Marjorie Taylor Green had $183,504 of PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans forgiven. Matt Gaetz had $482,321 forgiven. Oh, and their fellow Republican congressmen Markwayne Mullin, Kevin Hern, and Mike Kelly all had PPP debts ranging from just under $1 million to $1.4 million wiped clean. But all five, along the rest of the conservative movement, reacted to Joe Biden’s (needlessly limited) action on student loans by preaching the immorality of forgiving other people’s debts.
When the White House Twitter account had some fun documenting the obvious hypocrisy of politicians who’d taken out massive loans on behalf of their businesses and had that forgiven begrudging ordinary people the forgiveness of $10,000 of student debt, a new conservative talking point emerged. The Right now claims that forgiving PPP loans is nothing like forgiving student loans because business-owners had “no choice” but to take PPP loans — while high school seniors who wanted a college education were being irresponsible if they took out loans they wouldn’t be able to repay.
That’s obvious nonsense. Any reasonable argument you can make for forgiving PPP loans would apply with at least as much force to forgiving student loans.
Loan Forgiveness for Me but Not for Thee
The most obvious point to make about all of this is that applying for PPP loans was hardly legally mandatory. Like regular people who wanted a college education, business owners who wanted the benefits of the program made a choice.
Of course, defenders of the politicians who put their hands out for loans for their business ventures argue that giving (and forgiving) the loans was the least the government could do given that businesses were legally forced to shut their doors at the beginning of the pandemic. But there are several problems with this response.
First, the entity providing and forgiving the loans (the federal government) wasn’t the one issuing shelter-in-place orders. Marjorie Taylor Green and I, for example, both live in Georgia, where ultraconservative governor Brian Kemp kept COVID-19 restrictions in place for approximately five minutes — and even took action to legally prohibit local governments from imposing restrictions of their own.
Second, a tremendous amount of PPP money went to businesses that never had to even briefly shut down (or start offering goods or services online that were previously offered in person), and even money that did go to firms that were impacted by COVID restrictions didn’t all go to the nominal purpose of “paycheck protection.” One study found that somewhere between 23 and 34 percent of the money “went directly to workers who would have otherwise lost jobs.” A lot of it went to “creditors and suppliers.” A significant amount was simply pocketed by “business owners and shareholders.”
The third and most important point is that, even if you think PPP was the very best possible way for the federal government to protect jobs during the worst of the pandemic, that every last penny of that spending was justified, and you believe that the money should have been simply given instead of lent, the fact remains that the PPP loans were loans. If you believe that it’s wrong in principle for the government to write off debt, why wasn’t it wrong to do so in this case?
I know it has somehow become controversial to say this, but societies in which people are expected to pay off their debts are healthier than societies in which others are forced to do so.
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) August 25, 2022
Could (some of) the businesses that got PPP loans have been unable to stay in operation during the worst of COVID if they hadn’t gotten those loans? Sure. Similarly, a nurse or public school teacher weighed down by student loan debt wouldn’t have been able to start their career path in the first place if they hadn’t taken out those loans.
If the principle implicitly being invoked by conservatives who insist that PPP loans were completely different is that “if somebody should have gotten assistance for something outright instead of just being given a loan, forgiving the loan is fine,” then leftists who support forgiving all student loan debt as a first step in the direction of turning higher education into a public good like K-12 education — collectively funded by society as a whole and offered free to students at the point of service — are operating on the basis of exactly the same principle.
The disagreement, as it turns out, isn’t about anything remotely like Ben Shapiro’s absurd historical generalization about “healthy societies” never forgiving any debts. It’s about which kinds of government assistance should be provided outright instead of through loans. We apparently agree that no one should have lost their source of income because of COVID. What we disagree about is whether education is a right. An honest debate about student debt forgiveness would center on that. But conservatives are desperate to change the subject.