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Living a debt-free life

OPINION by Bradley Gitz | September 5, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.

More than 200 years ago, the Scottish historian Alexander Fraser Tytler presciently captured the corruption in Joe Biden's student loan cancellation when he reportedly said that a democracy "can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury."

Implicit in that assessment is corruption on the part of both politicians eager to buy votes and voters eager to be bought at the expense of their fellow citizens.

Biden's college loan-debt cancellation represents, however, a new twist in this cynical approach--instead of buying votes with new government programs, you buy them by canceling personal debt.

The motive remains the same because it's based on the same assumption: that those whose debts are being abruptly wiped away with a wave of the Biden magic wand will repay that favor at the ballot box two months from now by voting for Democratic candidates. And, equally crucial, that the rest of us, the overwhelming majority of the population that would be expected to pick up the tab, is too politically disengaged and disorganized to catch on to the manner in which a larger number of Peters have just been robbed to bribe a smaller number of Pauls.

Great financial benefit will be felt by the beneficiaries, but the pain (expense) is conveniently and deliberately dispersed among the broader body politic in a way that limits its intensity for any one member.

The new twist that Biden has introduced--replacing the idea of getting a government check with being excused from having to write one of your own--also affects political dynamics in such a way as to require that the exercise be repeated and expanded over time; there can be no "just this once, just for these debtors"--when government gets in the business of wiping out debt, everyone can and will get in line and file claims.

Republicans denouncing the debt cancellation will also find their resistance fades as they suffer at the ballot box out of perceptions that they would withdraw a benefit that has been conferred and to which people will become increasingly accustomed. Indeed, the central genius of the welfare state is that benefits once granted quickly acquire the status of permanence, and that even proposals to cut their rate of growth can be presented as barbarous.

Democrats thereby benefit from future college students assuming that they can go to college for free so long as Democrats are in power and Republicans kept out of it. Aware of such assumptions and afraid of their electoral consequences, Republicans will gradually abandon the role of skunk at the picnic.

Democrat campaign ads accusing Republicans of wanting to end Social Security and throw Granny out in the snow will thus be replaced by ads telling young people that Republicans want to deny them a college education (by cruelly forcing them to pay for it in some way).

The nature of the debate accordingly shifts from excusing or not excusing loan debt to how much should be excused. A bidding war consequently ensues wherein the politicians who can excuse the greater amount of loan indebtedness inevitably prosper and prevail, with the savvier among them already realizing that the final, winning bid is a promise of free college all around.

A straight line will thus be historically drawn between what Biden has done and the idea that no one should have to scrimp and save and sacrifice to go to college anymore, because everyone should (and will) go for free.

With the idea of government cancellation of debt in return for votes established, Democrats can also begin to think of other debt that can be creatively canceled to perhaps even greater effect, for there is no argument on behalf of canceling college loan debt that wouldn't apply in equal and probably more powerful fashion to medical bills, housing (mortgages and rents), and transportation (car payments), given that health care, housing and transportation are clearly more urgent human needs than a Ph.D. in Queer Studies from Bumbleweed State U.

If one party in a two-party system is going to make you pay your debts and bills and the other isn't, an obvious electoral advantage accrues to the latter at the expense of the former, suggesting the joint embrace of "debt-free" politics by both in the end.

Underlying all of this is the additional assumption that what Biden did, contrary to appearances, and traditional economic thought, doesn't really amount to transferring debt from one party to another (from the more to less wealthy, in this case) because it can all go on that magical federal government credit card that has no limits and no payments, the national debt having gotten so large and incomprehensible that its political significance vanishes, at least in terms of policymaking incentive structures.

So a sincere query for readers, particularly those looking with approval on what Biden has done--if a married couple with graduate degrees making $240,000 a year can have their student debt forgiven, what possible argument can you present for why a factory worker without a college degree making $35,000 can't have his car payments forgiven?

Put differently, what logic compels the former but prohibits the latter?

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

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