The lesson from Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness? Go big or go home | Hamilton Nolan


Politics is not like regular life; it’s worse. Things that are held as treasured virtues in the normal world are often political liabilities. We’ve all just been served with a shining example of how reflexive moderation – which is good when estimating measurements for recipes, or having drinks at a work party – becomes the tendency of a political fool. The wellbeing of countless Americans has long been sacrificed on the altar of moderation by the Democratic party, and all the Democrats win for it is maximal disgust.

This week Joe Biden announced that he will be canceling $10,000 in federal student loan debt (or $20,000 for Pell grant recipients) for people who earn under $125,000 a year. This policy is both unquestionably wise, and unquestionably a half-measure. There has long been a movement on the left to cancel all student debt, and even Democratic stalwarts like Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren were pushing for the cancellation of $50,000 in debt. Joe Biden was pulled towards this action, in large part, by his inability to get other, bigger economic policies through Congress. But even in taking unilateral action, he has succumbed to the overwhelming tendency of Clintonian Democrats to cut any good policy idea in half and call it political wisdom.

And what did Biden earn for his unforced, personal decision to keep this program much smaller than it could have been? Within a day, mainstream Republican pundits and politicians called the policy an executive “coup”, “an abuse of the law”, “utterly revolting”, and a “fuck you to every financially responsible person”. Republicans in Congress screeched that it would cause wild and uncontrolled borrowing, and Mitch McConnell, predictably, called it “socialism”.

In other words, Republicans – whose party has spent the past 50 years single-mindedly crushing worker power and funneling all of our nation’s proceeds to the rich – suddenly became very concerned that this policy might be regressive in its benefits. The party that prevented the passage of any broader measures that might have relieved not just student debt, but housing and healthcare costs and poverty wages, is now alarmed that this policy does not address all of those other matters. Republicans have taken one day off of trying to eradicate labor unions and destroy public education and put poor people in jail to theatrically moan about how this is unfair to all of the hardworking folks who didn’t go to college. Whatever.

Here is the very simple lesson to take from this episode: you will get all of the backlash whether you do a little, or a lot. So do a lot. What is this loan forgiveness policy really driving at? It is, at its core, one small step on the road to a world in which America has free, high-quality, public higher education for all. We are not dreaming of a world in which student loan debt is somewhat smaller, but rather a world in which student loan debt does not need to exist. That is the goal we should reach. When, after many years of struggle, we get a chance to take a step down that road, make it a big step. To do otherwise is stupid. By slashing the debt relief number far down from what it could have been, Biden is acting like a man who is forced to rush into a burning building to save two kittens, and decides to break it up into two trips so his arms don’t get tired. Hey, buddy: let’s just get this thing done all at once.

Incredibly, this basic truth of how politics works seems to forever elude Democrats. The issue of healthcare is an obvious parallel here. Free public healthcare – Medicare for all – is the intuitive, compassionate and eminently achievable goal that all of our peers in the wealthy western world have already built. So naturally, that goal is considered a fringe position in the Democratic party. Instead, Democrats have spent decades in the excruciating process of building and defending Obamacare, an insufficient half-measure that has cost the same amount of political capital and prompted the same amount of political opposition that Medicare for all would have, while leaving in place most of the ruinous flaws of our broken system. This resolute determination to never propose full solutions to our problems is proudly embraced by Democratic leadership and packaged into campaign ads as “reasonableness” and “moderation”.

Of all of the perversities in American politics, the most frustrating is its conviction that idealism is a weakness. The conflation of defeatism with wisdom means that expressing the belief that we should just do what needs to be done in order to make the world a just place is enough to convince the political world that the speaker is a rube. This is ironic, because the very opposite is true, as anyone who has ever accomplished something ambitious can tell you. There is nothing more foolish than negotiating against yourself. That woeful quality has long been the hallmark of Democrats, who are like timid children who long to express themselves but are too scared to ever stray from the tepid crowd.

What do we need? Public ownership of public goods for the public benefit. Public education, public healthcare, public transportation, public art. We are all the public, and helping the public is good. That’s called socialism, folks. Republicans will accuse the Democrats of it no matter what. Might as well stop shuffling along, and get right to it.