With an early victory under its belt, and while it continues to capture media attention, it’s time for Occupy Wall Street to narrow its demands, and put a plausible face on the enterprise. The first step is to ditch the unrealistic request for student loan forgiveness.
For reasons I can’t fathom, demands for loan forgiveness have always been a staple of youth movements — but it’s never gonna happen. Forgiveness wouldn’t erase debt, it would just shift it, saddling corporations with the more than $1 trillion dollars currently borne by students nationally. Perhaps corporations remain better able to carry that burden than recent graduates on an individual basis, but on a systemic level, the financial sector simply can’t write down another trillion dollars without prompting another industry-wide collapse. Nor can universities simply stop charging for college degrees, without eradicating jobs for academic professionals, and endangering the research universities that make American higher education (and science) so unique. Simply put, there’s really no such thing as a free lunch here.
And, demands for loan forgiveness fairly clearly bump up against the honorable opposition’s favorite mantra: “personal responsibility.” Some issues truly are out of the hands of even responsible citizens: employment (in many cases) is one of them. Loan debt is not. In today’s economy, a college degree is a bare necessity for a successful life — but a degree from the institution of your choice is a luxury. You don’t have to go to Harvard to get a good education. Nor do you have to go to one of the quaint little liberal arts schools that define the college experience in the popular mindset, but stand to set you (or your family) back $50,000 a year, and offer only a mediocre academic pedigree in return. I sympathize with the kid from a poor family who saved day-in-day-out, went to Georgia Tech, did well, and still can’t get a job — or was laid off when his sector of the economy imploded. I don’t sympathize with (say) SMU alums who simply didn’t ever think about how they’d pay back their loans. That’s on you.
Part of building a good movement is crafting an agenda that’s forward-thinking enough to inspire, but realistic enough to potentially see some real-world success. OWS has hit the first mark — wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could go to Harvard, and not pay a dime?? — but needs to dial it back to hit the second. Until that happens, I’ll sympathize generally with the protestors, begrudge them the minor inconvenience they inflict on my Financial District, and thank God for the privilege of living in a country where people like them can sit around in a park just to “make a statement.” I’ll even take seriously their general discontent (ahem, NSFW) with the current state of things.
But I won’t respect them as a movement until the organizers kick this, and the Marxist element, out of their platform.