Joe Biden is considering a highly limited, means-tested student debt forgiveness program. But means-testing is a terrible idea that centrist Democrats are still obsessed with — and will pay a heavy political price for.

By David Sirota and Andrew Perez, Jacobin

During the 2020 Democratic primary, Pete Buttigieg’s personal ambition led him to poison the conversation about education in America. Desperate for a contrast point with his rivals, the son of a private university professor aired ads blasting the idea of tuition-free college because he said it would make higher education “free even for the kids of millionaires.”

The attack line, borrowed from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, was cynicism masquerading as populism. It was an attempt to limit the financial and political benefits of a proposal to make college free. Worse, it was disguised as a brave stand against the oligarchs bankrolling Buttigieg’s campaign, even though it actually wasn’t — almost no rich scions would benefit from free college.

Protestors hold a sign at an outdoor protest against student debt

This rancid form of bullshit was a staple of Buttigieg’s campaign — like “Medicare for All Who Want It” — but he and copycats like Amy Klobuchar were just pushing the larger lie that is now the foundation of economic policy debates. Call it the means-testing con — the idea that social programs should not be universal and should instead only be available to those who fall below a certain income level. It is a concept eroding national unity and being carried forward by wealthy pundits and a Democratic Party that has discarded the lessons of its own universalist triumphs like Social Security, Medicare, and the GI Bill.

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