“That’s it,” tweeted Robby Soave, an editor at Reason magazine. “I’m moving to Finland.” Any reasonable person would prefer Nordic social democracy to America’s withered social-safety net, but Soave did not speak out of concern for the poor. He was outraged by the news that President Biden would cancel some student-loan debt. Nor was he alone.
“I can’t even tell you how many sacrifices I made when I was 23 years old to pay off my student loans as fast as possible. I wasn’t making a lot of money and I worked my ass off,” Caleb Hull, a conservative communications strategist, wrote on Twitter. “This is a giant FU to those who actually took responsibility for debt they took out.” Newsweek editor Batya Ungar-Sargon worried for the least among us. “I just don’t know how these people making $100K a year look people in the face who change seniors’ bedpans for a living or drive a truck or work the railroad or stock grocery shelves or deliver their Amazon packages and say, “You, yes you, give me $10K.” I just don’t get it,” she tweeted.
Think of the veterans, said Andrew Lewis, a Republican state representative in Pennsylvania. “For generations, the only path in America for a taxpayer-funded college degree was the #gibill. A distinct gesture of gratitude to those who put their lives on the line for our country,” he complained. “Today, the Biden administration invalidated that distinction — slap in the face to every vet.” As a veteran himself, Lewis might be interested to know that a quarter of undergraduate-student vets take out loans, and many, like my husband, remain in debt years later. This is America, after all. There is no safe route to the middle class. There is no guarantee of prosperity at all.
Yet Biden’s announcement has also inflamed centrist Democrats. “While there’s no doubt that a college education should be about opening opportunities, waiving debt for those already on a trajectory to financial security sends the wrong message to the millions of Ohioans without a degree working just as hard to make ends meet,” Representative Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat running for the Senate, said in a statement. This is despite Biden’s efforts to win over such moderates. The plan is means tested with the highest level of forgiveness, $20,000, reserved for Pell Grant recipients from low-income backgrounds. There’s even an income cap that forbids relief for an individual making $125,000 or more per year. Critics appear to object to forgiveness itself, and perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. Forgiveness, at least for the working class, has little precedent in American political life. It is distinct from impunity, more familiar in its tolerance for elite misbehavior. Impunity says nothing matters; forgiveness implies the opposite.
As a matter of political clarity, it is important to acknowledge who owes forgiveness to whom. The student-debt regime should not exist. In other countries, it doesn’t. American policy-makers made deliberate choices that entrapped debtors in an inhumane and intolerable scheme. The very working class that commentators say they’re defending bore the brunt of this scheme on their backs. Higher education has become almost ubiquitous for many kinds of work in this country — including the work of changing seniors’ bedpans. Meanwhile, tuition has risen at public as well as private colleges. Working-class teenagers understand early the strictures imposed on someone by their class. To grow up without money in this country is to hear repeatedly that college opens the door to the middle class. For many, student-loan debt slammed that door shut. There is no set “trajectory to financial security,” as Ryan put it. For anyone who loses a significant portion of their monthly income to their student-loan debt, there’s just the grind. That’s what the status quo looks like for millions. Although it’s obscene, it doesn’t lack defenders.
Although critics claim to care for workers, the outrage over student-debt forgiveness has little in common with the realities or dreams of the working class. This is simply what it looks like when an elite class defends its territory. The campus belongs to them, or so they believe; school expenses work like a fence, keeping the unwashed out. What they fear, truly, about Biden’s plan is that it will set a precedent. If the working class escapes punishment for its fiscal irresponsibility, what might it demand next? The entire rotten system that birthed our $1.7 trillion student-debt crisis could collapse. It might be easier for a person without means to attend college, to ascend the ranks afterward, to become a real threat to their station.
Those who paid off their debt and now feel some outrage aren’t wrong to do so, but if they blame other debtors, they’ve misunderstood the problem. It isn’t that debtors are fiscally irresponsible but that the same system abused them both. College doesn’t have to be so unattainable; student-loan debt doesn’t have to enforce usurious terms. By forgiving some debt, Biden offers a glimpse into another world. The president may not be fully prepared for what he unleashes. The working class may demand more, like permanent changes to the way the U.S. funds and administers higher education. The U.S. could be more like Finland, where universities are free for citizens. Such changes would cause outrage among today’s elites; indeed, proposals from the left have already done so. The rationales are familiar — it’s too expensive; it’ll alienate workers. These objections are a tell, proof that for a certain few among us college is principally a way to reproduce the same elite class in perpetuity. The working class can rise only as long as better things are possible.