A Promise Is A Promise | Crooked Media
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February 26, 2021
Positively Dreadful
A Promise Is A Promise

In This Episode

This week on Rubicon, host Brian Beutler talks to writer Matthew Yglesias about President’s Biden’s pledge to forgive student loan debt, the debate over how much debt Biden should forgive, what authority Biden has to do it—and the political and economic risks and benefits. Beutler and Yglesias take different sides on the importance of loan forgiveness and debate whether Biden should follow through on his promise quickly or wait until other Congressional scores are settled.




Brian Beutler: Remember back in Episode one, when we talked about low hanging fruit? The easy stuff we expected President Biden to do early in his term—both because he promised he would and because he could do it without Congress?  He did a lot of that stuff right off the bat, particularly things that simply reversed terrible decisions President Trump had made: rejoining the Paris climate accord, withdrawing the ban on transgender military service. He also did some new underappreciated things, like increasing pandemic food assistance to the poor. But one month in the easiest to do stuff is done, and the issues confronting him are tougher. Of these, the one causing the most public consternation—and it would probably have the biggest overall effect on American pocketbooks—is what to do about student loan forgiveness, an issue that lit up young voters during the Democratic primary.


[clip of Senator Warren] We are going to roll back student loan debt for about 95% of students who have debt.


[clip of Senator Sanders] Under the proposal that we introduced today, all student debt would be canceled in six months.


Brian Beutler: So far, Biden has extended the pandemic era moratorium on debt payments, which means Americans can stop making them temporarily. He did that on day one. On the campaign trail, though, Biden promised—


[clip of President Biden] . . . to immediately provide $10,000 in debt relief and stimulus right now.


Brian Beutler: His allies on Capitol Hill, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Elizabeth Warren, want him to do much more: to forgive up to $50,000 in outstanding debt. There, Biden has been unequivocal. It’s not happening.


[clip of Town hall Attendee] We need at least a $50,000 minimum. What will you do to make that happen?


[clip of President Biden] I will not make that happen.


Brian Beutler: But this mix of positions raises some thorny questions. If he forgives lots of student debt now, what happens when new college students start re-accumulating it? If he can’t legally forgive up to $50,000 worth of debt? Why would he be able to forgive $10,000? And if he can lawfully forgive 10,000, why not go bigger? One of the answers to that last question clearly is politics.


[clip of male pundit] A lot of the debt is held by people who have higher level degrees. A lot of the borrowing was done by students who were going to elite schools.


[clip of female pundit] What this policy is proposing is asking average Americans, you know your plumbers, electricians, your people who made the probably pretty wise financial decision not to go to college themselves to pick up the tab for the students that do.


Brian Beutler: This kind of friction over who gets what, and is it fair, arises just about any time the government changes economic policy. But it’s particularly pitched when we’re talking about a one-time only benefit for a group of people dominated by college graduates. This may explain why it’s among the least popular issues of all of Biden’s economic agenda items. But it would unquestionably help the tens of millions of people who’d benefit, and it would put more money into the economy ahead of what we all hope will be a post-coronavirus boom. So what should he do? When should you do it? My guest this week is Matt Yglesias. He’s the author of the book One Billion Americans and the Slow Boring Newsletter. And he’s written extensively about the interaction between the substance and politics of student debt forgiveness. We’ll assess the tension between Biden and congressional Democrats on this issue and whether this is a promise Biden maybe wishes he hadn’t made. I’m Brian Beutler. Welcome to Rubicon.


Brian Beutler: All right, great to have you on Rubicon.


Matt Yglesias: It’s good to be here.


Brian Beutler: OK, so let’s talk about the ideas themselves. Give us a broad overview. What is the Biden team considering and in what ways does it differ from the more expansive idea that Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren support, apart from the obvious fact that they want to forgive a lot more debt?


Matt Yglesias: Right. So the basic issue with student debt, which is a, is a weird one, is that debt arises for all kinds of different situations. And you have one group of people who I think are very sympathetic, and that is people who amassed usually modest amounts of debt going to college. Then they didn’t finish college and they have sort of low-paying jobs and they have this huge, this big debt overhang relative to their income. Right? Then all the way on the other side of that, you have like newly-minted MBAs who have high incomes, but a very large stock of debt as well. Law school graduates, dental school graduates, medical school graduates, things like that. Those people have very large debt burdens, but low debt to income ratios. Whereas other people have high debt to income ratios, but actually not necessarily that much debt. So you get this unusual situation in which a small debt relief program, Biden has been talking about $10,000, is sort of more progressive. It targets money more in a low income population versus a big debt forgiveness program. Schumer, Warren are talking about $50,000. But when you go bigger, you’re mostly reaching a higher income population of debtors. And so it winds up being a little bit different from how you might think. Right, that the more generous program is mostly more generous to richer people. Then you have the question of do you target it by income?


Brian Beutler: Biden likely would target debt forgiveness to income. The research organization Data for Progress surveyed Americans and found that many more people approve of the idea when it’s reserved for people making less than $125,000 a year. Means testing like this would create administrative complexities though. People would have to apply for the program and prove they fit its criteria and the government would have to police it. But it would mute the class warfare blowback Biden’s team clearly fears. So let’s say Biden played it safe, a $10,000 plan that was means tested for middle and lower income borrowers. Slam dunk? Turns out, no.


Brian Beutler: So way, way, way back in early December, you wrote of the student loan forgiveness idea that, quote “a well-designed plan of the sort that’s actually under consideration would deliver a meaningful financial boost to lots of middle class people and not come at anyone’s expense.” Since then, Dems won the Georgia Senate races and seem poised to pass a big stimulus bill. And so this week, you circled back to the issue and you wrote, absent that context, it’s just clearly a bad idea. So what about the new context makes giving lots of middle class people a financial boost at no one’s expense into a clearly bad idea?


Matt Yglesias: It didn’t say it’s a clearly bad idea. But I think, I think they need to proceed a little bit more cautiously than I thought. Right? So back in December, what I thought was Mitch McConnell was going to be majority leader of the Senate. And I mean, anybody who listens to your show knows, like you should be very cynical about a situation like that. Right? Like McConnell would have been trying to do everything in his power to basically sabotage economic recovery. And student loan relief through executive action is something that Biden could do, you know, on his own terms and try to think about a reasonable design. Now, we have a really big stimulus package moving through Congress. And I think that with this done, we want to take a moment and like see what’s up in Congress. Right? Biden supposedly has like a Build Back Better sequel bill that’s coming. The Blue Dogs in the House seem pretty skeptical on that. And I think if you can’t get anything else done, you do want to look at this and see can you give people some help through the student loan system? But if there is an opportunity to get even more done through, you know, the Senate on financial aid, like you want to look at that because student loan relief might crowd out other things in the current political context. And to an extent, it just like it depends on what members of Congress say, you know what I mean? Like if, if Stephanie Murphy says: I’m going to lose my shit if you add another single dime to the deficit, so absolutely nothing is going to happen no matter what. Then, yeah, maybe just do some student loan relief. On the other hand, if Joe Manchin is saying: hey, chill out with the student loan relief, but I want to do a four trillion dollar infrastructure plan. Like don’t jeopardize like the whole future of everything for the sake of student debt.


Brian Beutler: So I totally get the the level on which, you know, Biden doesn’t want to step on members of Congress unnecessarily when there’s still work for Congress to do. But I took from some of what you just said and also your recent writing on this, that Biden maybe should just put debt relief into his back pocket and possibly leave it there if Congress is willing to do other things that will stimulate the economy and that won’t create political tension within the Democratic coalition. And I agree that that would help him elide with some of these intraparty fights and maybe even some of the thorny political problems inherent in this kind of targeted relief. But he did make the promise and he does have the power to do it. That’s not going to go unnoticed, right?


Matt Yglesias: Well, I mean, you know, these promises were a little bit ambiguous, and I think people have been trying to push him to do more than he promised. Right? And the reason this bubbled to the top of the agenda back in November is that there’s this theory, which is a little weird, but I think lawyers say it holds up, that you can do it unilaterally. Right? So when it seemed like Biden wasn’t going be able to do anything, I think that’s legislatively.


[clip of candidate] Mitch McConnell is going to block the $15 minimum wage. Mitch McConnell is going to block the kind of COVID relief that we need to get people help that they’ve been needing and deserving . . .


Matt Yglesias: And I think it’s suddenly started to seem really, really appealing. Now, I really sympathize with the idea that you want to find reasons to kind of delay and see what you can do with Congress, in part because—look, if we come back a year from now and it seems like the economy like needs extra boost, you can always like to forgive $10,000 worth of student debt. You know, like that’d be a fun news cycle. And you don’t need to necessarily go do it now. But the main thing is that, like, the economy is in much better shape than I think I thought it was going to be in early December. And that’s that’s not because, like anything magical happened in the world, it’s because Democrats won these Senate races in Georgia. Right? And then, like, you know, you got to sort of see what happens economically, I think, over the next few months before you understand how much student debt relief is really prudent to sort of provide. Right? There’s a lot of ways you could delay. It’s like the worst kind of take you can have in politics is like, we should wait and see what happens. But like I do think it’s valid, right? We don’t want to get into a situation where, you know, Congress is freaking out about the deficit and then go do this thing that’s like a big giveaway to recent law school graduates and makes the deficit even bigger. But differentiating between college debt and professional school debt, I think might make a lot of sense. Like if you don’t want to forgive debt for lawyers, like you could just not forgive law school debt. Right? That’s definitely an option that is available. You know, there’s different kinds of graduate programs that people might have different feelings about. Whereas like college, you know, part of I think the case for college debt forgiveness is that we do have a strong culture in the United States of like telling people that they should go to college and then saddling people with big debt burdens. Right? And that’s just like part of the big picture politics argument for forgiveness and also for reform of higher education financing, because I don’t think anyone can say that there’s like massive pressure from all corners of society to go to dental school. Like people go to dental school to become dentists and like dentists are rich. And you don’t need to forgive that debt.


Brian Beutler: I mean, it seems like the other half of the equation that you were drawing, where we, we have this national mythology about, you know: follow the rules, go to college, everything is going to work out for you in life. And we’re seeing, I think, in the last 10 to 15 years, particularly, that the, the promised payoff hasn’t been there for lots and lots and lots and lots of graduates. And part of me thinks that you’re just going to set up a situation in five years or 10 years or 15 years to do it again. And so you have this generation of people who had their student debt forgiven and then the next generation get saddled with it for the rest of their lives.


Matt Yglesias: Well, this is where, you know, nobody is talking about a reform to higher education. We’re just talking about backward looking debt relief. And like if Bernie Sanders was president, he might say: well, we’ll just do debt jubilee, like every year. Right? And just like let the next president clean up the mess because, like, I don’t care, I just think schools should be free. Right? And then, like, you might have universities raising tuition. Right? And telling everybody: don’t worry about the debt, like, Bernie is going to just forgive. And then, like, I don’t know, like that doesn’t sound like a great solution on some level because I just, I want to make sure people know this because I think sometimes people think that, like all the that the student debt that we’re talking about forgiving is like held by evil banks or by the universities themselves. And we’re talking about just canceling it. But this is just money that’s owed to the federal government. So it’s something you can do because the federal government has a lot of borrowing capacity. But like the people who profit off the debt cycle are the sort of university administrators, right? We had this huge boom in for-profit colleges. A lot of them are like really scamy and terrible. And if you do forgiveness without reform, you really reward those bad actors in a way that I think is not great.


Brian Beutler: I agree with that. I don’t mean that you should consciously enter a situation where you, where you say that our paradigm is just going to be we don’t want to bother doing the work and so we’re going to just do debt amnesty every year, every four years, every five years and not fix anything systemic. But I think it would be a good thing if you could bring America into a generation or two of prosperity as kind of like a counterpoise to the to the last 12, 15 years, so that we don’t have to have these kinds of discussions about one-off amnesty versus free college versus working with or against Congress. And you just, you have an economy where the payoff for going to college is that you get a good job and then you can pay off your debt.


Matt Yglesias: Yeah, I am definitely pro-prosperity.


Brian Beutler: Yeah.


Matt Yglesias: Put me down for that. No, I, but this is I think, like it would be good for Biden whether or not he can get Congress to agree to it, to like engage with the future of higher education question, which is something that he was a little absent on actually in the campaign compared to, you know, other people. He and Kamala Harris actually stand out as being like less fancypants Ivy League in their educational backgrounds than most of our recent presidents or a lot of our elected officials. Biden sometimes talks about community colleges—the first lady’s been a community college instructor—but like he hasn’t exactly like, put together like, here’s how I’m even just on a rhetorical level, like here’s how I think it should work going forward. Which I do think is important. Right? Like, that’s an important part of Building Back Better or wherever else, you know, it is we’re doing.


Brian Beutler: Coming up: does President Biden actually have the authority to forgive student debt? And just how popular is student loan forgiveness compared to the rest of Biden’s agenda? The answers when we return.


[ad break]


Brian Beutler: Welcome back to Rubicon. My guest is Matt Yglesias. He’s written extensively about the political risks and rewards of student debt forgiveness. We spoke a few days after President Biden’s televised town hall where he said he was open to forgiving $10,000 per American, but not going as high as Democrats in Congress would like.


Brian Beutler: He’s a hard no, apparently, on on $50,000 worth of debt forgiveness, but when he came out against it, he volunteered that he doesn’t think he has the legal authority to do it. Is there, as far as, you know, a legal argument that he could unilaterally forgive ten thousand dollars worth of debt, but not 50?


Matt Yglesias: No, I mean, that’s you know, either he can forgive the debt or he can’t. That’s um, I don’t know how to put it. It’s BS.


Brian Beutler: Malarkey.


Matt Yglesias: Yeah. Malarkey. Malarkey would be a technical term. You know, I, I think you saw, right, when when Obama was president, right, they went through this cycle with immigration—


Brian Beutler: DACA yeah.


Matt Yglesias: Activists were saying, “oh, you know, you can provide targeted relief to this, like, huge group of people” in a way that was outside the, the bounds of past executive action on immigration. And Obama for years said: no, I can’t do that. And the actors were like: no, you can. And then eventually Obama decided, well, he could. And then the court said: no, you can’t.


[clip of reporter] The high court is deadlocked over President Obama’s controversial executive action on immigration, which means that this program will not be able to move forward It will now go—.


Matt Yglesias: Like he was right all along and you know, like, the judiciary is very political, I think, and it has gotten more right-wing since Obama’s time. It is totally possible that the progressive lawyers who, like, cooked up this idea have misjudged what the judicial branch will say. And the whole thing is like totally off the table. In a different constitutional system, right, like you could send an email to John Roberts and be like “hey, is it true I have this legal authority?” And he would talk to his interns up there and they would like send him back a note. And I think that would generate a lot of clarity. Unfortunately, in the in the common law system, like the only way to find out what the judiciary will approve, is for Biden to do it first and then create a very chaotic situation for a lot of people. I think the biggest you know, that the strongest argument for why he has the authority to do this that I have heard, is that it’s hard to say like, who would have standing to stop him.


Brian Beutler: There’s no bank that’s being harmed by, by him forgiving debt that owed do the government. And so who has standing to sue? Like I mean, conservatives have become really creative with finding litigants who actually maybe don’t even realize that they don’t agree with the position that they’re that they’re arguing for, to say that we, we were hurt by this because of freedom, interests or whatever. And they did this with the Affordable Care Act over and over again. Unlike the the DACA case or the health care case, it just seems like it’s harder to find somebody who’s harmed by the action. I mean, that was like, part of your argument for why it was a good idea back in December was that it doesn’t come at a cost to anybody.


Matt Yglesias: Right. I think the fact of the matter is, is that, like, if judges want to say that, OK, a private sector student lender was harmed by this. Or like, you know, Grover Norquist owns some bonds and he’s harmed by the increase in debt, like nothing is stopping the judges from agreeing with an argument like that if if they decide that they, that they want to. When it seemed like we would be talking about a severely depressed economy with a Republican Congress refusing to do adequate stimulus, I think it really was true that like, yes, this would be a windfall for some people and it might seem a little unfair that somebody else didn’t get any money, but it wouldn’t actually harm anybody. Now, if it is the case, if interest rates keep going up over the next two, three months. Right? You might be in a situation where there is a real economic trade off and where, say, like it makes it harder to get mortgages right, to do this debt forgiveness. And that might be a reason not to do it.


Brian Beutler: Matt is describing a ‘too much of a good thing’ problem, which seems hard to fathom in our currently crippled economy. But here’s what could happen over time: Congress passes a two trillion dollar stimulus, vaccines help us suppress coronavirus and the economy comes roaring back to life. Then Biden forgives these student loans. That could cause the economy to overheat with inflation, and that would trigger the Fed to raise interest rates, which would make it harder for people to get home loans. Again, nobody can say for certain that this would happen, but loan forgiveness is a big enough chunk of money to make it worth thinking about.


Brian Beutler: So how much money are we talking? We must be talking about fairly large sums of money.


Matt Yglesias: Yes, I mean, a $10,000 student loan forgiveness is about 370 billion dollars. Taking it up to 50,000, you know, increases that cost even more. So that’s not, you know, it’s not a huge amount compared to the trillions that have gone out on different sort of COVID relief plans. But it’s also not, it’s not nothing. You know what I mean? Like, if, if moderates in the Senate had cut this 1.9 trillion request down to 1.5 trillion, like, you know, we would have said that was a big deal in sort of the scheme of things. So officially, right, Biden is supposed to make this a congressional request. He wants to put it through the congressional wringer. And I mean, I do think it’s a fair thing to kick back at Chuck Schumer, which is to say, like, if he wants to do this debt forgiveness and he has a majority in the Senate, like he should wrangle some votes for it. And, you know, you get a question then if you think of it in the legislative context, right, of like, what do you want to not do in a kind of second bill? Right? If you’re talking about allocating hundreds of billions of dollars. Or should it have been in this bill? Right? There was about 300 billion in state and local government aid in this bill. They could have taken that out and used that money for loan forgiveness instead. The government aid seems like a better idea to me. Unemployment insurance seems like a better idea than student debt relief to me. Vaccinations seems like a better idea. So it’s you know, you do at some point get into a question of priorities as long as you’re dealing with a majority in Congress. Right? It’s like how important is this in the grand scheme of things?


Brian Beutler: So I keep coming back to the question that I asked at the outset about he, he made the promise. And as we’re seeing now with the debate about, about checks in the in the stimulus bill, when there’s a large number of voters who heard “I’m going to forgive up to $10,000 of the student loan debt” voted for Biden in part as a result of that and then he comes back and says: well, look like it might overheat the economy and so I’m going to hold off for now. I mean, like I take your point that waiting and seeing is prudent in a way, both politically and as a matter of like not actually overshooting economically. But I also think that if Democrats left the checks out of the stimulus, that it would it would be a bit of a political fiasco. And likewise, I think that if he tries to come up with a reason not to do this, people are going to notice. And also Republicans who don’t support the idea will say he made a promise and he didn’t keep it. And, you know, whatever like I ride Republicans a lot for operating in bad faith, but I don’t actually think that that would necessarily amount to some sort of hypocrisy. He did promise to do it. And, and if he’s, like, looking for a way out of the promise, like it’s going to create problems for him, I like I think. Even if even if you’re talking about it making the difference between, you know, optimal economic performance and like a little bit too much inflation.


Matt Yglesias: No, I mean, I do agree with that. Right? I mean, he’s going to have to deliver on this promise in some sense before 2024 or possibly before 2022. But that could be all the more reason to like, announce that in October before some elections sometime.


Brian Beutler: Yeah.


Matt Yglesias: So everybody claps for you. And it’s like, OK, here we go, right? Like the commission came back and you know, I think also, if you look economically, right, like the expectation is that growth is going to be really strong this year and probably quite strong next year as well, but we could see a lot of slowdown after that. Not because of any overheating or anything, but just because, like, you know, we’re like done recovering from the virus. Right? And like, you could you could do debt forgiveness then, in the future. You know, the promise—I think what they are going to try to do right now, which does not seem that wise to me, is say: OK, this was a campaign promise, just like creating a path to citizenship was a campaign promise, which means we’re going to say Congress should do it and then Congress is going to not do it, and they’re going to say it’s not our fault. There is enough indication that you can do this through the executive branch that like, they have to come up with something. It’s a, you know, within reason a popular idea. It is something that they campaigned on doing and they’re going to have to deliver on it in some form or other. Also, like maybe Congress will do it. I mean, that is the other thing about the Georgia elections, right? Like, I don’t think it’s out of the question that Congress will, in fact, fold student debt relief into a Build Back better legislation. It’s a lot of money but like they’ve been spending a lot of money on a lot of different things. If this is a priority for Democrats, which it is for, like many Democrats on the Hill, like they should put it into a bill and they should pass it.


Brian Beutler: So the other day you tweeted that polling on debt cancelation is considerably worse than on lots of other Biden agenda items, and you took from that that he should plow ahead with the most popular stuff and not get bogged down in student loan politics. Can you talk about your thinking about the role Issue Polling should play in Democratic politics and governing in general?


Matt Yglesias: Yeah, I mean, I think that some people overlearned some, some lessons about the relevance of issues and ideology in politics. I think it’s actually quite important to have people talking about popular stuff in front of the public eye. I think that, for example, the minimum wage debate that’s happening, it’s good for Democrats to be up there on Capitol Hill fighting for higher minimum wage. It’s good to see Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley in their different ways, like a little bit on the defensive, putting conservative versions of a minimum wage increase out there. And they should, like, get something done. Right? I mean, if to make Manchin comfortable with it, like it has to be on a 10 year phase instead of 4, like, you know, whatever it is. But like, they should do it. Like minimum wage talk is really, really good for Democrats. Having the media obsessed with defunding police was not good for Democrats. Like even though Biden wasn’t up there championing it like it was still, people in their mind was like: oh, this is a thing people are talking about in politics. Having people talk about minimum wage is way, way better. Student loan relief is it’s in between those things. You know what I mean? Like it polls okay, but it’s not like a big thing for the average voter because the average voter doesn’t have any student debt. But there is so much popular stuff on the progressive agenda right? Like doing more subsidies for people’s health care, like creating a public option, like doing antitrust enforcement, like doing this COVID relief bill, raising minimum wage, investing in clean energy—there’s like a long list of popular things. So I really do think it’s good to, like, stay away from unpopular things.


Brian Beutler: OK, so I want to I want to probe this a little bit. And I’m glad you kind of laid it out between the polls of “defund the police” and “increase the minimum wage.” Like my concern about this sort of public polling essentialism is that the potential I think it has to warp the frontiers of politics when we know that power is sort of fleeting and soon the window Democrats have to help people is going to close. Right? So when you say progressives shouldn’t support bad ideas, and I think you’d say that abolishing the police is a bad idea, I hear you. And when you say progressives shouldn’t discuss good ideas in unpopular ways just to be kind of edgy or move the Overton window, I also hear you. It’s the in-between, right? When you say Democrats shouldn’t, quote unquote “deliver a meaningful financial boost to lots of middle class people in a way that will not come at anyone’s expense because the polling says there might be blowback” you kind of lose me because it’s like the, if it’s a good thing to do and you have the power to do it and you might not have the power to do it anymore in two or four years, um, like what are we here for? If our fixation on doing only things that are popular excludes a whole lot of good policy that’s within our power to do, does that make sense?


Matt Yglesias: Well, let me give you a strong case for doing something unpopular, right, which is that the polling on D.C. statehood is like really pretty bad. But I really think Democrats should do it, you know, like they should bite the bullet. They should make D.C. a state. They should create a referendum for Puerto Rico to, you know, become a state if they want to. I would take U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, because the geographical bias of the Senate is like a huge structural problem in American politics. And leaving it sit around as like Krysten Sinema seems like fanatically determined to do is really disastrous, you know, and is risking really scary things for the future of our democracy. So I would like urge with all my fiber, Democrats to plow ahead and like a really bold way on statehood, on gerrymandering, reform and that kind of stuff. Student debt, like when I thought it would be a big boost to the economy that was really needed, then I was pretty gung-ho about, yeah, you should do it even if the polling is bad. If it looks the other way, though, then like I think precisely because political power is fleeting, you want to do stuff that that builds power, right? Like you want to do stuff that either alters the structural underpinnings of politics or that, you know, makes people like you and want to vote for your people in the midterms and for reelection, and then to just kind of blow it on a one-off handout of money that doesn’t, like, create a program that endures for the long term. It’s just to me, like not super-duper compelling. And if anything, like that’s my biggest question about this whole COVID relief bill, is that like it, it involves the expenditure of a lot of money and sort of one-offs that may not create enduring legacy. But the good news about it is that, like the polling on this COVID relief bill is like insanely good.


[clip of reporter] The public’s support is on President Biden’s side. Polling shows nearly 7 in 10 Americans back the COVID relief bill, as is. There’s even higher support for his $1,400 stimulus check proposal.


Matt Yglesias: So, like, good for them. You know, like they wrote something that’s going to do a lot of help for people and that people really like. But, you know, student debt, I don’t know man, like it just—the biggest problem with it, I think, is that it feeds into a caricature of Democrats as mostly concerned with like pointy-headed people’s problems rather than working class people’s problems. You know, and I think beyond like a specific issue polling, it’s like you have to work on party image stuff. Like it was really good, like when, when Republicans staged, like a crazy riot and we’re going to start murdering people in the Capitol building—like that was a really bad look for the GOP [laughs] and it’s, and it put them on the defensive, you know, like for all this time, right? Democrats is like the normal party that’s like trying to help people with their vaccines. But Republicans are like trying to murder the Capitol Police. Like, that’s good. That’s like, that’s how you win.


Brian Beutler: [laughs] So, OK. I mean, look, I obviously feel much more strongly about D.C. statehood and, and democracy reform in general than I do about student debt forgiveness because I am a resident of the District of Columbia and I have no political representation, and that’s bad for me. And they would be helping me. And in a similar way, if I had student debt, I would feel more strongly, I think, about the idea that they should just use the fact that they have the power now, to do the thing that will help me. And if, and the notion that they would not do it because they were trying to chart a course on a map that led, like led to some optimal political outcome based on what ideas were popular and what weren’t, would piss me off a lot. I would be really mad about it. Right? Like and I think that, like, the analysis should kind of end at: do we have the power to do it and is it good? And, you know, not to, not to get yourself wrapped around the axle of super unpopular things all the time, but like abolish student loan debt on a Saturday if it’s unpopular and then move on to a minimum wage fight on Monday and make that a big deal. But do it because it’s a good thing to do. Right? Like if we say that it’s not worth doing because it’s unpopular, then you kind of you adopt this outlook, I think where you’re never going to be able to do, like get behind, if you like, abolish private health insurance, which is unpopular, but I think a really good idea. And like, if there’s another war in the Middle East that we’re involved in and people are out there chanting “no blood for oil”, and it’s an unpopular chant. So our advice is now: don’t get behind the anti-war movement, then a lot of people are going to end up getting killed.


Matt Yglesias: Yeah, I mean, look, I mean, you get into a question of like, what exactly is the moral urgency of delivering student loan relief in a world where we already have income-based repayments and where we’re giving people stimulus checks and unemployment and things like that. Like, I think with all these things, you have to look at all the all the factors and all the, the considerations that are in play. I mean, again, if I thought that doing student loan relief was like the way to, like, rescue the economy from its doldrums. Yeah. Like you just got to do it, right? Like you got to you got to rip the Band-Aid off and go do the right thing. I think, though, that if that’s not true, right, if we’re seeing really rapid economic growth, if we’re seeing a second multitrillion dollar COVID relief bill kind of rolling through Congress, but if members of Congress themselves cannot bring themselves to see student debt relief as worth prioritizing in legislation, then like it raises the question of like, why, why are you bothering to do it? Now, what’s true, though, is that if interest rates stay super-duper low so that it just doesn’t matter, then like, yeah, absolutely. Just like do it Monday and then pick a fight about something else on Tuesday.


Brian Beutler: [laughs] All right. So for, for purposes of a podcast about the first 100 days of the Biden presidency, if, if we reach day 100 and it seems like this is way in his back pocket, you know, I think the inclination—maybe not mine—but in the in the universe of pundits who are talking about how well Biden has or hasn’t done, are going to say he like, he didn’t make good on that promise, that that’s a miss for him. I kind of take you generally to be saying that if it’s not done by day 100, it doesn’t actually say much at all about, you know, how well he’s delivering on anything because he could do it at any time and it might actually be wiser for him to hang on to this and deploy it at a more strategic moment, so long as he’s not trying to wait the public out so that they forget that he made this promise and then just never do it.


Matt Yglesias: Well, I mean, if there’s one thing we know, right, like this will not be forgotten because the class of people who is like most impacted by student debt in the United States are just like literally the people who write the media. And, you know, like if you go to college—and then if you’re a little bit younger than you and I, right—if you graduated from college in the depths of the Great Recession and you like, moved to New York or DC, these like high-rent cities to work for shitty pay in digital media like you have really not been well served by the higher education finance system in the United States or by the American economy and you are really fired up about student debt, right? And that’s one of the reasons why this topic has bubbled so close to the top of the discourse. And, you know, there’s good and bad to that. Right? Like, I think that media discussion of this issue has tended to lose sight of the fact that, like, literally the median student loan amount in the United States is zero and that this is like not a problem for the majority of people. At the same time, I’d like it won’t be a neglected issue, right? It’s not something that is going to be totally forgotten about. In his first week in office, Biden increased the minimum SNAP benefit, right? So like the very poorest people in America got extra food stamp benefits, thanks to Joe Biden. I have read, I think, zero articles about that. Like I wrote one. But like, nobody cares in the media because, like, media people have student loans but don’t get SNAP benefits. But, like, that’s really good. Like, if you want to say, like, is there anything Biden did in his first hundred days that, like, helped people just because it was the right thing to do, like, that was really good. Increasing the pandemic EBT by 15 %, like that was really good. Student loans gets more attention than it sort of objectively deserves because it disproportionately impacts media-type people. And I think in part for that reason, like, yeah, like you can you can let it lie and then and then kind of do it later. You know, people want to do a lot of kind of like testing, right? It’s like, oh, you know, is Biden for real, you know, or is he terrible? But I think, you know, Brian, like you know this, like honestly like a lot of pretty earnest people like go to work in politics and like working at the Biden administration and they’re like working on a lot of stuff. There’s a lot of things going on. There’s honestly, like more changes happen than people in the press talk about. And I just like, I don’t think you have to look at it as like: oh, is anything actually going to change? Like, a lot of stuff is going to change. The question is, is like, are you going to get your ass kicked in the midterms and then be completely paralyzed for the rest of your administration? And it makes a lot of sense to optimize for avoiding that outcome.


Brian Beutler: All right. That’s a good note to leave it on, although I do want to say that, that we have 15 episodes and we have covered a great deal of things that Biden has done. This just might be the one where, like, we get to the end and it’s like, well, what the fuck? Where is, where’s the student debt relief? He promised it.


Brian Beutler: Keep sending us your questions. Our email address is Rubicon@Crooked.com. Listener Amanda writes: One thing I’ve wondered about is rolling back presidential powers. Is there a role for the Biden administration here? The bloat of the presidency beyond the margins of what the founders intended has been a concern for me since Bush the younger. I realize Congress is responsible for taking back their war powers, and I hope to God they do, but is there anything Biden can codify in law? It’s even more concerning now that we know presidents like Trump are possible.


Brian Beutler: The answer to this question gets close to the heart of what kind of country we are and the jury is unfortunately still out. Biden could, of course, institute tighter ethics and anti-corruption rules to bind his administration and make sure things like the wall of separation between the White House and DOJ never breach while he’s president. But a future administration could loosen those rules. One way to guard against that would be for Biden to ask Congress to codify the rules and impose real criminal penalties for violating them. But even that wouldn’t solve our problems. What Donald Trump proved is that at least one of our two parties is willing to nominate a criminal to the presidency, see him through to election, then cover up for him when he sets about breaking the law. There are things Congress could do to make a replay of that scenario harder to imagine: new disclosure laws for presidential candidates, for instance. But the ultimate guardrail against it, is us. Are there enough of us poised to reject kleptocracy and personality cults to make those things a losing proposition for Republicans and for ourselves in perpetuity? We don’t know yet.


Brian Beutler: Rubicon is written and hosted by me, Brian Beutler. It’s produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein. Veronica Simonetti is our audio engineer. Production support from Brian Semel. Thanks for listening. We’ll be back next week.