President Joe Biden’s plan to magically wipe away portions of legitimately incurred student-loan debt is, in certain ways, a perfect encapsulation of his administration’s awful policymaking.
It provides the wrong incentives — moral, economic and political. It abuses executive power. It spends a fortune, yet still not enough to satisfy his party’s progressive base. And it does nothing to get to the root of the problem: overpriced higher education.
The decision, expected to be announced Wednesday, is reportedly to eliminate $10,000 in debt for borrowers who make less than $125,000 (and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients). Biden’s been pressured to cancel all student debt; to his credit, he has so far resisted. But it will still cost billions, and Biden reportedly is leaving the door open to further cancellation by irresponsibly refusing to restart repayments that were paused during the pandemic.
Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: Working-class people will be taxed to fund a benefit for people whose degrees already give them a leg up in the economy. The very families whom “Middle Class Joe” says he worries about struggling with bills at the kitchen table will subsidize the advanced degrees of lawyers, bankers and other white-collar professions. Future generations will bear more federal debt because millions in this one were absolved of their obligations.
Never again should Democrats accuse conservatives of taxing the poor to help the rich. Biden is actually doing it — and he’ll indirectly turn more spending loose in an already inflationary economy.
Also punished by this terrible idea are people who did things the right way. You know: suckers.
If you paid back loans or never incurred them because you sought out cheaper alternatives, your reward is to help people who didn’t think twice about borrowing tens of thousands of dollars to get an English degree.
The Biden policy will encourage, not deter, irresponsible spending in higher education and foolish debt for students. It’s an iron economic law that if you subsidize something, you get more of it. So, get ready for even higher tuition and more administrative spending.
Colleges and universities face no pressure to reform if they can convince young borrowers: Don’t worry, it’s funny money that the government will pay for eventually. Why would any kid take the sober but perhaps less-satisfying step of getting basic credits for cheap at a community college when taxpayers will pay for the full four-year ride?
Biden’s decision to extend the moratorium on payments is indefensible. His administration tries to persuade us that the economic bruises we’re all carrying aren’t real. It redefined recession, celebrated gas-price reductions that still leave us paying at least 50% more than when the president took office and manipulated statistics to suggest inflation is zero. On COVID-19, public health officials just announced what most of us have known for more than a year, that we have to learn to live with it.
And yet, on this one issue, the administration wants you to believe that the economic harm of the pandemic is still so bad that not a single borrower can be forced to make a payment on any student loan.
To do all this, the people who constantly tut-tut about the specter of authoritarianism and threats to our democratic norms are creating a benefit without so much as a nod at Congress. The imperial sweep of such policymaking is much more troublesome for the republic than a few oddballs in red hats showing up at school board meetings.
There is a legitimate public policy issue to be addressed. We don’t want huge numbers of people inhibited in building wealth because they were led into bad decisions when they were young. In Texas, in the 2019-20 academic year, more than a third of students carried debt. A typical bachelor’s degree candidate had more than $23,000 to pay off.
Too many more were sold a bill of goods, encouraged to borrow money to pursue a degree they never attained.
But there are better ways. First, we have a longstanding legal remedy for people who cannot repay their debts: bankruptcy. It’s not as pleasant as having the president, like a game show host, reveal the big prize. But it’s a responsible system that provides for a fresh start.
Most student debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, however. That’s a dumb policy that Congress could address.
Or if there’s going to be widespread loan forgiveness, we should get more out of it. Expand programs to exchange debt relief for public service, such as years spent teaching in needy schools, working as a doctor or nurse in a rural community or providing legal assistance to the poor.
Otherwise, where will it end? Should the government pay off car loans or mortgages? What about business loans?
Come to think of it, though, we’d be much better off if we gave young people money to buy a truck and plumbing or lawn equipment than to spend three hours a week learning Jane Austen.