At Slate, Prof. Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08 explores how the fear of playing the sucker shows up in rhetoric surrounding student loan forgiveness.
In her new book, Fool Proof: How Fear of Playing the Sucker Shapes Our Selves and the Social Order — and What We Can Do About It, Tess Wilkinson-Ryan L’05, G’06, PhD’08, Professor of Law and Psychology, examines how fear of playing the fool as a universal psychological phenomenon and an underappreciated driver of human behavior.
In “Why Student Loan Forgiveness Makes People Boiling Mad,” published at Slate, Wilkinson-Ryan explores how the fear of playing the sucker shows up in rhetoric surrounding the potential cancellation of student debt.
The Supreme Court is expected to focus its decision in Biden v. Nebraska, the student loan forgiveness challenge, on the “major questions doctrine,” a contested and somewhat obscure rule that the court has recently embraced to limit the authority of executive agencies. But last week, the oral arguments in the case strayed into more familiar territory. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar was arguing for the Department of Justice on behalf of the president’s plan when Justice Neil Gorsuch started pressing her on whether student loan forgiveness is just unfair. Gorsuch suggested that the government’s argument had overlooked the “costs to other persons in terms of fairness, for example, people who have paid their loans, people who [plan] their lives around not seeking loans.”
While the major questions doctrine is not especially intuitive for most people, Gorsuch’s fairness question resonates right away. Why these debts and not others? Why them and not me? These are rhetorical questions, and they have a rhetorical purpose: to frame student loan forgiveness as a sucker’s game.
As the debates around student debt forgiveness have unfolded over the last year, the consistent message from its opponents has been that advocates of student debt relief are playing you, specifically, for the fool. Mike Gallagher, a Republican member of Congress from Wisconsin, announced that the move was a “massive slap in the face to any student who worked to pay off their debt”; other angry commentators described it as a “middle finger” to hardworking Americans. There is an unusual physicality to these laments, a sense of personal disrespect.
Most of the outrage about loan forgiveness is coming from the right, and it is in line with longstanding conservative talking points about hardworking taxpayers being taken advantage of by the indolent poor. The principle underlying the response, though, is bipartisan… .