By its height in 2011, Occupy Wall Street had spawned any number of slogans and mottos. While some had staying power (we’re still talking about the one percent), others faded quickly into obscurity (shockingly, we still haven’t managed to “end the Fed”). Some, however, deserve a second look.
“Jubilee, Not Usury,” adopted by Occupy, Catholics!, was an odd rallying cry from the beginning. It was more cheerful than combative — who doesn’t love a jubilee, with its Seussian spelling and hints at royal celebration? — and oddly archaic.
In fact, “usury” is an old term referring to unjust lending; profiting from the burdens of debtors by charging unreasonably high interest used to be commonly condemned as a sin. “Jubilee” is even more obscure — it was the name for the Sabbath year in the Judeo-Christian tradition, taking place in cycles of seven and 50 years. According to scripture , during jubilee years all debts were to be forgiven and prisoners freed. It was a periodic remission that allowed families to extract themselves from the burden of unpayable debts, an acknowledgment that nothing belongs to anyone permanently, and a reminder that a society cannot survive without a certain amount of forbearance.
Both ideas are worth revisiting.
A college education has essentially become the new high school degree — a necessity for professional advancement and economic success. Yet the cost of higher education has ballooned, far outpacing students’ ability to pay. Consumer finance stepped in to bridge the gap — heavy on loan offers, light on regulation. The result is a crisis of student debt — $1.5 trillion in outstanding student debt nationally, a growth of more than 500 percent since 2003. It has led to a generational stagnation: 2017 graduates owe $28,650 , on average, with interest rates ranging from 5 percent to 14 percent , not dischargeable by default, bankruptcy or, in some cases, even death. The burden has led many to put off buying homes, starting families and saving for retirement.
Earlier this week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) unveiled a plan to address this as part of her 2020 presidential campaign. Alongside a major grant to historically black colleges and universities, and the elimination of tuition fees at public colleges, it proposed a sweeping cancellation of student loan debt: $50,000 for those with household incomes under $100,000, and $1 for every $3 for incomes above $100,000, plus the ability to discharge debts in bankruptcy. The policy would affect more than 95 percent of the nearly 42 million Americans with student loans, many of whom have also eschewed entrepreneurship and even health care because of their debt.
It is, in essence, a jubilee on student loans, whose rates and repayment policies can amount to usury. The plan has caught the public’s attention — and some pushback.
Naturally, there was the usual “but how will we pay for it?!” (although Warren did in fact offer a funding source: revenue from her previously proposed “Ultra-Millionaire Tax ”). More troubling, however, was the outburst of “but it isn’t fair!” that came alongside.
An article in the Washington Examiner complained that “Elizabeth Warren’s plan to cancel student loan debt would be a slap in the face to all those who struggled to pay off their loans.” After the millennial-oriented website Refinery29 published an article on how young people would benefit from having their loans forgiven, readers raged. “You’re telling me it’s fair for me to help pick up the tab for those who didn’t . . . sacrifice?” one reader said in the comments.
Policy makes manifest our cultural sensibilities, and vice versa. The exorbitant fees we allow for college and university, for instance, mark out education as a commodity rather than a common good. America’s obsession with individual “fairness” — to the point of blocking otherwise prosocial policies — makes it clear that structural justice is not our priority.
In contrast, embracing the jubilee spirit that underlies a policy like student-debt forgiveness could be a way to counteract our politics of resentment and change our politics overall. Certainly, there are all kinds of student loan debtors — some who thought they chose wisely but were taken advantage of by unscrupulous companies, and some who didn’t think at all. But, as a country, we should be more afraid of cementing a position of callousness against those in need than accidentally holding out forbearance to a few we deem undeserving.
True, policy and principle can’t always match (though I would argue that there should be much more overlap). Erasing student debt wouldn’t fix the underlying problems of inflated higher education costs and rapacious lenders, and it might involve a certain amount of moral hazard. There are more pragmatic proposals to consider, such as incentivizing private businesses to take on the debt. A bill to that effect was introduced in Congress this year.
Still, embracing jubilee over usury, forgiveness over blame, seems both moral and pragmatic — a healthier ideal for policy. Freedom is for everyone, after all.