'For whom and why?' is the real question behind student loan forgiveness
Joe Biden (Brendan Smialowski AFP/File)

Mehdi Hasan dedicated a segment of last night’s show to whether the Joe Biden administration should cancel some or all student loans. His guests Nina Turner, a veteran of Bernie Sanders’ campaigns, and Charlie Sykes, co-founder of The Bulwark, took sides for and against.

It was a thorough-going conversation (though Turner’s eye-rolling was a bit much). It was, however, familiar – and that fact is worth dwelling on. A debate between two very interesting and forceful commentators felt like it was floating above the earth, unattached to concrete developments on the ground yet shaping them all the same.

To cancel or not to cancel is, to me, not as interesting as is the dulling sameness of a student loan debate. This dulling sameness suggests that those involved in the debate are not sufficiently paying attention to a president, who, according to one expert, has canceled more student loan debt than any president in American history.

READ MORE: Progressives urge president to cancel student debt as pandemic pause period nears its conclusion

If those involved in the debate were closely paying attention, rather than continually affirming their priors for the entertainment of TV audiences, they’d know that the question is not if or whether the Biden administration can or should cancel some or all debts – because the administration is in the process of doing just that.

The real question is for whom and why.

“For whom and why” is why pundits don’t pay attention.

Recent developments

READ MORE: Activists clear millions in private student loan debt for students who attended a now-bankrupt, for-profit Texas college

While dulling sameness raged on, Biden has become a champion of the poor and vulnerable people, ie, Black women, who have been scammed by for-profit colleges, which is to say scores of hundreds of thousands of people, all just trying to better their lives and fortunes.

From inauguration until June, the administration has canceled $25 billion in loan debts for 1.3 million Americans, according to Forbes.

That includes: $7.9 billion for 690,000 people who went to schools that are now bankrupt; $7.3 billion for more than 127,000 borrowers through “public service loan forgiveness”; and over $8.5 billion for over 400,000 people “who have a total and permanent disability.”

In June, the US Department of Education canceled about $5.8 billion in loans for about 560,000 students of the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges, one of the largest. (It filed for bankruptcy in 2015.) Similar relief went out to former students of a bankrupt salon school.

In February, the administration discharged $415 million for close to 16,000 people, including 1,800 former students of DeVry University who got about $71.7 million in discharges on account of DeVry’s “substantial misrepresentations about its job placement rates.”

That same month saw discharges of approximately $343.7 million for almost 14,000 borrowers in connection with now-defunct Westwood College as well as the nursing program at ITT Technical Institute.

Speaking of ITT, US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona announced Tuesday the cancellation of $4 billion in federal student loans for students “defrauded by a popular for-profit institution,” according to CNBC, namely ITT Technical Institute, which is also bankrupt. “It is time for student borrowers to stop shouldering the burden from ITT’s years of lies and false promises,” Secretary Cardona said.

There’s more coming

So bring the debt relief tally up to $29 billion, which is still more relief than any president in US History. There’s more coming.

It has been widely reported that the president is thinking about an executive order forgiving $10,000 for every borrower. He hasn’t made a move yet, but meanwhile, Politico reported something even bigger.

The Department of Education has a plan to wipe out not only student loan debts linked to scammy for-profit “colleges,” Politico reported last month, but in addition “all types of federal student loans would be eligible for loan forgiveness, including Grad and Parent PLUS loans as well as federal loans owned by private entities”:

And it also suggests that borrowers who ever received a Pell grant, financial assistance for low-income families, could receive an additional amount of loan forgiveness.

Again, the president hasn’t decided yet. But the midterms are coming. Loan repayments are expected to resume in September.

Odds are we’ll hear about the decision soon.

Thank God for Joe Biden

Contributing to the dulling sameness of the debate is its categorical nature. Go big or go home, say the very loudest voices on the political left. (That’s catnip to opponents of student loan debt relief. Being all or nothing saves opponents the trouble of misrepresenting the other side’s arguments for the purpose of knocking them down).

But all or nothing skips over for whom and why.

As you can see from the facts above, the Biden administration has focused its energies on helping the poor, the sick and the vulnerable. These people – again, most of them Black women – were doing what the Republicans always say they should do. They pulled up their bootstraps, earned a degree, tried to get better jobs and so on.

They got scammed instead.

What the administration is doing isn’t sexy. It isn’t transformational in a societal sense. But it is transformational to these people who have been shouldering mountains of debt with little to show for it.

For them, thank God for Joe Biden.

In the process of doing it

I don’t expect the political right to care about the fate of the poor, the sick and the vulnerable, because even real, honest and tolerable conservatives still think social inequality is natural and morally OK.

I do expect the political left to care, which is why I find that all-or-nothing posture toward the student loan debate kinda troubling. If it’s not enough for the president to lend aid and comfort to people at the very bottom of American society, what on earth is enough?

My suspicion is that the political left – and as a consequence the political right, too – has not been paying close attention to what the administration has been doing because of what it has been doing.

Because of for whom and why.

In other words, in American society, the poor, the sick and the vulnerable are so invisible that no one involved in the student loan debate, not even the political left, spares much thought on them.

After all, they’re out of sight. What good is there in fighting for them on TV when you can make believe that the administration isn’t doing what it is, in fact, doing in order to demand that it does more of it?

The consequence is the dulling sameness of the debate over if or whether the administration can or should cancel some or all debts, even though the administration has been in the process of doing it.

READ MORE: Biden to tackle student loan crisis by canceling $10,000 in debt ‘per borrower’: report