Biden’s Student-Loan Gamble
Why loan forgiveness is politically risky
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Although today’s big news from the White House is about student-loan forgiveness, we should note that it is Ukrainian Independence Day, which usually passes unnoticed outside of Ukraine. Today also marks six months into Russia’s attempt to extinguish Ukraine and its democratic government, so it is a day that should have special meaning for everyone who lives in a democracy.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
An Unforced Error
President Joe Biden has finally announced his program for alleviating the burden of student debt. Biden and his party have been on a winning streak for most of the summer: With a 50–50 Senate, they have managed to notch a string of legislative wins while gas prices have plunged, inflation has cooled, unemployment has remained low, and a dreaded summer COVID-19 meltdown has failed to materialize. And how will the Democrats spend this political capital? By celebrating a niche policy that will hand the Republicans a free issue in America’s ongoing culture and class wars, just as Biden and the Democrats head into the 2022 and 2024 elections.
It could have been worse. Some Democrats were pressing the president to write off $50,000 of debt, an idea that I said more than a year ago would have been a political disaster. The current plan, by comparison, is merely bad and politically obtuse.
The argument for loan forgiveness is not only that it is the right thing to do—I’ll come back to this—but that young, college-educated people are an important pillar of the Democratic Party’s base. It sounds moral and caring, at least within the bubble of a highly educated party, to advocate for relieving some of the cost of higher education. After all, everyone has to go to college, right? It’s practically a life requirement now. And kids don’t know what they’re signing up for when they take on boatloads of student debt—they’re only teenagers!
The truth, however, is that most people don’t go to college, and the majority of those who do go manage to get out without life-destroying debt. Fewer than four in ten Americans over 25 have a four-year college degree. Only 13 percent have federal student debt, and the average undergraduate leaves college with an obligation about the size of a moderate car loan. (Graduate school is where the numbers really climb.)
Worse, this policy is aimed at the young and college-educated, a group that is, in the main, composed of reliable Democratic Party voters—and who should by now be plenty motivated by the ongoing threat to democracy from the Republican Party. The legendary American general George S. Patton, describing his disdain for retreating and then having to retake the same ground, reportedly said that he hated to pay for the same real estate twice. But that’s what Democrats are doing: They are trying to buy a constituency that ought to be firmly in their camp. The point of a “base” is that it will vote for its own party come hell or high water. A “base” that needs to be enticed with a $10,000 bonus isn’t, by definition, a base.
Instead, the whole business seems like class-based special pleading for a very specific and small group residing mostly within the Democratic Party. The right-wing narratives and Republican attack ads easily write themselves—and they will carry some sting with independent voters in swing states, many of whom are workers in blue- or gray-collar jobs, or in service, clerical, and other nonprofessional occupations. “Did you go to college? No? Tough luck. Your debts don’t qualify for forgiveness. Medical bills? Business failures? Too bad. Joe Biden is giving 10 grand to a select group of people as a thank-you, and you’re not one of them.”
Yes, such ads will stink to the skies of rank hypocrisy. Republicans are happy to take bailouts when it suits them. And it will be unfair in the extreme to go after the Democrats for servicing an interest group in their party when the GOP is, in my view, nothing but a giant, cronyist pandering machine that hands red meat to its culture warriors and tax cuts and other breaks to its own special interests. But political messaging isn’t about fairness; it’s about messages that work, and this one is likely to land a punch that could cost the Democrats otherwise winnable votes. With democracy hanging in the balance, taking such risks for the transitory sugar high of a onetime hand-wave is irresponsible.
I have said nothing so far about whether loan forgiveness is a good idea. It isn’t. Even if the Democrats controlled legislative supermajorities, I would still argue that one more bailout won’t solve very much (and might even contribute to reigniting inflation, according to Larry Summers and other economists). As my Atlantic colleague Jerusalem Demsas recently pointed out, some of the main arguments about who would benefit, and by how much, don’t hold up very well. “The issue’s prominence in our discourse,” Demsas writes, “has less to do with its merits than the changing political landscape that has stymied legislative efforts and given college graduates agenda-setting power.” The progressive political analyst David Shor has made the same point—and warned that the dominance of a college-educated elite in the Democratic Party could undermine effective messaging from the Democrats to the rest of America.
My complaint here might seem pointless, since Biden’s decision is now done and dusted. And I think Biden’s doing a solid job—more than he gets credit for—as president. But I see this debt policy as an unforced error, and I hope that the Democrats do not make this a talking point in an election year. Republicans would be much happier debating college-debt forgiveness to households earning a quarter-million dollars a year instead of talking about how the GOP is a menace to American democracy.
- A Russian missile strike killed at least 22 people at a train station in central Ukraine. It was one of the deadliest strikes on Ukraine’s railways since another attack in April killed more than 50 people.
- The Biden administration plans to offer updated COVID booster shots soon after Labor Day.
- Representative Charlie Crist defeated Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried in Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, but polls show that he’s very unlikely to defeat Governor Ron DeSantis in November.
- The Weekly Planet: The new EPA just quietly got stronger, Robinson Meyer reports.
- Up for Debate: Conor Friedersdorf explores the link between War on Drugs logic and overdose deaths.
- Work in Progress: There is no national teacher shortage, Derek Thompson argues.
The Spookiest Sound in Astronomy
By Marina Koren
Ah, the sounds of late summer. Pass a pool, and hear the happy yelps of kids splashing around. Sit outside at night, and bask in the soothing buzz of cicadas hidden in the trees. Open the internet, and hear the terrifying howling of outer space.
Thank NASA for that last one. The space agency recently shared a clip online of sound coming from a cluster of galaxies about 250 million light-years from Earth. NASA, always eager to show off its capacity to produce cosmic wonder, presented the audio enthusiastically, as if to say, Wow, check out this cool thing! And although the transformation of space phenomena into something detectable by our human ears certainly seems like an exciting exercise, the reality is—well, have a listen.
More From The Atlantic
Read. The Good-Enough Life, a new book that challenges us to abandon the quest for greatness.
Watch. Murina, perhaps the tautest and most gripping thriller you can see in theaters this year.
I am fully aware of the cost of college because I have a daughter attending school right now. But let me leave aside the arguments over student loans for a moment and reach out to those of you whose children, like mine, are leaving home for school—some for the first time, and some for their subsequent years of education. I don’t know about other parents, but for me, letting go after having my kid around all summer was, in some ways, harder than the freshman move-in.
I am far too stoic and manly to admit to any tears here, but I have some recommendations for songs about children growing up that you should never play on a day like today. One of them, of course, is “The Riddle,” by Five for Fighting, in which a father and his child, pondering all of life’s big questions, realize that the “reason for the world” is “you and I.” Also, if you have a daughter, you might cross off “All-American Girl,” by Carrie Underwood. “That sweet little / Beautiful, wonderful, perfect all-American girl”—nope, not doing that one today. And under no circumstances should you let “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell cross your playlist on a day like this. This is not the time to think about how the “painted ponies go up and down” and why we’re “captive on the carousel of time.”
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s getting dusty in here again.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.