An Interview With Astra Taylor on the Call for Full Debt Relief

In a long-awaited move, President Biden signed Wednesday an executive order to help student debt relief. It could help more 40 million borrowers cancel up to $20,000 of federal loans. Many advocates for canceling student debt say Biden’s plan doesn’t go far enough, while Republicans decry the plan as “student debt socialism.” We speak to Astra Taylor, writer, filmmaker and co-director of the Debt Collective, a union for debtors and one of the original advocates for a debt jubilee that would cancel all student debt. Despite the mixed reaction, “this is incredibly significant when you think about where we began as a movement not that long ago,” says Taylor, who also notes that debt strikes and the fight for full cancellation will continue.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN:President Biden announced plans to cancel student loans up to $20,000 per borrower in order to help as many 40 million people. The president presented his plan Wednesday during a speech at White House.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN:Your student debt will be reduced by $10,000 if your annual income is less than $125,000 If you make under $125,000 a year and you received a Pell Grant, you’ll get an additional $10,000 knocked off that total, for a total of $20,000 relief. These actions can be used to benefit 95% of the borrowers. That’s 43 million people. Over 60% of the 43 million are Pell Grant recipients. That’s 27 million people who will get $20,000 in debt relief. Nearly 45% of students can have their student debt completely canceled. That’s 20 million people who can start getting on with their lives.

AMY GOODMAN:Biden also announced that he would extend the moratorium on federal student loan payments until the end of the year. Reporters shouted questions as Biden left the podium. Listen closely.

REPORTER:Is this unfair, Mr. President, to those who have paid their student loans back or chose not take out loans?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN:Is it fair for people who don’t own multibillion-dollar businesses to get a tax break from one of these guys? Is that fair? What do you think?

AMY GOODMAN: Response to Biden’s student debt cancellation plan has been mixed. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren said, quote, “Today is a day of joy and relief.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell condemned Biden’s plan as “student loan socialism.” Meanwhile, the NAACP President Derrick Johnson has said, quote, “Canceling just $10,000 of debt is like pouring a bucket of ice water on a forest fire,” unquote. Many student debtors also say Biden’s plan doesn’t go far enough. This is Maddy Clifford, the writer and artist behind the Debt Collective.

MADDY CLIFFORD: And what we’re doing with the Debt Collective is really pushing and applying that pressure, because a full cancellation is also — like, it’s like, “Oh, you’re asking for too much. You’re asking for too much.” I’m asking to be back at zero. I’m asking for a fair chance, like, to actually build wealth. Like, this isn’t — they’re always telling us it’s not enough. And, you know, two years ago, $10K was a ridiculous thing to ask for, and now we’ve just won it. What this tells us and shows us is that we must keep fighting.

AMY GOODMAN:These are the words of Maddy Clifford, an artist and writer. They were speaking after President Biden announced his plan to cancel up to $20,000 of student debt for millions of borrowers. In a moment, we’ll hear more from Maddy Clifford, who’s featured in a short documentary from The InterceptTitled Freedom Dreams: Black Women and Student Debt Crisis. But first we’re joined by Astra Taylor, who co-directed Freedom Dreams. She’s also an organizer with the Debt Collective, an organization with its roots in the Occupy Wall Street movement. She wrote the foreword to the Debt Collective’s book, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Case for Economic Disobedience and Debt Abolition.

Astra Tayor, welcome to Democracy Now! First, respond to President Biden’s plan, the executive order yesterday.

ASTRA TAYLOR: Well, it’s important to be very clear that the Debt Collective has always fought for full student loan abolition and free public college for all, to stop the crisis of student debt at its source. This is our position. That’s what we think needs to happen. But, as you all know, President Biden didn’t campaign on this. He was forced to promise some debt relief when he was forced to campaign. This proposal he offered yesterday doesn’t even meet the full threshold of his campaign promise; nonetheless, you know, it is a stepping stone for this movement. It’s a milestone.

My reactions are mixed, you know. It’s bittersweet, because assuming — you know, there are some problems in terms of the fact that they are requiring people to fill out applications to get this relief. If people do this, then yes, up to 20,000,000 people can have their balances erased. That’s absolutely game changing. We’re seeing messages from people, you know, hearing from friends and family that they’re crying, that their lives have been changed. But also, $10,000 or $20,000, for millions of people, doesn’t touch the interest that’s accrued and capitalized. It won’t reduce their monthly payments. We must continue fighting for those people. We will. Mixed reactions aside, this is still incredibly significant when you consider where we started as a movement not so long ago.

AMY GOODMAN:What do you think of those who claim this is bailing out higher education-industrial complex and that they should be lowering their tuitions instead? They’ve got, together, billions of dollars in endowment. Why should they be saved?

ASTRA TAYLOR: Oh, we’re definitely not bailing out the higher education system right now. We’re bailing out human beings who have been told for decades that the only path out of poverty is to pursue an education. The United States has substituted, you know, labor policy — we should have been strengthening unions, providing a jobs guarantee — with telling people, “Hey, pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Take out student debt, so that you can then have the credential you need to be employed.”

These policies must be coupled, with debt cancellation and restructuring of the political economy of higher educational, so public colleges can actually become public again and people can go to school and pursue further education if they wish, without the burdens of debt. But we’re going to have to fight that fight. So, there’s often a false opposition in the way people frame this thing. And, you know, often people who point out that student debt cancellation doesn’t get to the root of the problem have no intention of fighting for the solution, again, which is free public college. But that’s what we are going to do. This is the goal that the Debt Collective and a growing group of allies are striving towards.

AMY GOODMAN: Mitch McConnell saying, “President Biden’s student loan socialism is a slap in the face to every family who sacrificed to save for college, every graduate who paid their debt and every American who chose a certain career path or volunteered to serve in our Armed Forces in order to avoid taking on debt.” Astra?

ASTRA TAYLOR:So cynical. I mean, I am one among the millions of people who had to repay their debts. I paid it all. I don’t want anyone else to suffer the same way I did. Social progress means other people don’t have the same experience as I did. The fact is that polls show that most people believe this. Many people aren’t as selfish or cynical than Mitch McConnell. In fact, student debt cancellation is more popular with people who didn’t go to college than people who did, probably because they understand that the costs are rising so fast, they’re prohibitive. This is something people really celebrate.

And, of course, let’s not forget that, you know, where was this — where was this grave concern when large corporations and millionaires were getting forgivable PPPThese loans were worth an average of $90,000. They were not there when the banks were being bailed out. Where were they when the government bought billions of dollars worth of bad corporate debt? So it’s just very cynical. You can judge a policy’s enemies, I believe. The fact that people like Mitch McConnell, Betsy DeVos and others are so upset shows you that this is, for once, a form of debt relief that’s going to help working-class and poor people, overwhelmingly.