April 22, 2019
By Robert Kuttner | Apr 22, 2019
Warren Does it Again. Senator Elizabeth Warren’s twin proposal for substantial student debt relief plus tuition-free higher education is a huge winner—economically, politically, and even fiscally. It demonstrates once again why she is such a leader at connecting brave policy ideas to the lived condition of ordinary Americans.
The idea of cancelling $50,000 of debt is smart. It puts the relief where it is most needed. And it pays the cost by a tax on the super-rich—those whose own kids have no trouble paying for their own kids higher education. What a brilliant and salutary illustration of the class warfare already sundering America. How exactly will Republicans oppose this?
From Warren’s letter on the plan:
According to independent experts, 95% of people who have student loan debt right now would get at least some of it canceled under my plan.
And more than 75% would get all of it cancelled—poof, gone. We’d provide targeted cancellation for the families that need it most, substantially increasing Black and Latinx wealth, and helping decrease the racial wealth gap.
Once we’ve cleared out the debt that’s holding down an entire generation of Americans, we’ll ensure that we never have another student debt crisis again.
We can do that by recognizing that a public college education is like a public K-12 education—a basic public good that should be available to everyone for free.
The other candidates need to support Warren’s initiative. For instance, I admire much of what Pete Buttigieg has put forth, but he got one big thing wrong that Warren got right. When asked at the CNN Town Hall whether he supported debt relief for indebted college grads, Buttigieg replied that he did not, because college grads made more money on average than non-grads, and that we’d be asking poorer people to pay for the debt relief of richer ones.
But this conclusion commits a logical fallacy—a fallacy of composition—that Warren’s plan solves. There’s no need to have the “average” taxpayer cover the costs of debt relief when rich people can cover it.
In addition, college represents a ladder of upward mobility for people who are far from rich. And the prospect of college debt causes students without rich parents to have to work part time, and increases the non-completion rate. It is black and Hispanic students, who seldom have wealthy parents, who are most vulnerable to this syndrome.
In this proposal, as in her recently announced daycare plan, Warren superbly knits together class and race. She gives relief and opportunity to the non-rich, in a way that particularly helps people of color but without relying on racial targeting.
She reminds people of different races of all that they have in common. The Democrats’ success in 2020 will hinge on how well they pull this off.