Watch this clip of a woman in a town hall asking Joe Biden about the possibility of student debt reduction up to $50,000:
One of the first things Biden says in response to her—after “I will not make that happen”—is that “it depends on the idea that I say to a community I'm going to forgive the debt of billions of dollars…of people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn…”
You may recognize this line of thought, which became especially familiar during the 2016 presidential campaign, when Hillary Clinton would trot it out as an argument against free public college:
(Later, close to the general election, Clinton moved toward a Sanders-adjacent college plan.)
It's easy to see why this argument is so tempting and convenient for establish Democrats to make. There's something gross about the idea of giving rich people anything for free, and it works as an effective cudgel to turn people against a universal idea.
Well, here's a counterpoint: Who gives a shit if it helps rich people?
I ask that genuinely. Policy ideas like free public college education and erasing student debt would have a massive positive influence on the lives of millions of poor and middle-class Americans, and the net effect of that would overwhelm whatever affront you might take at a billionaire attending state school for free.
The question we need to ask about public college education is, “should it be free in this country?” If your answer is yes, then your answer should be yes for literally everyone. The question we need to ask about student loan debt is, “is this is an exploitative system that puts financial fetters on people and is near criminal in its spread?” If your answer is yes, then student debt relief should be a policy that applies to literally everyone. That's called having a principle, a belief about what's right and what's wrong, and when you have a principle, you either apply it universally or it's not an actual principle.
These two tweets sum it up nicely:
What Democrats like Biden and Clinton do, when they bring the “but it will benefit the rich!” argument into play, is try to manipulate their audience by appealing to populist sensibilities that they wouldn’t even give lip service to in any other circumstance. Here’s the truth: they fundamentally don’t believe in universal progressive policies, and will search for any justification to oppose them. This is almost too obvious to say, but they don’t actually care if the children of Bill Gates or Donald Trump or Warren Buffett get free education, or debt relief. This is the same party who triangulated in the ‘90s by becoming a Republican-lite party, defined by giving tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations, and is steered ideologically today by lobbyists and huge for-profit industries. The reason they don’t want free public education is because they don’t want to cut into rich people’s profits, and it should be a point of outrage for everyone that they have the audacity to argue against it using “ah, but we mustn’t help the rich!” rhetoric.
It’s hard to know what’s more infuriating; Democrats using this tactic, or liberals falling for it. What’s certain is that we’re starting to see it everywhere. Medicare for all? Can’t give free medicine to the ultra-rich, not fair. Stimulus checks? An outrage to give $2,000 to a billionaire. Universal basic income? Again, money to the rich = bad.
It’s paint-by-numbers at this point. Find a universal program, and you can tack on the same exact rhetoric with a few nouns changed. Republicans have the courage to admit that they don’t care about poor people, but centrist Democrats have to pretend to have a better reason, and this is one of their new favorite tactics.
All of this, of course, is an offshoot of a favorite Democratic hobbyhorse: means-testing. Why give everybody some benefit when you can limit it by income level, or some other economic standard? The actual answer to that question is that means-tested programs are vulnerable to cuts and introduce ridiculous bureaucratic hurdles that end up keeping people from benefits, but in the eyes of some Democrats, these are features rather than bugs. As Matt Bruenig pointed out in Jacobin, there’s plenty of recent history indicating how bad political actors can use the framework of means-testing to cut or roll back programs:
In the case of Medicaid, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced in January of 2018 that it would grant waivers to states that wanted to impose work requirements on Medicaid beneficiaries. Since then, eighteen states have applied for those waivers, with five of those states having implemented the rules, throwing tens of thousands of people off of the Medicaid rolls and into uninsurance.
In the case of food stamps, the United States Department of Agriculture announced in December of 2019 a new rule that would impose strict work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependents. It was estimated that the rule would have eliminated the food stamp benefits of seven hundred thousand people, though it is currently hung up in the courts.
Nevertheless, this is what Democrats are comfortable with, particularly when they are bolstered by money from industries like insurance or for-profit education which are very much don’t want universal solutions that would cost them money. Means-testing is an effective way to limit benefits, to throw up obstacles, and to preserve bloated and greed-based profit factories like education and health.
In short, the next time you hear someone like Biden dismiss a good plan like student debt reduction using the rationale that it might unfairly benefit a Princeton grad, recognize this deceptive tactic for what it is, and recognize what he’s really saying. He doesn’t want to keep the benefits from the rich; he wants to keep them from you.