations, Bernie Sanders seems to be inviting an expansion of what the economy means. He seems to be gesturing towards gift – an abundance and amazing grace that takes the deserving and the non-deserving and makes both feel welcome and at home. These manumissions and moments of jubilee might very well be the most powerful ways to respond to fascism.