Opinion | Why such a lack of compassion on student debt?

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Why can’t we let good things happen to other people?

Last month, President Biden hinted that he was prepared to cancel at least some federal student loan debt once the pandemic-era repayment moratorium expires Aug. 31.

Republicans in particular immediately lashed out. Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) suggested that loan forgiveness was a “bribe” to boost Biden’s poll numbers. Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance called it a “massive windfall to the rich.” Fox News host Laura Ingraham suggested that loan forgiveness was an insult to hard-working Americans. “My mom worked as a waitress until she was 73 to help pay for our college, even helped with loan repayment,” she tweetedinsinuating that others should buckle down and do the same.

Days later, the president clarified the limits of his plans. Biden reassured reporters that the amount forgiven would be lower than the $50,000 demanded by the progressive wing of his party. Staff members made clear that they were discussing a potential income cap and other eligibility criteria for loan relief — no doubt to address these, by now, predictable objections.

According to recent polling, 64 percent of registered voters favor some kind of student loan forgiveness. Yet still, a whiff of resentment lingers in the air: “What about me?” Some people have already paid off their loans. Others never had any to begin with. Why should they support a policy that wouldn’t benefit them?

Biden would win no favors by doing so, but he could give an obvious reply: “Well, what about you?” The zero-sum mind-set may be instinctual. But the more we indulge it, the worse our country becomes.

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From masking (Why should I cover my face to protect someone else?) to child-care funding (Why should I have to pay for kids I don’t have?) to, now, student loan relief, Americans have displayed a growing unwillingness to consider the needs of their fellow citizens: either to slightly inconvenience themselves for another’s sake, or to simply let good things happen for others without demanding something for themselves.

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counterpointBiden should resist canceling student debt. Here’s a better policy.

According to Romney and Vance, apparently, it would be better that $1.6 trillion in debt continue to dog the steps of 45 million people rather than to see a single so-called elite catch a break. I struggled, so you must struggle, too, Ingraham seethes — never seeming to consider that it is tragic, in fact, that her mother had to work into old age to pay off her daughter’s debt.

It is understandable that some who have already paid back their student loans might feel aggrieved that they’ve missed their window for liberation. Regret and envy are normal human emotions. And yet, good luck is always a little random. Why does it rain on me and not you? Why did your lottery ticket win, and not mine? Positive quirks of timing and chance benefit some, not all. It doesn’t mean we should eliminate them or make suffering the baseline. We should be attempting to raise our collective well-being, not lower it.

For any number of reasons — dog-eat-dog capitalism, an emphasis on radically personal definitions of freedom, a lack of imagination when it comes to the possibility of change — it has become easy to forget that we live in a society. Ideally, in a country of shared intention, we would attempt to move together toward a place of collective improvement. We should expect that our fellow citizens will make claims on us, and that we will make claims on them.

Admittedly, giving to other people while not visibly getting something back can be a hard practice — even for the most charitable among us, and even when the giving appears to flow downward instead of up. Using taxpayer dollars to relieve the debt of a small, seemingly advantaged portion of society (only 13 percent of carry federal student loan debt) is a lot to ask of Americans of non-college-going taxpayers, who have their own concerns that have been ignored for years.

In which case: To make policies like this more palatable, those advocating for debt cancellation must advocate for the needs of others in turn. At the very least, that means vocal support for funding other educational options, whether vocational schools or community college (a for free community college was tabled during the shrinking of the Build Back Better package).

But that give-or-take is constant, and good. In an Instagram post over the weekend, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) spelled out what should be a basic civic understanding but has somehow gotten lost. “Not every program has to be for everybody,” she wrote. “People with apartments pay for first time homeowner benefits. Young people pay for Medicare for our seniors. People who take public transit pay for car infrastructure.”

She continued: “We can do good things and reject the scarcity mindset that says doing something good for someone else comes at the cost of something for ourselves.”

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