With the first Democratic primary debates coming up this week, Bernie Sanders has seized the initiative with a well-timed, attention-grabbing free college proposal. He ran on something similar four years ago, but this time he’s taking the policy to eleven. It now involves a $2.2 trillion plan for total retroactive college loan forgiveness funded by a Wall Street transaction tax.
The progressive critique of free college plans is that they redistribute wealth inefficiently because they take a scare resource (in this case, funding from Wall Street speculation) and spend a lot of it on people who don’t really need the help. First, many families don’t struggle to pay even expensive tuition, and second, the aid definitionally goes only to those who have attended at least some college. The same thing can be said for the debt forgiveness component. Some people make enough money right out of college that repaying their loans is not much of a burden. This is why candidates like Elizabeth Warren put a $250,000/yr income cap on her loan forgiveness plan, which makes it about half as expensive as what Sanders is proposing. This gives her an extra trillion to spend on other things, including things that might help people who don’t pursue higher education.
The Sanders campaign has an answer for these critiques:
“We believe definitionally that if you are the upper elite, that you by definition would not have had to take out student loans,” Keane Bhatt, Sanders’s spokesperson, told Vox. “There is something to be said about simple, intelligible policies that build broad constituencies.”
This is a good answer in a political sense, but it sidesteps the point. A college graduate who lands a job at Goldman Sachs may not have come from “the upper elite,” but they’re in the upper elite now. Do they need all their college loans wiped out when they won’t even notice the change in their budget? Remember, the money we give this person is money no longer available for something else.
But Sanders has an ideological reason to avoid means-testing loan forgiveness.
One of the other biggest criticisms of universal free college and debt relief proposals is an argument Clinton made in 2016: The government shouldn’t be subsidizing school for people who can easily afford it.
“Getting to free college for everybody is not a very progressive way to approach this because a lot of wealthy kids will benefit from that,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), who’s running a more moderate Democratic presidential campaign, told a voter at an Iowa campaign event in May. Buttigieg made a similar argument in April.
But in Sanders’s book, Americans are entitled to “the right to a complete education.”
This is why he isn’t just proposing free college in the future, but total retroactive forgiveness of college loan debt. It’s a principle. College education, in his book, ought to be a human right. The best way to recognize that right is to make college free for everyone. We don’t ask people to pay for their right to free speech and we ban poll taxes that require people to pay to vote. Obviously, there are people who could easily afford to pay fees for those rights and others could borrow money if they needed to in order to enjoy the full fruits of citizenship. But that would be wrong.
If you agree with Sanders on this, you’ll probably see any discussion of priorities as beside the point. However, if you think that this is a big giveaway of precious money to a lot of people who don’t need the help, you’ll see it as an irresponsible plan that is not very progressive at all.
The retroactive aspect of the new plan does make it more palatable to people who are saddled with college debt and wonder why they were left out of the old plan. According to Vox, there are 45 million Americans who owe a total of $1.6 trillion in student debt. Wiping out that debt in one fell swoop may be inefficient and expensive, but it would give a lot of people a lot of newfound freedom to take risks, change career course, start their own businesses, or pursue their dreams. A wider pool of recipients would make it easier to enact and harder to repeal.
Enacting it would be a heavy lift in any circumstance. Conservatives have a plethora of objections, many of them familiar from the Medicaid expansion debate. In order to convince state colleges and universities to offer free tuition, the plan showers them with billions of dollars in federal money, but it does so with strings attached. And even though the plan isn’t efficient in its redistributive effect, it’s still a huge socialistic program in the minds of Republicans. They won’t be providing any votes for this plan, which means the Democrats would have to do it all on their own. They’d also have to either scrap the legislative filibuster or follow Sanders’ plan for enacting Medicare-for-All.
There is no plausible path by which Democrats will have 60 votes in the Senate. Even a simple majority will be hard. As such, Sanders had proposed an agenda whose passage was unthinkable under the current Senate rules…
…On Wednesday, Sanders squared the circle. He’s not going to change the rules so much as command his vice president, who will be the presiding officer of the Senate, to ignore them.
Sanders wants to keep the legislative filibuster but get around it by using the budget reconciliation process. When his programs run afoul of the the rules for budget reconciliation, he plans on having his vice-president just arbitrarily say that there is no violation.
Delving into the merits of this proposed gambit is a subject for another day. Suffice to say, Sanders is unlikely to have the votes he needs from the Democrats to enact his college plan, so the filibuster is a bit irrelevant. And it’s not just so-called moderate Democrats who aren’t sold on free college and total debt forgiveness regardless of need. There are plenty of progressive Democrats would rather spend the money on programs that help people who never went to college or don’t plan to in the future.