In the bid for the Democratic nomination for president, it is virtually impossible to become more progressive, more left-of-center, than Bernie Sanders. Elizabeth Warren promises to excuse student loans for low and middle income students, so Bernie tops herI will do it for everyone, even millionaires. It reminds me a little of the fight against the dying Czarist regime in Russia in early 1917who would prevail, the more moderate reformers, the anti-monarchist democratic socialist Mensheviks or the virulently Communist, dictatorial revolutionary Bolsheviks? Sanders is the leader of the Bolshevik-like wing of the Democratic party, Warren is the leader of the Menshevik wing, while Joe Biden and several others represent democratic reformers who, deep down, can live with the Czar (existing government and economic institutions) but still want some substantive changes.
Bernie has shown his radical instincts with his latest proposal: forgive all $1.5 trillion in student loan debt guaranteed by the federal government. At least four objections to Sanders plan seem compelling to me: first, it would ultimately raise the national debt of the U.S. by well over $1 trillion unless financed, as Sanders proposes, by taxes on financial transactions which, if enacted, would almost certainly bring an end to New York City as the worlds premier financial center. If the debt forgiveness were not financed by new taxes but instead by borrowing, I predict that the new national debt obligations incurred would be sufficiently large to lead credit agencies to lower the debt rating of the U.S. government, ultimately raising interest payments.
Second, the Sanders proposal is exceedingly unfair to the large majority of student borrowers who actually pay back all or at least part of their student loans. It says to them: You are chumps for following the terms of your loan obligation, sacrificing other consumption to meet your legal obligations. It rewards those who bought fancy cars, took nice trips, or engaged in other forms of unnecessary consumption rather than repay their loans. It says, Only dummies honor their contractual obligations.
Third, it indirectly burdens the most defenseless members of our societythe young, children who cannot vote or are not even yet born, either if it is financed by a tax on transactions (lowering the attractiveness of American financial instruments, reducing the value of securities and thus the ability of the current generation to finance productivity-enhancing investment), or by greater borrowing (meaning higher interest payments that would burden future generations).
Fourth, and particularly pernicious, the mere suggestion of debt forgiveness for all might have significant negative effects on the economy. I would predict some current loan recipients might stop paying on their loans, thinking to do so possibly is foolish, since there is some probability Sanders might actually become president, or, even more likely, that other candidates, perhaps even the Republican nominee (presumably Donald Trump) would advocate some versions of the Sanders proposal in order to win support of 45 million student loan borrowers.
It will be interesting to watch the Democratic presidential debates with the Sanders proposal fresh in mind. Will progressive candidates like Kamala Harris or Cory Booker try to enhance their seeming modest popularity to date by allying themselves with some sort of Sanders debt forgiveness? How will Joe Biden respond? Will there be other moderately progressive Democrats, say John Hickenlooper or Pete Buttigieg, who will say, Sanders and Warren and their imitators are crazy: this proposal will bankrupt the country and not be acceptable to vast numbers of independent voters, many who voted for Trump?
The interesting thing to me is how higher education increasingly is becoming part of the national political debate. Why? There is a increasing disenchantment with collegestheir high costs and student loan debt burdens, their admission practices, growing bureaucracies, policies regarding speakers, and so forth. As the importance of higher education rises in public consciousness, policy proposals such as free college and total student loan forgiveness will help demonstrate how far the Democratic Party will move to the left as it picks a presidential nominee, and show how much the Republicans feel compelled to adopt a form of Sanders lite in response.