Last Thursday, President Biden announced he was “taking a hard look” at forgiving some share of Americans’ $1.5 trillion in student-loan debt. It was the first time Biden had broached the issue since taking office, despite the fact that he campaigned in 2020 on the promise of immediately canceling $10,000 in student loans for each debtor—in an effort to woo young Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren voters otherwise skeptical of his candidacy.
Though the White House has yet to offer specifics, it is now certain that the final figure will fall short of Warren’s and Chuck Schumer’s $50,000 debt-cancellation plan. But the right is already up in arms over the prospect that people who borrowed money under contract might be relieved of its fetters. Questions of personal responsibility and the sanctity of the social contract have been raised from the usual establishment-right outlets.
If this all feels familiar, it should. The conflict is a replica of those fought during the decades of right-wing opposition to the expansion of social-welfare programs. Conservatives’ argument then was the same as today: Some undeserving demographic (the poor, the lazy, and, more recently, the professional managerial class) are going to financially benefit off the backs of the average taxpayer. It is no coincidence that those undeserving groups make up the voting base of the Democratic Party. No such protests are raised when tax rates are adjusted for the betterment of the Republican Party’s electoral constituency.
And that’s because student-debt forgiveness and tax breaks for the rich are simply two sides of the same coin: They are both ways for political parties to punish their opponents’ voters and reward their own. Biden’s approval numbers are falling, especially among the sort of young people who are likely to hold student debt. He is hoping to improve those numbers before the midterm elections.
And so what? The only way to effect meaningful positive change in the greater majority’s material conditions is by prioritizing common economic concerns; in short, suck it up and become allies with those of the same economic class despite differing social values. This rule applies to the right as much as it does the left, because to build working-class power, the name of the game is strategy against the ruling class, which is entirely responsible for the problem in the first place.
The looting and dismantling of US manufacturing beginning in the second half of the 20th century resulted in a consumer-oriented economy, which meant that many of the remaining jobs were of an intangible nature. Now that employers were selecting for workers with a verbal acuity and proficiency in abstract thinking—qualities sought out and developed by colleges—the best paying and most prestigious jobs began to require college credentials.
Between 1980 and 1996, the earnings advantage of males who held a bachelor’s over those who didn’t rose to 54 percent, up from 19 percent. Recognizing that the decline in industrial employment was permanent, an informal public-awareness campaign promoting the long-term financial benefits of college commenced, primarily targeting the poor and working classes.
Recognizing their newfound indispensability, universities both public and private began competing for students the same way brands compete for consumers. They expanded their administrative capacities, upgraded and constructed newer and better campus amenities, and to pay for it all, hiked up tuition.
With degrees baldly functioning as commodities, for-profit colleges and other dubious diploma-mills exploded in number—many of which were tellingly backed by investment firms. (It should surprise no one that a few gallons of deregulatory fuel were added to the fire by none other than George W. Bush.)
This is how student debt exploded. Now that the United States is relatively flush with degree-holders, there simply aren’t enough well-paying jobs to go around. So, tell me, who should be held responsible?
Today’s student-loan debtors occupy a wide age and household-income range. Will student-debt forgiveness, in aggregate, greatly benefit the poor and middle classes? Yes (depending on how you measure it). Will it also benefit members of the upper class? Yes (depending on how you measure it). Are either facts any reason to oppose the policy? No.
If the members of the political right would like to oppose debt forgiveness on principle, they should by all means do so. But if they are more concerned with the prospect of the wrong people benefiting, then I invite them to publicly agitate for universal auto-loan forgiveness, which will positively impact many more Americans.