One talent Elizabeth Warren has shown in the 2020 presidential campaign is the ability to smoke out rotten people and rotten ideas. While Politics Knowers were still writing about how Warren had only encouraged the House to pursue impeachment as a way of drawing attention to her campaign (her faltering campaign, in the 2020-via-spring-2019 discourse), Warren shifted her own attention to free college and student debt forgiveness, precisely the sort of policy issue that the Politics Knowers said impeachment would inevitably overshadow.
And people immediately reacted with new rotten takes on the student debt issue. Some GQ guy—last seen in a New York Times trend piece as a millennial employee who lied about going to a funeral so he could go build a treehouse and blog about it—decided it was a good idea to tell people they should “just not attend a college you can’t afford.” But that was outdone by Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner, who wrote and tweeted that Warren’s proposal was “a slap in the face to those who have already struggled to pay off their student loans without government assistance.”
Klein’s argument was obviously stupid—so many people compared it to refusing to cure cancer out of respect for people who’ve died of cancer that he was forced to tack on a long addendum arguing that this correct analogy was actually somehow incorrect—but the very obviousness of its stupidity was what made it valuable. In its otherworldly tone-deafness, it demonstrated the meaningless of “fairness” as a political value.
Fairness and unfairness are simply a description of whether an outcome affirms or contradicts your preexisting values and assumptions.
Fairness is not, in any useful sense, obvious. It seems obvious because fairness and unfairness are simply a description of whether an outcome affirms or contradicts your preexisting values and assumptions. Equality ends wherever you prefer to lock existing conditions in place: in the early-career job market, or in college admissions, or in the quality of your high school district, or in your neonatal health care, or in how much wealth your grandparents were able to save and pass on.
If you are the sort of person who writes opinions for the Washington Examiner, what would be unfair is a sharp change for the better in material conditions. The long, steep slide from affordable college to unaffordable college has been a continuous process of disinvestment and profiteering, which are both doctrinal conservative goals; no one chose specifically to make things dramatically worse for one graduating class than for the one before it. To break that slide would create a discontinuity, which would be a distinction, which would mean that some people got something that other people did not.
This was, effectively, the sunk-cost fallacy applied to other people’s not-yet-sunk costs. If an entire generation has had its life choices hemmed in by overwhelming debt, liberating the next generation would make it clear what a waste that was. Better to shovel more wasted years on top of it.