Occupy Student Debt’s failure to launch

By Chadwick Matlin
December 16, 2011
By Chadwick Matlin
The views expressed are his own.

Over the past three months, as Occupy Wall Street has pitched a tent in the American consciousness, doubters have had the same refrain: “But what do they want?” Mothers, uncles, family friends, family of friends, they’ve all asked me—their token 20-something—some version of this. They argued that a movement was not a movement just because it wanted to move somewhere. It also needed to know exactly how it was going to get there. Apparently, all revolutions must now come with a built-in GPS.

A month ago, Occupy Wall Street made a demand. Or, as is the way in the nested hierarchy of OWS, a subcommittee of a committee of the movement made a demand.  They want all student debt in the country forgiven. All $1 trillion of it. And if the government would be so kind, they’d appreciate if it would pay for higher education from here on out, as well.

So this is what they—or at least some of they—want. But what has happened with this proposal, this great demand that we’ve all been waiting for?

Hardly anybody has cared.

In one month, only 2,694 people with debt have signed the Occupy Student Debt pledge, which states the following:

  • We believe the federal government should cover the cost of tuition at public colleges and universities.
  • We believe that any student loan should be interest-free.
  • We believe that private and for-profit colleges and universities, which are largely financed through student debt, should open their books.
  • We believe that the current student debt load should be written off.

But a pledge is just a pledge. How are the banks and colleges going to be forced to take notice? “As members of the most indebted generations in history, we pledge to stop making student loan payments after one million of us have signed this pledge.” True believers don’t just march against the war, they burn their draft cards. Or in this case, their credit scores.

The American Dream is dead (or at least cryogenically frozen), but colleges profit by pretending otherwise. Tuition has grown significantly faster than inflation (an 8.3 percent cost spike in public universities last year), student enrollment is at an all-time high, and yet my alma mater’s fundraising team still calls me to try and solicit money. There is reality, and then there is the academy.

And yet, Occupy Student Debt still only has those 2,694 signatures. Only 997,306 more pledges to go before its trigger kicks in. It is not that the media has ignored it. Fast Company, the Huffington Post, and NPR have all covered the campaign. And in theory an increasingly campus-centric protest like Occupy should be able to drum up signatures about an acutely collegiate issue.

So, what gives? Given the clamor for reform, the ongoing discussion of a shrinking middle class, and the 2/3 of 2010 graduates with student debt, you’d think now would be the time for this kind of thing to work. That people would be so fed up, they’d be willing to risk their future to save it. And yet, no.

Could it be that there just isn’t an appetite for this kind of radicalism?

Because that’s what this proposal is: radical. It also makes limited economic sense. Sandy Baum, a policy analyst at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education, laughed when I brought up the proposal. Forgiving Americans’ student debt burdens, wouldn’t help people achieve more—people with student debt have already been educated, don’t forget. She also argued that eradicating America’s debt load wouldn’t stimulate economic activity any better than a traditional stimulus. If you gave me $50,000, I’m likely to spend a fair amount, and only use some of it to pay off my debt. If you just forgive my debt I don’t have any immediate new income to take to the mall. (Justin Wolfers has made similar points at Freakonomics.)

Baum went on to suggest that making college free won’t help with upward mobility, since the poorest among us already do get to go to college for free, assuming they qualify for certain financial aid thresholds. “If you made it free, you’d make it a subsidy for the more affluent people in society,” since they’re the ones who are paying, Baum explained. She’s only partly right. Yes, the 1 percent would be helped by this piece of the proposal. But so would the vast number of talented middle-class Americans who can afford a college–but not a $50,000-a-year college. As of now their choice is to go to a less august institution, or take out loans for an elite college, and take a vow of poverty after they graduate.

Eight years ago, I chose the latter. I have $59,256.95 of student debt. It was close to $100,000 when I graduated. I should be an Occupy Student Debt signee. And yet, for the practical, macroeconomic reasons above, I’m not.

Which returns us to the question of why this campaign has been so unsuccessful.

As Occupy Wall Street has grown, it warped from a fringe radical movement to a mainstream political one. (Much the same happened to the Tea Party.) Its own popularity–however fleeting–overwhelmed its original base, both ideologically and physically, and it spilled from the radicalism of Zucotti Park into the diversified streets of the country. What was originally an outlet became a movement. Politicians, anathema to all things radical, tried to speak at its general assemblies (Rep. John Lewis was denied the chance to speak at Occupy Atlanta), and started to cherry-pick the movement’s best-polling ideas for their speeches.

Something tells me that the Occupy Student Debt Campaign’s principles will not make it into Obama’s 2012 stump speech. The pledge is a manifestation of the old Occupy Wall Street, the one that was sanitized along with Zucotti Park. Polls show there’s support for its core idea of income equality. But not for OWS’ methods. Apparently, the country is in favor of radical change, but would appreciate it if everyone could make sure to keep the noise down while it happens. It’s a predictable lesson. The kind of thing one learns while reading a political theorist like John Rawls.

Come to think of it, I know a place I could have done that. College. A political theory course would’ve only cost me about $3,500.

PHOTO: UCLA undergraduate Seth Newmeyer holds a sign while demonstrating against the pepper-spraying of student protesters by University of California Davis police on the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) campus as the UC Board of Regents meet in Los Angeles November 28, 2011. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

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