Our Best Stuff From a Very Expensive Week

Hello and happy Saturday. In a week that was full of pretty weighty news—the release of a redacted version of the affidavit used to secure the search warrant executed at Mar-a-Lago, a close call with nuclear disaster at the Zaporizhzhia power plant in Ukraine, conflict between U.S. and Iranian-backed forces in Syria—the story that by far dominated was President Joe Biden’s executive order canceling up to $20,000 of student loan debt for borrowers earning less than $125,000 per year. 

It’s easy to see why the story dominated: College tuition costs have been spiraling upward for years, affecting millions of American families. And the debate over what to do about it feeds right into our already awful polarization.

What’s most worrisome to me—besides the fact that the Penn Wharton Business Model updated its calculations after Biden’s announcement and suggests that the cost of debt forgiveness could approach $1 trillion, a number that actually used to mean something—is that it’s just one more sign that our political process is so broken that we are unable, or unwilling, to solve problems anymore.

Conservatives love to trot out Ronald Reagan’s famous quote: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” In many cases it’s true. Indeed, it pretty much sums up the sentiment behind Biden’s unilateral move to transfer debt from willing borrowers to taxpayers. (Not to mention that the student debt crisis itself is largely the result of government “trying to help” through its decades-long involvement in the student loan business.)

But the fact is that there are some problems that only the government can solve, or at least require that the government be part of the solution. And when it can’t, one of two things happen: Our leaders throw up their hands, shrug, and move on. Or they write a very large check from our already overdrawn national checking account. 

This is not a new problem, and it’s not entirely a red vs. blue problem. I am reminded of former President George W. Bush’s attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform. His plan would have enhanced border security, created a temporary worker program, and held employers accountable for their hiring practices. It tried to split the difference between mass deportations and outright amnesty: requiring illegal immigrants to pay penalties, learn English, and hold a job for years before earning legal status. It died in the Senate, thanks in part to a lack of support from Republicans. There have been no other such comprehensive reform attempts since, and we intercept hundreds of thousands of people trying to cross our southern border each month. 

The debt forgiveness is even more reminiscent of the passage of the Affordable Care Act. U.S. per-capita spending on health care far outstrips any other comparable nation. But instead of doing anything to address the underlying causes of the high cost of health care, Congress created a sweeping and expensive (and complicated and unwieldy) program to provide health insurance to those who did not qualify for other government programs. Progressives want to go further with their Medicare for All proposal. And in the 12 years since Obamacare went into effect, Republicans have done little other than to try to repeal it. 

As for student loans, Biden’s debt forgiveness will pay off some existing student loans, but it will do nothing to address the underlying problem of college costs, and could even make it worse. 

In a piece I’ve also summarized below, Dispatch contributor Brian Riedl noted that Republicans have had an ineffective response to the debt relief. Meanwhile, the White House is attempting to knock down what criticism it has seen by mocking Republican business owners who took out Paycheck Protection Program loans to keep their employees paid during the COVID pandemic and then had them forgiven, an inapt parallel for a few reasons

Just as there are no easy solutions to the big issues I’ve mentioned, there is no easy fix for our politics. We need to elect officials who are knowledgeable and qualified and serious about problem solving. But too many voters are drawn to candidates who, at best, have unserious ideas and, at worst, are just there to posture and “own” the other side. We can blame our elected officials for what they do or don’t do, but we’re the ones who put them there.

Thanks for reading. 

The U.S. Looks Poised to Leave Vulnerable Afghans Behind Again

During the two weeks of our chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, the U.S. evacuated 123,000 Afghans, a fraction of the estimated 300,000 who aided the U.S. war effort in one way or another. A year later, many of them are stuck in limbo. Mindy Belz reports on Humanitarian City, a makeshift camp in Abu Dhabi that the Emirates agreed to fund and support for 90 days. A year later, 5,500 Afghans remain, still at the mercy of Abu Dhabi’s generosity. As for the United States? The last flight authorized by our government departed on August 17, and consular services have ended. Belz spoke to Joseph Robert III and Rudy Atallah who run different nonprofits that are still working to evacuate Afghans. Both detailed the frustration of trying to work with the State Department and shared their concern for those who have not been resettled. “We had 40-page dossiers on every single person we flew for the purpose of moving them on,” Atallah told Belz. “But the State Department was hard-broke from day one and it’s been an upward battle. They are taking some people, slowly, but never making clear, to Afghans or to us, what their own process is and how it will work.”

Tim Ryan Keeping the Pressure on J.D. Vance in Ohio

Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s retirement leaves Ohio with an open Senate seat in November, and the state’s rightward shift means it should be winnable for the GOP. But Trump-endorsed J.D. Vance has drawn complaints for not spending much time on the campaign trail, and his Democratic opponent, Tim Ryan, has taken advantage. Harvest traveled to Ohio and attended events by both candidates to get an idea of how the campaigns are going. She notes that “alarm bells are going off in GOP circles.” Ryan has been able to drop $8 million on ads since the primary and has $9 million on hand. She also notes that Ryan has been attempting to paint himself as a moderate and highlighting his breaks from the Democratic Party on trade, even though he votes for Biden’s agenda consistently. The messaging might be working, though: “What we like is that he agrees with Trump on trade,” Tony Totty, president of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 14, told The Dispatch. “We need to bring our products back from China. And that’s his position and we support him because of that.”

The Student Loan Bailout Is Terrible Policy. The GOP Response Has Been Weak. 

It’s easy enough to make the case against the student loan bailout that Joe Biden announced this week. “This is a pure redistribution from the working class to wealthier college graduates. … If Washington is looking to spend $600 billion to alleviate economic hardship, it is baffling to target upwardly mobile college graduates,” Brian Riedl writes. He also highlights the moral argument against debt relief and notes that Biden’s move is probably illegal. But if pointing out the flaws in the executive action is shooting fish in a barrel, why aren’t Republicans firing away?  He blames the lackluster response on the GOP’s shift in focus from policy to grievance culture. “Republicans seem ill-equipped to rouse significant grassroots, legislative, or legal opposition. Nor have they laid the legislative groundwork for such opposition by first building a policy narrative around the drivers of rising student debt.”  

On the Precipice of a Very Bad Iran Deal

How eager is the Biden administration to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal? So eager that it appears it is willing to settle for an agreement that will benefit Iran, Russia, and China while doing little to nothing to keep Iran from progressing toward a nuclear weapon or offer any other benefits to the U.S. and its allies. Danielle Pletka details the concessions: “lifting sanctions on most (if not all) Iranian banks; release of at least $7 billion in Iranian funds now frozen in South Korean banks; across-the-board sanctions relief for organizations including the supreme leader’s massive slush fund, Setad, as well as the Khordad Foundation, which funds assassination plots like the one on Salman Rushdie; an end to all Trump executive orders on Iran; rapid oil sales for a mass cash infusion (about $4 billion); and an exemption to sanctions on foreign companies should the U.S. once again pull out of the JCPOA.”

And now the best of the rest:

  • Kelly Goodlett, a detective in the Breonna Taylor case, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy for lying to secure the search warrant for Taylor’s home. In French Press (🔒), David uses the occasion of the plea to dive into the debate over individual vs. systemic failures. “How many individuals have to conspire or fail before we consider whether systems are at fault?”

  • In The Current (🔒), former intelligence officer Klon Kitchen assesses the potential damage done by Donald Trump’s mishandling of classified information—from disclosures he made as president to the allegations he took top secret documents to Mar-a-Lago—and argues that Trump should not be trusted with classified information. 

  • As the primaries wind down (and with Sarah out this week), Audrey and Andrew look at what might happen in November with the Senate in The Sweep (🔒). They discuss the role that the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC could play, touch on an abortion ad war in the Colorado Senate race, and note that retiring Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey still hasn’t endorsed GOP nominee Doug Mastriano.

  • The death of Daria Dugina, the daughter of Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin, remains a mystery—was she even the intended target of the car bomb that killed her? Who did it? What is the apparently new anti-Putin “National Republican Army” that has taken credit?—but Andrew Fink cautions against reading too much into the speculation and intrigue.

  • The pods! The pods! On Good Faith, David and Curtis Chang talk to Meghan Sullivan, creator of the most popular class at the University of Notre Dame, “God and the Good Life,” about the role of education and philosophy in helping students answer big questions. It’s a very meaty episode of Advisory Opinions, as David and Sarah interview Bruce Friedrich, founder and CEO of the Good Food Institute, about cultivated meat. On the Dispatch Podcast, the gang discusses the student debt relief announcement. How do we address the many challenges presented by China? Jonah turns to AEI scholars Hal Brands and Michael Beckley for answers on The Remnant

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