Stop Being The Enemy Of The Good

Stop Being The Enemy Of The Good

Sometimes those who don't need or deserve government help – the rich, the privileged – are going to get assistance if people who truly need the help – workers living paycheck to paycheck – are going to see a modicum of relief.

That's the sobering, teeth-clenching reality of effective political programs in societies dominated by capital. In the United States, that means some rich folks – how many, I have no idea – are going to benefit from most, if not all, efforts to make the lives of working folks materially better.

The Biden administration offering student debt relief to tens of millions of Americans last week set off a veritable avalanche of bad-faith attacks against the modest but much-needed move. From the right, nakedly bad-faith cries of the president offering handouts to the rich rang from every corner of cable news and social media. Right-wing lawmakers and pundits used their superpower (shamelessness) to pretend only the wealthy would benefit from the elimination of $20,000 of student loan debt – the most significant action yet in a long-simmering economic crisis crafted by members of Congress in the early 2000s (to add to this, Congress pulled off a neat little trick in which they barred people from discharging student loan debt via bankruptcy).

To watch Republican senators who as recently as 2017 happily gave tax cuts to people who own multiple yachts cry about regular folks getting a little economic assistance was quite the display. They wailed about plumbers and construction workers having to bear the tax burden of the elites with college degrees, as if they give one single shit about the lives of workers without a college education. The acting was top notch. The bad faith was so transparent, it's a wonder they didn't laugh.

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From the left, strangely, came similar criticisms of the administration's debt relief effort. Both liberals and leftists – there are key distinctions between the two – earnestly raged about doctors and lawyers getting tens of thousands of dollars wiped off their books. Some of the left sounded an awful lot like the conservative bad-faith actors they despise. The difference: They actually meant what they said. No economically comfortable human, in their view, should get a single shred of government help (though this conveniently ignores folks with law degrees who ended up with debt up to their molars and no high-paying job).

The combined good faith and bad faith that threatens to keep crushing student loan debt alive forever was on full display in the days after the Biden administration released its plan. I found it all tremendously disheartening, as I did when COVID relief payments were panned as overly broad. That money helped untold numbers of desperate families survive a pandemic, and all we heard about were the Americans who stashed the COVID cash in their savings accounts.  

It is the living, breathing definition of perfection being the enemy of the good – a center/left mindset that has made structural change nearly impossible in the US. "Premature optimization," as computer scientist Donald Knuth said, "is the root of all evil."

Until we have perfect algorithms that can perfectly target exactly who needs debt relief in the US, we have to accept that wide-reaching programs that unburden working people are also going to give undeserved assistance to those who are – or will be – just fine. It's a question of the means to an end. If the end is millions of Americans who have had to make the equivalent of a hefty car payment for years and years in exchange for a worthless college degree getting some relief, some peace of mind, I'm fine with whatever means are necessary.

Future doctors and lawyers being roped into the administration's debt relief initiative can theoretically help deflate talking points painting those with mountains of college debt as irresponsible. No one on the right, if they were to operate in good faith, would declare doctors and lawyers irresponsible. They, like those who took on massive debt to get an English or journalism or lesbian dance theory degree, did as they were told. They went to college and got their degree. They were then punished for their responsible choices with loan debt that is, for many, life ruining.

Lost in the discussion of forgiving loan debt is the millions of Americans who borrowed from private institutions during their college years. Shadowy lenders offering unlimited money to teenagers in the early 2000s and 2010s put a ten-ton anchor around the necks of an entire generation. They have a better chance of landing a seat on Elon Musk's shuttle to Mars than buying a home or a car or even getting a meager line of credit.

I think of my brother, who as an 18-year-old college student would call the private lender, ask for a few grand, and get it deposited into his checking account within hours. Was it smart on his part? No, of course not. Should he have had unfettered access to a geyser of cash? Absolutely not. It was a deeply immoral system that was always going to immiserate young people – folks who would be elderly by the time they paid down their private loans.

This private student debt – like the government-backed student debt – should be eradicated if young Americans are going to be freed from the horrors of debt.

“All debt and all debt collection is mediated by the state — there’s no such thing as a purely private debt, because the state is the one that enforces it,” Sparky Abraham, a California attorney aiding people with major debt, told the Post. “All debt is a political question, and there are always political avenues to changing how it works.”

Now we're cooking with oil.

Stop Feeding The Culture War Monster

The American culture war is a black hole into which everything is absorbed. Nothing can happen, nothing can exist, outside our culture war. It's why Ted Cruz was on the verge of self immolating after the Biden administration's college debt relief announcement. The blue-haired, tattooed Starbucks barista who probably hates Cruz's fucking guts got a little help from the federal government. This will not do.

“The short answer to the question of debt forgiveness is that it all comes down to politics: which groups are favored by elite lawmakers, and which groups are less favored,” Bob Hockett, a public policy expert at Cornell University, told The Washington Post. “Student debt forgiveness is a relatively rare instance where we are getting debt forgiveness for average people.”

The aforementioned "lesbian dance theory" degree is an invention of fascist House member Lauren Boebert, who posited that some college degree holders were more deserving than others. Lesbian dance theory degree holders, I suppose, are not worthy.

To acknowledge all the hard-working nurses, for instance, who received debt relief, would have undercut the far right's cultural appeal to those in their tribe seeking reasons to oppose the president's program. Forget for a moment that Boebert may have invented the coolest higher education degree program in history and see her argument for what it is: A blatant dog whistle to her followers that some Americans are more equal than others.

Student debt is an issue that cuts across the socioeconomic spectrum – one that's tailor made for those on the left looking (hoping) to create some semblance of economic solidarity as a replacement for the often fraught and unreliable cultural solidarity that has come to define U.S. politics in the 21st century. It affects basically anyone and everyone who did what they were told and took on eye-watering loan debt to obtain – or at lest seek – a college degree.

Source: Business Insider 

When those who are usually sympathetic to the economic plight of the middle and working classes start sounding like the bad-faith political masters on the right, efforts like student debt relief are undercut – sometimes irreparably so. Whether or not they mean to, these folks feed the right-wing goblin determined to attack any government effort that helps working folks as some sort of internationalist Marxist scheme cooked up to destroy the country from the inside out. We cannot give oxygen to this sort of destructive, inherently bad-faith politics. I'm once again pleading with you to not counter bad faith with good faith, but rather no faith at all.

Debt relief – medical, student, or otherwise – has great potential as a political issue for the left. Not only does it affect people of every income and race, but it has a religious appeal that could prove powerful in a hyper-religious nation like the US. Some churches, for instance, do not mince words in their support for all manner of debt relief. It's seen by many (correctly) as a core issue of justice and freedom in the modern world. Debt, after all, destroys nations as it destroys individual lives. Its poisonous tentacles are limitless, reaching into every aspect of society. Non-religious folks on the left can hold their nose and welcome groups that would grow their coalition exponentially. Accepting the good over the perfect is the essence of effective politics. This is inarguable and deeply uncomfortable.

I get it. You don't like the idea of a doctor getting debt relief. It stings your sense of justice. It feels wrong. Maybe it is wrong. But if we have to put up with some rich assholes getting government assistance so those in real need can have a little dignity, so be it. The all-consuming culture war will only grow stronger and more toxic and more menacing if folks on the left continue to feed it. The monster gets enough food from the goons on the right. Stop making enemies with the good.

Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.