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Tony D. Senatore
"I'm the spokesman for the OK Boomer generation

Mike Rowe and President Biden’s Student Loan Forgiveness Plan

On August 24, 2022, President Joe Biden announced his plan to eradicate $10,000 in student debt for those earning less than $125,000 and $20,000 for those who received Pell grants for low-income families. The next day, my social media feed reflected an unprecedented amount of outrage. Choosing to frame Biden’s decision disparagingly, Mike Rowe, who rarely takes political stances on social issues, posted on Facebook referencing a satirical headline from the Babylon Bee that read,  Hard Working Plumber Looking Forward To Paying For His Neighbor’s Gender Studies Degree. Rowe argued, “satire aside, what would compel an otherwise rational person to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to purchase a diploma that offers little chance of a career that would allow them to pay off their debt?” He continued, “where is the voice of reason, or caution or common sense in this woman’s life?” To those unfamiliar with Mike Rowe, he is beloved by America’s working class. His show Dirty Jobs celebrates hardworking welders, painters, HVAC specialists, electricians, and plumbers, which Rowe believes are the bedrock of American society. Although he downplays it, Rowe is also a college graduate with a degree in communications with a lot to say about what college degrees he feels are worthless. When contemplating things to study in college that might be lucrative, I would argue that a communications degree is not much better than a gender studies degree, a philosophy degree, or a sociology degree, which was my focus in college. How Rowe’s life eventually unfolds is similar to young college students who have  “no clear idea of what they want to do with the rest of their lives.” He had various jobs after graduation and was lucky to get a break. When that break came, he had the talent to succeed.  I admire Mr. Rowe for his mikeroweWORKS foundation. The foundation has awarded over six million dollars in scholarships to more than 1,700 persons who choose to forgo a four-year degree in favor of mastering a skill to fill one of the 11.5 million jobs in the trades. I have watched his show regularly in the past and find his particular blend of wise advice and sense of humor to be a winning combination. I completely agree with his idea that universities with massive endowments must be partially responsible for this student loan crisis. I would also argue that people who have already paid off their student loans must be reimbursed somehow, perhaps via a tax credit. Another idea worth exploring might be transforming two-year colleges into four-year colleges accredited to administer bachelor’s degrees. Be that as it may, Mr. Rowe and I have vastly different views on the student forgiveness plan. I seek to build solidarity within the working class, and he wants to weaken it.

Rowe believes that President Biden’s student loan forgiveness transfers the debt of college students to the very people his foundation tries to assist. Although Biden has allocated money towards loan forgiveness for anyone with college debt, regardless of color, gender, area of study, or political party, Rowe chooses to make it political and resorts to inflammatory rhetoric, generalizations, prevarications, and sweeping statements. Rowe asserts, “how is it remotely fair to ask people who affirmatively chose to forgo a four-year degree in favor of mastering a skill that is in demand to pay off someone else’s student loans?” Moreover, he argues, “ at every turn, our elected officials have made it clear that people with a college degree are more valuable to society than people without one.” Finally, he claimed that Biden’s loan forgiveness did nothing to address the underlying problems in how Americans pursue their higher education goals. Of all the things I disagree with Rowe about, it is his canard about how our elected officials have made it clear that people with a college degree are more valuable to society than people without one that I find most offensive.

On the contrary, the exact opposite is true. Before World War II, higher education was elitist, and only the rich and generally White males could attend. Post World War II, the American government considered higher education a public good, not a private investment. The rapid expansion of public universities, the G I Bill, and generous public funding grants made higher education affordable to the poor and the middle class. By the 1980’s everything changed. Among the places where tax cuts came to pay for tax breaks for corporations and the rich was higher education, especially public universities. Higher education was no longer considered a public good, necessitating the socialization of costs. It was now a private good where students and families had to borrow money to pay for their education. Since 2002, average tuition rates and fees have jumped 144 %. Out-of-state tuition and fees at public national universities have risen 171%. In-state tuition and fees at public national universities have grown the most, increasing 211%. The financial crisis of 2008, the bailout, and the corresponding recession resulted in less money available for students. Perhaps Rowe was too busy learning about the job requirements necessary to become a cow inseminator to understand how our government has been undermining the efforts of college students to obtain a college education for the last 50 years. The state of higher education in 2022 is back to where it was before WW II, something only available for the affluent, white, and elite.

 America seems to be more divided today than at any other time. Progressive politicians divide Americans across racial and gender lines. Conservatives blame the so-called “elites”  for all that ails America and the world. To these types, you are a privileged elite if you don’t get filthy or sweaty during your workday or risk your life in the line of duty. Sadly, just possessing a college degree qualifies you for elite status. Perhaps individuals that think this way should make an appointment with a plumber if they require life-saving surgery. Mr. Rowe has undoubtedly become the hero of middle-class, blue-collar Americans. A veritable tribune of the proletariat, I am disappointed that he is acting more like a politician than a unifier and the undefeated champion of working-class values. It is a shame that Rowe does not realize that many liberal arts college majors share the same values and work ethic that he stands for. Maybe he does, but he does not seem to care. In speaking about their plight, he uses sarcasm and invective unsparingly.

He seems to prefer following in the footsteps of Marco Rubio, who infamously said that America needs “more welders and less philosophers.”. When it comes to things that America needs less of, the first thing that comes to mind is divisive politicians living off our tax dollars.  Contrary to popular belief, not everyone goes to college to get a degree in gender studies. Some students have no interest in exploring the intersectionality of race, class, gender, culture, and religiosity in America. Many who attend college and will ultimately receive loan forgiveness are civil engineers, environmental engineers, scientists, and architects who will someday rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure. Their expertise will provide the blueprint for thousands of plumbers, electricians, steelworkers, and carpenters to display their skills, pay their bills, and feed their families. Specialized scientific knowledge, which is impossible to learn via homeschooling, on-the-job, or apprenticeship, is vital to the future of America and the entire world.

Mike Rowe was the type of person my late Uncle Frank made his living as an auto mechanic would have supported. When I graduated high school in 1980, I was conflicted about whether I wanted to pursue a career as a musician like my father or attend college. My father neither saved for my education nor offered constructive advice on what came next. Fortunately, my Uncle Frank, who was like a second father to me, offered his advice. He told me that “the world belonged to the man who got his hands dirty,” but if I wanted to get a college degree, he would finance every cent of it. He also told me to ensure that I was a union member, no matter my profession because there is power in solidarity. Ultimately, I decided to attend college after a 37-year career as a musician. I spent from 2008 to 2017 surrounded by the best and brightest from around the world.

Armed with only a Spiderman memo pad, a gift from a dear friend who had just completed her master’s degree, and my public school education, I graduated at age 55 with a 3.7-grade point average from Columbia University. In the interest of full disclosure, I paid for my Columbia education with my savings and a merit-based scholarship. I carry a minimal student loan that I have been paying with pleasure since 2017. Since I have worked for the government since 2004, I could take six college credits for free as a perk that counteracted the abysmal pay of my old job, which was a great help to me. After graduation, I changed jobs in 2017, and with my college degree, many opportunities that I was unqualified for in the past became available. To spread the news regarding the power of education,   I gave a TEDx Talk on what education meant to me in 2013. Finding education later in life, the main point of my talk was that the rational person uses a formal education in unison with what they have learned in the course of living their lives to their advantage. The work ethic that I got from my Uncle helped me outperform many of my younger and far better-educated classmates. A lifetime of disappointment and personal failures helped me persevere when times got tough, unlike some of my younger Columbia classmates. They always succeeded; some could not recover after failing for the first time. My ultimate conclusion was that education had given me everything in the later phase of my life and that I must give it everything in return. Had I been more adept at using tools and heavy machinery, I would have gladly used them to change my life for the better and avoid college. I have no innate talent for the “in-demand” skills that Rowe champions; thus, the academic route was a better fit. What is important to note is that, unlike the narrative that Rowe wants to promulgate, I am an example of someone that is academically inclined who has the utmost respect for individuals like my cousin, who can build incredible homes from the ground up, or my machinist friend who is creating a part for one of my musical instruments that is no longer produced. I do not seek to diminish them, and I admire them. On the other hand, I have “constructed “some outstanding research papers on the pros and cons of Marxism. Each of these skills is valued differently in society depending on the company you keep. 

In his effort to express his outrage over “the biggest pre- Labor Day slap in the face to working people he’d ever seen,” Rowe offered alternatives to Biden’s loan forgiveness program like shifting the burden to the colleges with “hundreds of billions of dollars in university investment accounts” and banks that “happily gave loans to eighteen-year-old kids with no financial sense and no clear idea of what they want to do with the rest of their lives” on his website.  He also shared a link to an article by Charlie Cooke of the National Review to amplify his outrage. Even Tucker Carlson weighed in, calling Biden’s loan forgiveness plan a reward for political donors.  In the past, Carlson has criticized Wall Street but left them out this time. Comparing and contrasting the Wall Street bailout with student loan forgiveness would have been a perfect instance of what Carlson speaks about often; one set of rules for the rich and the opposite for the poor. Instead, rather than showcasing a prime example of his famous phrase “rules for thee, not for me,” he chose to undermine the middle-class people he claims to support. Despite Carlson’s histrionics and protestations, rich people neither need nor qualify for financial aid from the government. The excellent news for Rowe,  Cooke, Carlson, and the thousands of hard-working blue-collar Americans is that Ted Cruz and the Republicans are already weighing their options on how to overturn Biden’s plan just days after it was announced. 

After reading Rowe’s message to his fan base, and the thousands of supportive messages they posted on Facebook in support of Rowe, my eyes welled up with crocodile tears. After grabbing a tissue and drying my eyes, I thought about Rowe’s question, which asked why blue-collar workers that did not attend college should pay off someone else’s student loan. Additionally, because I admire Rowe so much, I tried to understand why his message irritated me as much as it did.

I was annoyed by Rowe’s decision to pit middle-class Americans against each other. He conveys a narrative that is not accurate. College students applying for aid are not as clueless and malicious as he depicts. To be considered for financial aid, students must fill out a FAFSA form and answer questions requiring a fundamental understanding of economics. Ultimately, they fully understand how much debt they will carry and their monthly payments. Applicants must pass a test at the end to demonstrate they are aware of what they are doing. If they cannot pass, they do not receive the loan. You must agree to repay the loan by checking off a box, or the application can not proceed. All applicants were willing to start repayment until the government froze the student loan payments during the pandemic.No student who agreed to the loan terms made a conscious decision to default on the loan. Instead, they are gratefully taking what the government has offered them in 2022, and now they are portrayed as pariahs by people like Tucker Carlson and Mike Rowe. In 2008, Wall Street bankers were responsible for the near collapse of the global economy. Turning Rowe’s ideas and questions back at him, financial institutions who knew what they were doing was risky had no reservations about declaring bankruptcy, taking billions in government bailouts, and walking away with millions. From the outset, the American government and financial institutions had the clearly defined end goal of privatizing financial gains while socializing losses. What would compel an “otherwise rational person” to do something like that, effectively sticking it to the working class?” The government has been intervening in the financial sector since Ronald Reagan bailed out Continental Illinois, the biggest bank bailout of American history at that time. He ended his term in office with another massive financial crisis- the Savings and Loan Crisis– and the government again moved in and bailed it out. Then there was the Enron debacle.  No meaningful debate about student loan forgiveness can occur without addressing these prior crises in the same conversation.

Meanwhile, for the poor, let market principles prevail. “The government is the problem, not the solution,” says the individual whose wealthy family paid for his college education, the conservative pundit with the American flag pinned to the lapel of his suit or the bumper sticker on the truck of the blue-collar worker. Meanwhile, Wall Street executives like Richard Fuld, and others like him, who were primarily responsible for the financial crisis, started new business ventures, retained valuable real estate and bonuses, and only one person went to jail.  American taxpayers financed it all. How is that “remotely fair?” Wisconsin Senator Byron Dorgan was a lone voice in congress in 1999 when he predicted economic calamity following a repeal of the Glass- Stegall Act and its protective measures. Dorgan’s warnings were ignored, and the world economy almost collapsed. Many experts expect another Wall Street crash in the future.

As a result, credit agencies that evaluate the status of financial firms are now counting into their calculations the taxpayer bailout that they expect to come after the next taxpayer bailout. The beneficiaries of these credit ratings, like the big Wall Street banks, will be able to borrow money more cheaply and push out smaller competitors. Where is the collective outrage from Mike Rowe and the blue-collar community over this? Where are Rowe’s suggestions as to how we can prevent the subsequent global financial crisis?  While I do not like to resort to generalizations, I’m pretty sure that many of the blue-collar workers who rapidly rushed to Rowe’s support on social media did not participate in the Occupy Wall Street protests in Zuccotti Park. I would argue that many don’t even know what happened in 2008. One of my friends, a brick worker, said the protesters were a “bunch of bums” who were only there because they did not have jobs. Another said they were blocking productive Americans from getting to their jobs.  I was not at Zuccotti Park, but in retrospect, I should have been, along with Mike Rowe, Tucker Carlson, and an alliance of blue and white-collar working-class people from all walks of life. We should still be there because not much has changed. The financialization of our economy in unison with offshoring has resulted in a vicious cycle of concentration of wealth and concentration of power. The only way to combat this is to put the plight of  America and our fellow man above our job or political party affiliation.

 In 2009, Rowe made a very lukewarm statement regarding the Wall Street bailouts, simply saying that he opposed them. When choosing which hill to die on, I resent that a self-styled hero of the working class decided to go after individuals with college debt while downplaying the misdeeds of Wall Street, but it is clear why he did. If he were to commiserate with college students, he would anger his blue-collar base, who support him with messianic zeal. His “brand” and career are more important than the working class people he is supposed to represent.  Perhaps he is contemplating a career in politics. In any case, a discussion of Biden’s student loan forgiveness program must include a conversation about the financial crisis of 2008. Spare me the allegations of whataboutism or that two wrongs don’t make a right, especially if you received your bachelor’s degree in 1975 and it cost you  $10,000, or your parents paid for your college education.

Suppose you are a welder, trucker, plumber, police officer, or supermarket worker. In that case, you are the backbone of your nation, and you are needed as much as doctors and college-degreed white-collar professionals. I am personally grateful for all of you. Moreover, congratulations are in order to those who have dutifully paid off their student loans in full. There is tremendous power in unity. My Uncle Frank was a big fan of trade unions. The middle class is a union of the best kind, and its members do not pay dues for membership. Let’s keep our solidarity.  Do not let the mainstream media, Mike Rowe, Tucker Carlson, or anyone else divide us. There has been some mobilization and activism but in very self-destructive directions. It has taken the form of unfocused anger and attacks on one another. It is corrosive to social relations, and that is the point. The idea is to make people hate and fear each other, look out only for themselves, and not care about anyone else in order to obfuscate what is truly happening. To be clear, I disagree with Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. I believe that taxation is theft and oppose bailouts of all kinds. I would like to see the Federal Reserve audited and a return to the gold standard, but that will never happen.

On the other hand, if President Biden is going to ask Ben Bernanke to fire up his money printing machine, I do not mind that this time, the worthless Monopoly money he prints goes to individuals paying off predatory student loans and my friends who own small businesses rather than Wall Street executives or for more javelin missiles for Ukraine. As one of my friends noted, this is a time of unprecedented transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top, and the oligarchs are working overtime to keep us divided. As such, I will take my place at the trough like the big corporations; I will give President Biden my bank account routing number so he can send some cash my way. While it might be true that my Uncle Frank was right, and the world does indeed belong to the man that is not afraid to get his hands dirty, the truth is that my life experience has taught me there are many ways to get one’s hands dirty, and not all of them require a shovel or a backhoe.

About the Author
I was a sociology major at Columbia University, where i received my B.A in 2017, at age 55. My opinion pieces have appeared in the Columbia Spectator, the Tab at Columbia University, and Merion West.