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Student debt and a lesson about fear


(YURI ARCURS PRODUCTIONS/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

I recently met the CEO of a large private equity firm and argued my case for why states should find ways to write down debt—especially student debt. He responded, “Ron, what do you think is the biggest motivation for people in New York? Fear.”

“There’s no greater motivator,” he added, “than the fear of not being able to put food on the table.”

Last year, I rallied in City Hall with colleagues on policies, including legislation I wrote and led the charge on, to buy and cancel student debt for all New Yorkers. Soon after, countless people reached out to me to share stories of living in a constant state of fear, depression and anxiety. It was clear to me that this is a crisis in the making, and one that I worried we may never address.

Imagine my surprise when Bernie Sanders called for the unconditional cancellation of all student debt during the 2020 presidential debate, and introduced legislation to do exactly that. No matter the circumstances, whether you went to grad school, your family struggled to take out loans, or you went back to school to advance your career, your debt would be cancelled—every last penny.

I spent months advocating for the economic benefits of freeing millions of New Yorkers from a lifetime of debt, including its immediate, tangible impact on local economies. But I also realized that for the wealthy elite, the value of debt had nothing to do with its economic impact or benefit for our country.

It’s about fear.

It’s about the 1% making a conscious choice to use debt-centric fear to control the rest of us. The social contract of our country has been gradually eroded and replaced by a ruthless, cutthroat economic environment, where everything has become “us versus them”. The rise of debt and economic anxiety has increased our distrust in each other, stopped us from forging bonds, and most importantly, kept us from rising up together to challenge the power of the status quo.

I am proud to support Sen. Bernie Sanders for president because I know when he pushes for full student debt cancellation, he is trying to unshackle entire generations from a lifelong economic burden. I support him because I know that when he says, “there is no freedom without economic freedom”, he means it; he genuinely believes no person in this nation deserves to live in a constant state of fear.

His policies will help us fight to restore our collective humanity and reach for the common good.

Our fears and insecurities in these tense, stressful times have contributed greatly to our climate of hate, divisiveness and violence. They prevent us from empathizing with the plight of others and looking after each other as human beings, regardless of race, background or creed. Suffocating debt, numbing, dehumanizing discourse, and growing social isolation and alienation have helped keep us exactly where they want us.

Those that cry foul may adopt the language of “personal responsibility” when it comes to forgiving student debt, ignoring a multi-decades push by the financial industry to deregulate and privatize our higher education system, which drove tuition to exorbitant and once unthinkable highs.

Opponents will push that narrative to perpetuate the “us vs. them” and win-lose mentality. They do not see debtors in our society as fellow human beings deserving of our empathy, dismissing and devaluing them as lazy deadbeats who should stop complaining and work harder.

Nonsense. Nobody will suddenly stop working because they don’t have a huge overhang of student debt hanging over their heads. Nobody will stop wanting to provide for their families or working to build a better life.

Rather, Sanders’ debt cancellation plan will liberate people economically and psychologically. It will not only save countless people from essentially lifelong financial servitude, but also fully upend our current dominant social paradigm of stress, fear and insecurity. It will re-chart us on a path toward empathy, compassion and cooperation for each other, which is precisely what this country, and perhaps even the world, needs right now.

Kim represents Flushing, Murray Hill, Linden Hill and other neighborhoods in the state Assembly.