Recently the Biden Administration announced a program of debt relief for people who had taken students loans for college. Predictably, some rejoiced while some others gnashed their teeth. A middle ground was occupied by those debating whether the program would prove inflationary. Forgiveness can upset people, as does its theological cousin, grace. The idea of someone getting off or forgiven for having debts cancelled can be offensive.
The Bible is actually pretty clearly in the debt-forgiveness camp, a topic explored at somewhat greater length here. And we’re not just talking spiritual debt, Original Sin, and forgiveness. We are talking actually financial debt. As the linked article notes, biblical Israel had several built-in plans for loan forgiveness, one that happened on the seventh year, another on the 49th year (Jubilee). The purpose of these measures was to avoid the creation of a permanently disinherited and landless underclass.
Then people’s “lot in life” really was a lot, a piece of property. Land was the basis of survival and security. Debt forgiveness in the Bible was generally aimed at restoring someone’s inherited or familial piece of land that had been put at risk or lost because of indebtedness. Getting people their chunk of the land back was a way of keeping some from accumulating too much while others had nothing at all. It worked, when it was implemented, imperfectly. But it was something.
Now the Biden Administration is making it possible for those holding educational loans to knock as much as $20,000 off their debt if they are below an annual income level of $125,000. I’m in favor of the program, but the income limit struck me as high. I don’t know that I ever made that in one year.
But that is how we view these things, through the prism of our own experience. We object when we think someone is getting a better deal than we did. We say it is unfair.
While fair-play is a good general rule, I’m not sure that those who begrudge this loan forgiveness program are on firm ground. We generally see ourselves as having played fair and by the rules, while we’re not so sure about others. Or to put it more sharply, we forget or overlook the ways that we too have been the beneficiaries of other’s generosity or of some form of grace.
So it was no big surprise to read that some of those objecting the loudest to the Biden program had conveniently forgotten or overlooked debt forgiveness they had received during the pandemic. Here’s a short list of the angry amnesiacs from Heather Cox Richardson’s newsletter:
- Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) said: “For our government just to say ok your debt is completely forgiven.. it’s completely unfair.” Greene had $183,504 in PPP loans forgiven.
- Representative Vern Buchanan (R-FL) said: “Biden’s reckless, unilateral student loan giveaway is unfair to the 87 percent of Americans without student loan debt and those who played by the rules.” Buchanan had more than $2.3 million in PPP loans forgiven.
- Representative Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) said: “We do not need farmers and ranchers, small business owners, and teachers in Oklahoma paying the debts of Ivy League lawyers and doctors across the U.S.” Mullin had more than $1.4 million in PPP loans forgiven.
- Representative Kevin Hern (R-OK) said: “To recap, in the last two weeks, the ‘Party of the People’ has supercharged the IRS to go after working-class Americans, raised their taxes, and forced them to pay for other people’s college degrees.” Hern had more than $1 million in PPP loans forgiven.
- Representative Mike Kelly (R-PA) said: “Asking plumbers and carpenters to pay off the loans of Wall Street advisors and lawyers isn’t just unfair. It’s also bad policy.” Kelly had $987,237 in PPP loans forgiven.
- Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said: “Everyone knows that in a $60 Billion+ European land war, it’s always the last $3 Billion that kicks in the door….” Gaetz had $482,321 in PPP loans forgiven.
(PPP was the pandemic Paycheck Protection Program, in case you’ve forgotten. Government money to pay your employees.)
Some of Scripture’s best stories, and Jesus’ most disturbing parables, revolve around forgiveness and grace. The prodigal son comes to mind, but so too the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20).
Among the points that these parables make is that God is not fair. God is gracious. Most all of us get more and better than we deserve. When we angrily insist on fairness we have often, like the members of Congress cited above, forgotten that we too are recipients of grace who are called to be gracious to others. From a Biblical point of view we are all debtors.
These days our society teems with anger and grievance. So a debt-forgiveness program is pretty counter-cultural. And also: most welcome.
PPP loans were initiated to allow employers to keep their staff on payroll during the pandemic. As I remember, it had very specific guidelines and was a job stimulant.
The forgiveness of debt, you refer to in biblical sense, is accomplished in use of our bankruptcy laws and procedures.
Biden’s program is a political stunt to garner votes and obligation to his ‘Benevolent’ Party’ and displays his “Us Vs. Them” political agenda that was displayed in last night speech. There are a lot of non college people that could use $10,000 in debt relief who do not earn $125m and I hope everyone of them votes for other political parties so this blatant vote getter isn’t tried again.
Come on, Phil. Have you forgotten about how corporations were given big breaks under Trump and his crew? Why is it unfair when the poor and middle class get some modest relief?
By the way, many of us worked and did manage to pay for our education and the education of our offspring. But in earlier days the state’s taxpayers more generously subsidized our education at this state’s very good schools (UW is the tops.) I am eternally grateful.
If this is a vote getter and also a help to those struggling, then let’s have even more.
Jean, Are you considering PPP a corporate giveaway ? Are you forgetting Obama’s giveaway to the mortgage/banking industry as houses were being foreclosed ? And don’t forget the money that is being earned by the MIC in Ukraine. Politicians spend OUR money on constituents interests is a given, but to single out a group, without any means testing, that eliminates 70%+/- of the population, is wrong and by executive order probably illegal.
Thank you, Anthony, for writing this.
Student debt forgiveness is an equity/justice issue. To understand more about who holds student loans, who undertook the debt risk to attempt economic advancement for themselves and their families, please read this analysis of a student debt done by the American Association of University Women.
AAUW has done several formal studies of the student debt crisis that are available at aauw.org.
Perhaps the broader lesson is that the federal government is a terrible lender. Recent examples include Fannie and Freddies poor judgment in lending to persons who could not pay it back (and therefore doing them nor us a favor), the PPP program which clearly sent large sums to parties who did not need it, and now the student loan program.
Another thought. The Bible is an interesting authority on this topic, but the Constitution seems more relevant. Whatever might be the right policy about forgiving student debt, the decision lay more appropriately with Congress.
All recent Presidents have claimed more authority to act without Congressional authority. Obama, Trump, now Biden, all have exceeded their authorities. The Courts have routinely turned them back. Their eagerness to act has relieved Congress of its responsibility, and Congress members unwillingness to legislate (as opposed to fight each other) gives the Presidents an incentive to invent new powers.
If Biden has his authority, the left should worry about what a less compatible President might do with his or her authority.