Education—Student Loan Debt and the Rest

The public discussion of Biden’s student loan plan seems to be about some other country—certainly not this one.

Much of the discussion takes the point of view that Biden’s plan is a wildly-expensive and unnecessary change, since post-secondary education is functioning the way it always has.  And further the plan isn’t sufficiently targeted to the poor, so there is no point in doing it.

In fact post-secondary education in this country is so broken you hardly know where to start.  And the people targeted by the plan were so badly screwed by us that we have a responsibility to notice. 

Let’s look at the history.  The following chart is a point of departure:

It’s obvious from the chart that around 2008 something happened to the cost of college—it took off.  A prime ingredient was the George Bush’s 2008 crash, which was a double whammy:  states had less money to spend—so tuition went up—and students and their parents had less money to pay it.  As we all learned during the Covid crisis, states have limited ability to deal with new expenses, as many are prohibited from running deficits.  They need to rely on the federal government to help them out. 

However the Republican Congress blocked all stimulus (remember the “balanced budget amendment”) to provoke dissatisfaction for the 2016 election.  So there was no help to be had.   Unsurprisingly people had to take on new levels of debt.  And with Republicans continuing to sabotage the recovery, there were few jobs for these people when they graduated (or didn’t) and went immediately into arrears.  Student load debt didn’t grow because students were irresponsible, it grew because government was.

Adding to that, Republicans spent years protecting fraudulent private pseudo-educational institutions because of the supposed superiority of the private sector.  At such places you could earn a degree in “culinary arts”, for example, which was considered valueless in any real restaurant.   Essentially all students at those institutions incurred monumental levels of debt and no skills.  The worst of those have now been shut down, but Betsy DeVos did everything she could to defend them.

As a country we screwed a generation of students.  From the numbers on the chart, $10 or $20 thousand seems relevant, but assuredly not profligate. As for inflation, the risk has been exaggerated by false comparison to the stimulus packages.  The cost here is budgeted over decades; its current impact is minimal.

However we should be clear that this is a Band-Aid on a God-awful wound, because for the most part things have only gotten worse.

First of all, averaging over all institutions in the country gets a rather diverse mix of good and bad colleges. That’s appropriate for addressing needs of borrowers.  However If you want to go to a good institution to get yourself a good job, the numbers are basically twice what’s on the chart:  around $20 thousand yearly for a good public institution.   For private colleges, we can be more exact since they act as a cartel:  $80K.   Even applying to these places can cost thousands.  So much for equality of opportunity. 

What’s more the public university system, instead of being strengthened, is under attack.  That’s not just a matter of the well-publicized politization of education, bad as that is.   Public funding in many states has been reduced to the point that public colleges are admitting out-of-state (or out-of-country) students in preference to in-state ones, because they need the extra money.  That has actually become a major contributor to student loan debt!  The financial situation is so dire that colleges are spending more on administrators to raise money than on education itself.

All of that sounds like a hard problem, but as with healthcare, just about every other developed country has found a way to do it.  We need to strengthen the public system with necessarily more of a role for federal funding.  Public education has to be first-rate and affordable—and available to everyone in every state.  We’ve got to banish the preposterous model of education as a severely-limited resource with parents ready to kill to get their children into the right places!  In addition we need to limit the size of loans people need to take and be rational about the payback.  The Australian system, with payback based on ability to pay, is one working option.

It’s worth stating the obvious fact that with the current cost of education, the only way we’re keeping this country going is by importing foreign graduates (and telling them how much we hate their being here!).  We’d have to shut down Silicon Valley otherwise.  We should also be clear that when we talk about national security we’re talking not about aircraft carriers but about our national competence in key technologies.

It is also worth stressing the problem is NOT (despite rumblings from both the left and the right) that we’re sending too many people to college.  Good jobs need sophisticated training.  You can look at the government’s own (or anyone else’s) expectations of the jobs we’re going to need to fill.  Sure there should be more specifically vocational training also, but that’s not the answer to the problem we know we’ve got. Also we’ve learned from the Covid experience that online instruction is no silver bullet to replace teachers.

Finally it’s worth responding to the charge that we’re not sufficiently targeting our payments to the poor.  The fact is that the only route to equality of opportunity is making sure that there is a first-class system available to everyone.  We used to understand that.  We were the first to recognize that secondary education needed to be available to everyone.  Eventually other countries caught on, because there was a big advantage to the country in doing it.

This has been proven so many times it’s ridiculous to have to state it—education is the backbone of the strength of the country.  Despite some rhetoric, there’s nothing either left-wing or right-wing about this. Even Adam Smith knew it—he didn’t futz around wondering how little training poor people could get by with, he wanted universal literacy in the eighteenth century.  If we want to succeed as a nation, we need to succeed at education.

Democracy’s Enemies are No One’s Friends

Today about half the United States electorate seems to think that the end of democracy would be great—they could just keep on winning.  It’s not said enough: that’s a fallacy regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum.  The end of democracy means the end of leverage.

As history has proved over and over again, the winners when democracy dies are the real elites who hold power.  In this case were talking about the Kochs, the Thiels, the Mercers, the Murdochs.  In the absence of democracy, no functioning elections means no power for anyone else.  All other leverage is gone.

Those people have been very clear about what that means.  What they want is what’s good for them.  No taxes on rich people and corporations.  No regulation.  No government services they don’t need—that is no social security, no Medicare, two-tier education, nothing for climate, no safety net.   Back to the glory days of the nineteenth century, when businesses could get away with anything.

For now a section of the population finds common cause with those people on guns and abortion, but those were never the main issues.   The only reason we’re talking about those issues today is that we do have a democracy today and voting matters.  Guns and abortion are a path to power, but not a commitment to support anyone in any way.

Once democracy goes, we’ll have nothing to say.  And nothing is what everyone—both their supporters and their opponents—is going to get.

We’re Doing Climate—Next the Court

Schumer and Manchin seem finally to have reached agreement on meaningful climate action. If we can do that, the next step has got to be reforming the Supreme Court.

This Court is responsible for even more than it gets blamed for.  Roe v Wade is the tip of the iceberg.  This court is dedicated to the project of overturning democracy by enforcing and maintaining minority rule.

That starts with the defense of gerrymandering.  This is the single most important factor in the polarization of the political environment—a political minority is given vastly exaggerated and untouchable power.  Punting to Congress is a joke, since that asks the beneficiaries to give up power. To that gets added Citizens United and the provocatively-announced ruling on “replacement electors.”

As both Alito and Thomas have made clear, this court has decided to use its unchallenged power to rule—and the proper response of the population should be obedience. Democracy has no place is this vision.

Changing the Court’s size is a matter that requires majorities in both houses of Congress and the President.  Democrats have that.  Taking that action is not radical.   What is radical is a rogue Supreme Court that is using it’s unchallengable powers to rule—certainly not the intention of the founding fathers.  It should of course be noted who is actually rulling—the Koch organization that created and managed the  Federlist Society, to which all conservative justices have dedicated their careers.

This is a chance to save democracy in this country.  Second only to saving the planet.

The Mid-Terms are It

There’s nothing particularly novel about this conclusion, but it still needs to be said over and over again. There is only one objective now: the midterm elections. With the current activist Supreme Court there’s no telling how much damage will be done in two years or what elections will look like in 2024.

This Supreme Court has asserted it’s right to impose a belligerent, unpopular theocracy. And that’s just the beginning. The conservative justices all come from the Koch organization’s Federalist Society, whose end goal is business control of government and elimination of all regulation and social services. That may sound far-fetched, but so did the complete elimination of Roe v Wade.

The Court has pointedly said it would review state plans for “alternative electors.” That would potentially allow gerrymandered legislatures to override electoral results. Such proposals are crafted to give all electoral power to those gerrymandered legislatures–even governors (some are Democrats) have no say. This Court is controlled by Republicans in the mold of Mitch McConnell. They have no qualms about doing what’s best for them, and they can hide (as usual) behind calling it states’ rights. With enough states tied up in this way, it may well become impossible to elect anyone but a Koch-approved President.

The Supreme Court has to be reformed before it completes its takeover of the country. That requires workable majorities in both the House and Senate, which sounds like a heroic task. However the point is not that it’s easy; the point is that there is an actual path to saving the country from the Koch coup. There are enough seats up for grabs in the Senate. Retaining the House will be harder.

For the House people have just got to realize what’s at stake. Roe v Wade is bad enough as it is, but it’s also a sign of what’s coming. No labor protections, no help for the environment, no government role for healthcare or Social Security. The USA as Brazil, with all but a few of us living in the slums of Rio and ready to be undone by climate change.

We have an opportunity to preserve our country before it’s turned into something unrecognizeable. And that’s not just for Democrats. This is a new bout of Prohibition with religious vigilantes telling everyone how to live their lives. And the powers pushing hardest for gun rights really want those guns in the hands of private Pinkerton militias, just like in the good old days of the nineteenth century. The Koch people are nobody’s friends.

This year is it. Forget everything else. It’s amazing we have a chance.

RIP USA

Clarence and Ginni Thomas are running the country now.

This was a genuine coup engineered by the Koch organization–creator and manager of the Federalist Society, the source for all our conservative Supreme Court justices. Read Dark Money. Check Wikipedia for recent Federalist manager Leonard Leo. This takeover was always the target.

There are a few others to call out for their contributions. Anthony Kennedy who knowingly capitulated to exactly this. Mitch McConnell of course. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg who couldn’t put aside her ego for the good of the country when Obama asked.

Finally and most fundamentally the founding fathers who made a disastrous mistake: the undemocratic organization charged with enforcing the Constitution has the unchallengeable power to make of the Constitution anything that it wants. That’s what this rogue Court is doing.

As Thomas indicated, they’re just getting started. The Koch project is to return the US to a nineteenth century level of government subservience to business: minimal taxes on corporations and rich people, no services, no personal rights, no regulation, no unions, no checks on business behavior - paradise. If we haven’t lost Medicare and Social Security yet it’s because that’s inconvenient for the next election. After a few more years of voting restritions they won’t have to care. We’ll have a country where the welfare of the population is simply out of the equation.

Unless Biden can do something about the Court–hardly a likely prospect–the United States of America as we knew it is no more.

The One Million Covid Victims Have a Message

At least half of these deaths were due to deliberate misinformation from political interests calling the whole pandemic a left-wing plot.  For month after month the most popular story in the Wall Street Journal was the latest reason why there was really nothing going on:  it was just like normal flu; it was worst in New York because it was only in disgusting cities full of disgusting people.

Everyone in the country suffered, including very many who bought into the party line because they thought the propagandists were on their side.  Since vaccines were coming, deaths delayed could be deaths avoided. What’s worse, almost of half the people who died were unvaccinated when they could have been, convinced by the arguments of people like the Fox hosts-who were actually vaccinated for themselves.

This Covid story is unfortunately typical of what’s happening in this country.  The “populists” are the Kochs and the Mercers and the Thiels—people with the money to fill newspapers with issues they don’t care about (abortion, guns) so they can ride them all the way to the bank.  The only major piece of legislation passed in the Trump years was the monumental tax cut for the rich.  As with Covid, the supporters drawn in with identity issues are the ones who will suffer—in jobs, healthcare, education, climate, you name it.

Taking this one step further, it is worth noting that the damage with Covid was not from action but from inaction.  Most of the endless discussions of our fractured political system are missing the point.  The country is ungovernable because they want it that way.  If government can’t act, the powers that be are running things.  As Steve Bannon put it, all we need to do is create chaos. 

This story isn’t complicated, just lost in the cacophony of bought media.

The Hijacking of Race

The Democratic Party owes black people a debt of gratitude for their organized commitment in the last election.   Even if that weren’t true, the United States owes black people what it has never delivered—real, functional equality of opportunity.  It’s worth restating what never made it into any textbook I ever had—slavery in this country didn’t end in 1863.  With Black Laws and then Jim Crow, the substance of slavery in this country persisted well into the twentieth century.  It’s no surprise that we live with a pervasive legacy of slavery.

What is owed here is progress—on everything that makes for personal and family prosperity and life satisfaction.  A recent NY Times piece does a good job of getting at what that means. However it’s worth recognizing that this objective gets hijacked every day in favor of other more exciting agendas, as examples:

– Anticapitalism.  This is a kind of knee-jerk on the left that gets applied to all issues (climate change is another one).  Get rid of capitalism, let me and my morally-certified friends run everything, and racism will vanish in an instant.  Otherwise there’s not a chance. Somehow the dictatorship of the proletariat (like trickle-down economics) survives in the face of all evidence.

– Violence.  It’s amazing how attractive violence is for people who spend their lives far from it.  That’s not just for the classic case of British Nazi intellectuals prior to World War II.  Two very good books The Good Lord Bird and The Underground Railway end with ringing endorsements of violence as a necessary way to get things done.  In context that’s not really a call to action, but it indicates a willingness to forgive violence as a tactic—a significant mistake supported only by rewriting history. 

There’s not going to be a revolution on the left in this country, so we’ve got to work with the flawed political process we’ve got.  Violence hardens opposition—end of story.  If you want to get things done, there’s no greater mistake than believing you have powers you don’t have.

– Cultural superiority.  This has many manifestations.  The good guys are immune from racism, create better artistic productions, are more moral and humane to each other, etc.

If you get past all of that, objectives here are not so different from what we owe to everyone else—a fair chance to succeed and a viable safety net.  What it takes to get there must be adapted to the history of anti-black racism, but adaptation is the rule for every other group also.  Our task as a society is to get the job done for everyone.

It is hijacking the race issue to

– Use it as a justification for anti-democratic behavior.

– Use it as a reason to justify any departure from the rule of law.  We are not doing anyone a favor by asking for an understanding of mob violence.

– Engage in ridiculous exercises of cultural superiority. That includes, in particular, anti-racism competitions.  I’d even say everybody is racist; the important question is who is doing damage and how to stop it. Anti-racism crusades may feel good, but they are not progress. And if they lose elections they are nothing more than destructive vanity.

Even if you think this is an oversimplification, you have to admit that the objectives here–a fair chance to succeed and a viable safety net–are worth pursuing.  You’d think they would be universally popular.  After all, as many have pointed out, essentially any social program has more white than black beneficiaries.  So why aren’t they universally popular?  The reason goes all the way back to What’s The Matter with Kansas.  Republicans have been convincing people for decades that all those measures are not for them.  It’s just giving the country away to the shiftless blacks.  People in Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in their own Land are astonished that any of their own would waste time applying for such benefits.

Why are Republicans so successful?  BECAUSE WE KEEP HELPING THEM.  With all the discussion of white racists who just have to get used to giving up the advantages of white privilege (and deservedly take the hit), what else would you expect them to believe?  We’re not spending our time saying we’re committed to what it takes to achieve equality of opportunity for everyone—with all the benefits that entails.  Too often we’re playing the Republicans’ game.

You don’t have to agree with everything here, but one thing is indubitably true.  Fighting racism is about results, not morality contests.  It is about jobs, safety, and education for your kids.  It is a pragmatic issue.  Anything that doesn’t produce results is hijacking, regardless of how good it feels.

Stop Playing the Republicans’ Games

As Democrats, our message has to be that we are in business to make life better for everyone—white, black, or anything else.  Life for most people in the US is poorer, more stressful, and more uncertain than in any other developed country.  That’s a fixable problem, and we’re trying to do it.  It’s not easy to fight the powers that be—so it’s not pretty as a process—but we’re up for the fight.  Climate fits in that picture as well.  Racism has its particular challenges. But we are moving everyone up.

That message is not compatible with the current chest-beating (mostly self-appointed) about how morally superior we are to the moronic white racists.   “Those people just have to get used to giving up the advantages they’ve enjoyed by being white, so they ought to suffer.”  Not a great way to get elected and not what we stand for.  It’s a false premise that we have to trade one group off against another.

That false premise is not just counterproductive as a message, it also leads to bad policy.  It is not okay to assume that it’s fine to make the other guy suffer.  In education, it is not okay to ignore kids who are successful, because they’re not the ones that count.  (I can tell you about mixed classes in middle school math.) With education, as in everything else, we are in it to make things better for everyone.  Fighting over insufficiently-provided resources—college slots or AP classes—is not the answer. Watering down education for the supposed benefit of the disadvantaged benefits no one.  And both are distractions from the many other items (e.g. family economic stability) that are needed if we really want equality of opportunity.  The objective is excellence for all.

We’re still living down “defund the police”—with columnists talking about how it is perfectly okay for mobs to trash the businesses of random people.  This education stuff is if anything worse, because it turns racial progress into a threat.  That may make some people happy, but it’s not productive, and it isn’t even to the advantage of the people it purports to serve.

As to what we ought to be talking about, it seems that vaccination is a marvelous metaphor for everything the Republican Party stands for.   Vaccinated people don’t get sick and die; unvaccinated people do.  The people cheering on the unvaccinated are largely vaccinated themselves (e.g. Murdoch and Fox people).  They’re sacrificing their supporters to the task of keeping themselves in power.  So they can continue to take their money–not just in taxes but in medical expenses, education expenses, and job insecurity.

There are lots of false bogeymen here.  “We can’t have those benefits without tanking the economy.”  “Just look at the inflation we’re already getting from the Democrats’ spending.”  Virtually all the benefits of Trump tax cuts went to the ultra-rich.  Virtually all of the corporate benefits went to stock buybacks instead of new investment.  Virtually all of the inflation is from shortages created by continuing Covid supply issues. Just as the Obama-era Republicans kept the country poor by blocking all stimulus, the current Republicans are deliberately keeping the country poor by blocking the national recovery from Covid.

One thing that is certainly true is that our strength as a nation, both economic and military, is built on people.  That means developing the capabilities of our population, spending on education and research, and getting the best and brightest from everywhere to come here.  Furthermore we need to develop the infrastructure (e.g. for climate change, 5G) that the economy will need for the future.  The Republican Party has proved it is ready to sacrifice all of that to profits returned to wealthy investors—and deliberately-incited divisiveness.

We need to be a nation united by policies that serve everyone.  Our history was written by contributions from all levels of society, including many categories people written off both here and abroad.  The divisions we have are more sown than real, so the most important message is that we are in this for all.  That’s the only way forward.