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“That’s it,” tweeted Robby Soave, editor of Raison magazine. “I’m moving to Finland.” Any reasonable person would prefer Nordic social democracy to America’s faded social safety net, but Soave did not speak out of concern for the poor. He was outraged by the news that President Biden would forgive student loan debt. He wasn’t alone either.
“I can’t even tell you how many sacrifices I made when I was 23 to pay off my student loans as soon 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. “It’s a giant FU for those who have actually taken responsibility for the debt they have incurred.” Newsweek editor Batya Ungar-Sargon worried for the least of us. “I just don’t know how these people who make $100,000 a year face people who change old people’s bedpans for a living or drive a truck or work on the railroad or stock shelves in grocery stores or deliver their Amazon packages and say, ‘You, yes you, give me $10,000. I just don’t get it,” she tweeted.
Think veterans, said Andrew Lewis, a Republican state representative in Pennsylvania. “For generations, the only avenue 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 – a slap in the face to all vets.” As a veteran himself, Lewis might be interested to know that A quarter undergraduate vets take out loans, and many, like my husband, remain in debt years later. This is America, after all. There is no sure path to the middle class. There is no guarantee of prosperity.
Yet Biden’s announcement also inflamed centrist Democrats. “While there’s no doubt that a college education should be about opening up opportunity, debt forgiveness for those already on the path to financial security sends the wrong message to the millions of college-educated Ohioans. who are working just as hard to make ends meet,” Representative Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat Senate candidate, said in a statement. And this despite Biden’s efforts to convince these moderates. The plan is means-tested with the highest level of forgiveness, $20,000, reserved for Pell Grant recipients from low-income backgrounds. There is even an income cap that prohibits relief for someone earning $125,000 or more per year. Critics seem to oppose forgiveness itself, and perhaps that shouldn’t come as 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 misconduct. Impunity says nothing matters; forgiveness implies the opposite.
For the sake of political clarity, it is important to recognize who should forgive whom. The student debt regime should not exist. In other countries, this is not the case. American policymakers made deliberate choices that trapped debtors in an inhumane and intolerable scheme. The very working class that commentators claim to defend have borne the brunt of this scheme on their backs. Higher education has become nearly ubiquitous for many types of work in this country, including work changing elderly bedpans. Meanwhile, tuition fees have increased at both public and private colleges. Working-class adolescents understand early on the constraints imposed on someone by their class. To grow up without money in this country is to hear repeatedly that the university opens the door to the middle class. For many, student loan debt slammed that door. There is no defined “path to financial security,” as Ryan put it. For anyone who loses a significant portion of their monthly income to student loan debt, there is only drudgery. This is what the status quo looks like for millions of people. Although he is lewd, he does not lack defenders.
Although critics claim to care about working people, the outrage over the cancellation of student debt has little to do with working-class realities or dreams. 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. What they really fear about Biden’s plan is that it sets a precedent. If the working class escapes punishment for its fiscal irresponsibility, what could it demand next? The whole rotten system that gave birth to our $1.7 trillion student debt crisis could come crashing down. It might be easier for someone with no means to go to college, rise through the ranks afterwards, become a real threat to their position.
Those who have repaid their debt and now feel some outrage are not wrong to do so, but if they blame other debtors, they have misunderstood the problem. It is not that the debtors are fiscally irresponsible but that the same system has abused them both. College doesn’t have to be so inaccessible; student loan debt does not have to apply usurious terms. By canceling certain debts, Biden offers a glimpse of another world. The president may not be fully prepared for what he is unleashing. The working class can demand more, like permanent changes in how the United States funds and administers higher education. The United States could be more like Finland, where universities are free for citizens. Such changes would outrage today’s elites; indeed, the left’s proposals have already done so. The justifications are familiar — it’s too expensive; it will alienate the workers. These objections are revealing, proof that for some of us college is above all a means of reproducing the same elite class in perpetuity. The working class can only rise as long as better things are possible.