The most disingenuous argument in politics


We need student loan forgiveness beyond the potential $10,000 your administration has proposed,” Jocelyn Fish, a marketing director for a community theater, told President Joe Biden at CNN’s presidential town hall on Tuesday night. “We need at least a $50,000 minimum. What will you do to make that happen?”

“I will not make that happen,” the president replied.

Biden went on to suggest that it didn’t make sense to use money to forgive the student debt “for people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn.”

The exchange quickly rattled progressives, advocates and student loan borrowers who’ve been calling on Biden to increase the amount of debt forgiveness he supports to $50,000 from $10,000 and to cancel the loans through executive action.

Joe Biden would have us believe that he would support student loan forgiveness, if not for the fact that it would help the undeserving: the “Harvard and Yale and Penn” graduates.

When you think about it, Biden’s argument applies equally well to all universal programs. We should not have universal healthcare because the medical bills of Dartmouth graduates would be paid for. We should not have Social Security because senior citizens who went to Cornell might benefit. We should not have public education because the sons and daughters of Columbia alumni would be able to go to school for free. We should not have universal childcare, or universal pre-K, because people who got degrees from Brown decades ago would otherwise have to hire a babysitter or enroll their kid in a private Montessori school. And we should not have public transit because the Princeton grad who moved to Manhattan to work for Skadden Arps would be able to get uptown for only $2.75.

(I could go on, but I won’t, mostly because I’ve run out of Ivy League schools that I can recall off the top of my head.)

There are a number of arguments to be made against Biden’s claim. The most obvious is that if we deny ourselves universal programs because the “undeserving” might benefit, then we are also denying the “deserving” — who, presumably, exist in far greater numbers. For every Ivy League graduate who might use universal healthcare, or public education, or universal childcare, there are tens of others who did not attend those elite schools who would derive value from those same services. In fact, the article from which the excerpt at the top of this post is pulled arrives at the same conclusion: “just 0.3% of federal student borrowers attended Ivy League colleges, according to estimations provided to CNBC by higher education expert Mark Kantrowitz”.

The second is that efforts to distinguish between these two groups, assuming the distinction can even be made, bear some cost. In terms of simplicity and efficiency of implementation, “give $3000 checks to any child in America” cannot be beaten. As we weaken the simplicity of this dictate, we also diminish the efficiency with which it can be implemented. “Give $3000 checks to any child in America who is not born to Ivy League parents” or “give $3000 checks to any child in America whose parents make less than $150,000 combined income” are significantly more complicated tasks. In the case of the former, do we want parents to supply proof of education, or lack thereof, in order to collect the benefit? Won’t this discourage the people with the least spare time, social capital, and education — in other words, the people who would likely benefit the most? In the case of the latter, a proposal that sounds simple in theory is less so in practice. If an individual experiences a hardship, such as the loss of a job, that fact will not be known to the government, via their tax return, until a year later. Income might also not be the best proxy for desert. The most common situation among the ultra-rich is to make a disproportionate amount from capital appreciation, rather than labor income. We can imagine amending our previous statement to somehow combine income- and wealth-based measures, and to average over several years instead of taking the most recent one, but this would only serve to increase the administrative burden even further. Taken to its extreme, sacrificing universalism for the sake of desert leads to absurd proposals like that of Kamala Harris, who suggested forgiving student loan debt, but only for “Pell grant recipients who successfully open businesses in underserved communities and operate those businesses for three years”. When we exclude all those who have sinned, who is left?

(It is perhaps also worth pointing out that the rich and well-educated are the most adept at finding loopholes in these sorts of laws. I remember a former roommate and friend of mine whose father founded a successful technology company. There was apparently a tax credit that California awarded to technology companies who were run by women. So my friend’s father made his wife president of his company. She was a homemaker but would have to appear in the office every once in a while to convince the auditors that everything was aboveboard.)

The third counterargument is that these restrictions are more symbolic than material. Set aside, for now, the fact that money is basically fake: that, if the government wants to fund universal healthcare or universal retirement or a universal child allowance, it can simply borrow the funds with almost no repercussions. Even if we are (incorrectly) worried about the impact of that borrowing on the deficit or inflation, it turns out that limiting universal programs to the “non-rich” does very little to alleviate that concern. This is essentially a consequence of simple math. Income and wealth distributions in the U.S. are highly unequal and follow a “Pareto” type curve. A large fraction of wealth is held by a small fraction of the population. But this fact implies that, for benefits that are distributed equally, a small fraction of the cost is devoted to the very wealthy. If we begrudge the 1% from benefiting from, say, a universal child allowance, excising them from that program would save only 1%! Even for cases where the benefit is not equitably distributed — such as student loan forgiveness, where some individuals have outstanding amounts that are orders of magnitude more than others — prohibiting the rich from participating would save an insignificant amount of money. I’m sure Joe Biden and his economic team know this, but the costs of a student loan forgiveness program that includes Harvard, Yale, and Penn alumni and one that excludes them are essentially the same.

On a related note, because of the same Pareto distribution, the privileged people who supposedly should not be able to access universal programs are also the people who don’t care about the existence of such programs. What does a $1400 stimulus check or a $3000 child allowance mean to someone whose net worth is millions of dollars? When I rode the bus to school in Santa Barbara, I was not offended that millionaires could ride that bus at the same fare I paid. That was because no millionaires would ever ride the bus. They would instead take their sports car on the 101 from Montecito to Goleta. We live in such an unequal society in America that basically everything, including what should be considered “essential”, is two-tiered. That is true of housing, education, healthcare, childcare, transportation…the list goes on. By denying the ultra-rich the chance to participate in a universal program, we actually deny them nothing of material value. They have likely already purchased their place in the higher tier, exclusive program. To return to the example of student loan debt: if you are a truly wealthy individual, you don’t have any, because your parents paid for your Ivy League education. The Ivy Leaguers Joe Biden is hurting are those whose families were not so prodigal.

A fourth rebuttal concerns the fact that this type of argument against universalism bears an uncomfortable resemblance to right-wing arguments. Take, for example, Tom Cotton, who attacked the $1400 checks that were part of the Democrats’ stimulus bill by tweeting, “Dylann Roof murdered nine people. He’s on federal death row. He’ll be getting a $1,400 stimulus check as part of the Democrats’ “COVID relief” bill.” and “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Bomber, murdered three people and terrorized a city. He’ll be getting a $1,400 stimulus check as part of the Democrats’ “COVID relief” bill.” Or take Ted Cruz, who invented the idea that undocumented immigrants would be getting stimulus checks, and then attacked Democrats for voting against his amendment to remedy this imaginary situation. I’m reminded of Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who, during President Obama’s State of the Union, shouted “You lie!” when Obama tried to reassure the nation that the ACA would not apply to undocumented immigrants. The right-wing excels at carving distinctions between the anointed and the benighted. You are undeserving if you are a criminal, an illegal immigrant, a legal immigrant, a coastal elite, an Ivy league graduate, an urban dweller, a minority, a woman, a lesbian, gay, transgendered, or queer person, a Muslim, a government employee, a millennial, a rich person who is a traitor to their class, or a poor person who is not a traitor to their class. So, who, then, is deserving?

We understand that Tom Cotton would not be any more supportive of sending stimulus checks if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were not one of the recipients. We also understand that Ted Cruz would not have voted for the stimulus package even if his amendment had passed. We recognize that these people are arguing in bad faith. Their complaints are not about the “undeserving” having nice things. Their complaints are about anyone having nice things. Their complaints are about the government doing something good for people and people growing to expect that that will continue. So why do we find it so difficult to extend that logic to Joe Biden and other centrist Democrats? Do we seriously think Joe Biden gives a shit about whether a Harvard graduate gets $50000 in student loan debt forgiven? These people are bullshitters. They feign sympathy for anti-elitism, and they adopt populist rhetoric when it suits them. And, behind closed doors, they tell their wealthy backers, the ones they pretend to deride in public, that “nothing will fundamentally change.”


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