May 16, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Debt frees the powerful and crushes the powerless

Justices Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh and their peers on the court understand the ethic of the powerful, writes Noah Berlatsky.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia.
Images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Editor’s note: The following, which is for Editorial Board subscribers only, first appeared in Everything Is Horrible, Noah’s newsletter. –JS

Before being appointed to the United States Supreme Court in 2018, Kavanaugh racked up $60,000 to $200,000 in debt, supposedly on baseball tickets for himself and colleagues. Kavanaugh, as a federal judge, does not make enough money to pay down debts like that. But by the time of his nomination, the debts were gone. So how did he do it?

Liberals and leftists suggested the debt payoff is a sign of corruption; Kavanaugh, they insinuate, is in the pocket of corporate and far-right interests.

Kavanaugh certainly is a lickspittle for corporate and far-right interests, but not because they’ve paid him off. Kavanaugh’s debts were retired entirely legitimately, through the useful mechanism of white generational wealth. Conspiracy theories about Kavanaugh’s debts distract from the actual mechanisms of white capitalist power and help to erase the hypocrisy and cruelty of the Supreme Court’s defense of hierarchy at the expense of the poor, students and Black people.

Generational wealth for Kavanaugh, but not for Thomas
Kavanaugh’s been somewhat secretive about his finances, probably because he finds his luxury expenses and the way he is able to afford them somewhat embarrassing. “Embarrassing,” though, is not the same as illegal. Mother Jones, after an extensive investigation, concluded that “while he was maddeningly obtuse in admitting it, Kavanaugh seems to have gotten lots of money from his parents.”

Kavanaugh has mostly worked in the public sector and his take-home pay has generally been modest. But his family is wealthy; his father, also a lawyer, was a muckety-muck with the US Chamber of Commerce and served as president of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association for 20 years. That means Kavanaugh can live well beyond his means and afford large debts in the sure knowledge that his family can pay them off. He isn’t corrupt, in the usual sense. He’s just rich.

Debt is designed to advance white capital; when it does, it is righteous; when it doesn’t, it is illegal. That is the ethic of the powerful.

The difference here with Clarence Thomas is instructive. Thomas was born in Jim Crow Georgia to an impoverished family; the shack where he grew up was insulated with newspapers and his family shared an outhouse with neighbors. (Kavanaugh’s family, needless to say, did not share an outhouse with neighbors.)

Thomas’ family has less money than Kavanaugh’s for straightforward reasons.  Black people were targeted for systematic theft and dispossession in the south and countrywide. They could not build up cash reserves or resources. That’s why there’s a $240,120 discrepancy today in wealth between the median white household and the median Black household.

Thomas, like Kavanaugh, is an extremely ambitious man, who wants the political power that comes with a government position, but also wants to live like a private-sector elite. Kavanaugh could do this easily with a boost from his white wealthy family. Thomas, however, struggled. In 2000, he complained to influential Republicans that his salary of $173,600 a year was so low that he might quit the court.

Thomas’ efforts to legislate salary increases didn’t work. But there was a workaround. Republican donors began lavishing Thomas and his wife with gifts in order to ensure that he wouldn’t leave the bench. Billionaire Harlan Crow provided Thomas with yacht vacations and private school tuition for Thomas’ nephew. He also renovated the property where Thomas’ mother lives. Donors also appear to have helped Thomas pay down extensive debts contracted through purchases of a home and of a private RV.

Thomas did not have direct access to white capital through his family like Kavanaugh did. But by pledging himself to the cause of wealthy white billionaires like Harlan Crowe, he was able to access white capital at the cost of the appearance (and indeed the actuality) of corrupt impropriety.

While their pathways to big-spender lifestyle were different, Kavanaugh and Thomas ultimately could live beyond their apparent means for the same reason — white capital takes care of its own.

Thomas and Kavanaugh join hands to crush poor Black students
Kavanaugh and Thomas illustrate, in different ways, the inequities of wealth distribution in the US. White people, thanks to generations of rapacious white supremacy, have been able to hoard wealth and resources from Black people. White billionaires have massive funds with which to bribe and corrupt officials and elevate those who protect their interests. If you have the right background and/or the right contacts, you can be — and are encouraged to be — an irresponsible spendthrift, pampered as you use your power to defend your benefactors.

In contrast, people with neither wealthy relatives nor wealthy contacts are shit out of luck. They have no easy path to advancement.

Instead, many poor Black students try to access social mobility by enrolling in school. But current school costs are punishing. With no generational wealth to buttress them, “Black students are more likely to borrow, borrow more, struggle with repayment, and default on their student loans than their peers,” according to one analysis. Black college graduates on average owe $52,000 in debt, which is $25,000 more than white college graduates.

President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program was focused especially on trying to rectify some of these inequities by targeting Black students for relief. In Biden’s initial plan, most borrowers could receive up to $10,000 in relief, but Pell Grant recipients could receive $20,000. Black borrowers are twice as likely to have received Pell Grants as white borrowers, and all Pell Grant recipients are low income. Thus, Biden was specifically and thoughtfully providing the most aid to those with the least access to white capital.

Of course, Biden’s original debt relief plan was struck down by the court in a 6-3 decision. All the conservative justices, including one-time debtors Kavanaugh and Thomas, voted with the majority.

Biden has continued to forgive as much student debt as he can, given Supreme Court restrictions. But his initial plan would have fundamentally transformed the debt landscape for students, and especially for poor and Black students. The Supreme Court put an end to that.

You could call this hypocrisy on the part of Kavanaugh and Thomas, and I wouldn’t argue with you. But their decision, and their lives, follows a consistent logic of fealty to white capital.

The justices believe that those born into white capital, or who have been chosen to serve white capital, should have no restrictions on their spending or on their impunity — they should be able to lie about or obfuscate the sources of their wealth (as Kavanaugh does) and/or to engage in grotesque ethical breaches (as Thomas did) with no accountability.

In contrast, poor people, Black people and those without access to white capital should have no relief and no quarter. Debt frees the powerful and crushes the powerless. It is designed to advance white capital; when it does, it is righteous; when it doesn’t, it is illegal. That is the ethic of the powerful. Thomas and Kavanaugh and their peers on the court understand it well.

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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