The plan has three components, and two are designed to address the underlying problem of student loans in higher education (See the details here). The pushback, however, centers on the 10K or 20K of debt cancellation. This benefit will affect 43 million people, but the cost will be shared by taxpayers. Sort of a reverse tragedy of the commons. Is it fair? No. But public policy is not meant to be fair. The goal is equity—not equality.
The fact that some people get something and others do not is by design. This happens all the time. Remember when high-risk people received first access to the COVID vaccine? It wasn’t fair, it was equitable. An informed decision was made to help a particular set of people. Do ‘all lives matter’? Absolutely. But as we’ve realized, certain lives deserve special attention at certain times. Similarly, all loans matter (those you paid off, those you chose not to take, those you were unable to receive), but student loans warrant unique consideration in this moment.
And that highlights perhaps the most important point: public policy is not a zero-sum game. Policymakers can make more, and citizens have a voice in that decision—through their vote. That is how democracy works (minus the filibuster). Elected officials make policies. Citizens decide if they like those policies, and if more than 50% do, that official [should] get elected again. If that number falls below 50%, that official gets voted out, and new officials make new policies. The cycle repeats so that the majority of a population is generally content with current policy. From U.S. Congress to student council president, the goal is the same: give the people what they want. Sixty-percent of Americans support some type of student loan forgiveness, so the argument that “He just did this to get more votes” or “He just did this to make people like him” is not an argument at all. Those were transparent intentions.
The student loan dilemma is knotty—it can’t be solved without untangling a host of other institutional problems. This new plan has flaws, but it is a targeted effort to help people who need it. What’s more, the plan is designed to disproportionately help people of color and reduce the racial wealth gap. Do other people need help? Absolutely. Maybe the next policy can address blue collar worker incentives or commuters with auto loans. There is no policy quota. Each of the whatabouts deserve close inspection, budget scrutiny, public dialogue, and possibly public policy.
Colin Gabler is a writer at heart.