Category Archives: revitalizing the left

Four perspectives on student debt forgiveness

  1. Radical: Debt is the linchpin of a predatory global political-economic system (Graeber 2011). Canceling a portion of one form of debt strikes a blow at this whole structure. It demonstrates that victories can be won—particularly because the president was reluctant to take this step and did so under pressure. The victory will encourage people to think of themselves as debtors with political power, which is a potent identity. If canceling debt weakens the existing economic system (for instance, by encouraging individuals to borrow in the hope of having their loans canceled), that is a feature, not a bug. Another blow will be struck when other groups demand the cancellation of their debts as a matter of fairness. (“Biden helped the college kids—what about those of us with medical bills?”) This policy will look successful in retrospect if it turns out to be merely the first of many cancellations.
  2. Social democratic: The measure of a policy is how much it helps the least advantaged. However, it is wise to design programs to benefit relatively large and empowered populations as well as the neediest, so that such policies are enacted and survive. For instance, European welfare states rely heavily on value-added taxes, which are regressive, and they provide cheap or free college for all (including those who could have afforded college by themselves). Such policies have proven durable. Similarly, in the USA, Medicare and Social Security have been sustained, while means-tested welfare programs have been cut because they have poor constituencies. Forgiving student debt has the same kind of structure. According to a Penn Wharton analysis, people between age 25 and 35 who are in the bottom income quintile will get 13.5% of the benefits of the forgiveness, while people in the top 40% of income will get about 24% of it. The Penn Wharton analysis does not consider race, but NCES reports that Black people with any college debt owe a median $1,810, which is almost three times as high as White people’s median debt ($630). Thus the Biden policy should have progressive effects with respect to race (while also benefiting many White people and omitting Black people who didn’t attend college). This doesn’t sound impressively equitable; boosting financial aid would be a better policy. However, the constituency for financial aid consists of current or prospective college students who demonstrate need, and that group is too politically weak. Besides, the White House decided that Biden could forgive debt by executive order, while Congress would have to pass other reforms; but Congress hardly ever passes a controversial bill.
  3. Interest-group pluralist (Lowi 1979): Biden was elected with a coalition that included a disproportionate number of younger people with college degrees, and he performed best in the $50,000-$100,000 income range. Biden voters have diverse interests, but college graduates (and their parents) are more concentrated, better led, and more culturally and economically potent than other Democratic interest groups. As part of the governing coalition, they successfully demanded a benefit. Biden complied. Interest-group pluralism predicts that they will next seek other benefits for themselves, without supporting a radical economic restructuring or any serious attention to other groups, such as older people with medical debt or farmworkers. If colleges and universities capture some of the benefits of the debt-cancellation (by raising tuition in the expectation of another cancellation later), so be it: their faculty and staff are core to the Democratic coalition. This is what interest-group pluralism predicts. As Lowi notes, it does not judge, because it considers judgment unscientific. Politics is nothing but the clash of interests. Last week, people with college debt won a round.
  4. Market-utilitarian: Markets produce wealth; governments may use taxes and regulations to encourage, discourage, or subsidize behaviors when necessary for the aggregate good. Forgiving debt after it has been incurred cannot incentivize education, but it can create moral hazard, which distorts markets. Colleges will grab most of the benefits. We know, for example, that when the stock market boosts college endowments, those institutions spend the money to increase their own selectivity and do not offer more financial aid (Bulman 2022). Debt-cancellation may be inflationary, yet the biggest problem facing the economy right now is inflation. For these reasons, the policy is foolish.

I must admit I don’t foresee radical results following from Biden’s debt cancellation (per #1). David Graeber endorsed forgiving student loans (p. 544), but he expected a global movement against debt to take centuries. On that time scale, I am confident that our current system will change. But between now and 2024 or 2050–I don’t think the conditions are in place.

I am not equipped to assess mainstream economists’ arguments against the new policy (#4), and I doubt that we will know—even in hindsight—whether debt forgiveness increased inflation or tuition prices or created moral hazard (for good or ill). For one thing, the policy is relatively modest compared to other recent interventions.

I think the difference between #2 or #3 is important. A lot depends on how people—a wide array of people—describe and interpret the new policy.

If many Americans decide that the Democrats now represent college kids (#3), that interpretation will reinforce a class inversion that is one of the most serious threats to democracy. When the center-left party that is willing to employ government as an instrument for social welfare looks elitist, the right wing will offer chauvinistic nationalism to pick up workers’ votes. Meanwhile, a center-left party that depends on the votes of more educated people will drift toward elitist policies.

I know that many people with college debt are not “elite” by any measure. Nevertheless, favoring college education looks elitist when about 55% of adults do not hold a BA, and 38% never enrolled in college, yet almost all of the nation’s leaders all hold college degrees.

On the other hand, if Americans conclude from this experiment that their government can help people, and therefore it should do something for those without any college experience (#2), that would be a positive step. Americans will be more likely to reach this conclusion if, indeed, the government next does something tangible for working-class people without college debt.

The Fall of Robespierre changed history because of how French people reinterpreted it about a year after he met the guillotine. So too, Biden’s debt cancellation will matter because of the story that American tell themselves about it in 2024 and later.

Sources: David Graeber, Debt: The first five thousand years (New York: Melville House, 2011); Theodore J. Lowi, The End of Liberalism: The Second Republic of the United States (Norton 1979); Bulman, George, The Effect of College and University Endowments on Financial Aid, Admissions, and Student Composition, NBER working paper 30404. See also: the social class inversion as a threat to democracy; a conversation with Farah Stockman about American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears; the weirdness of the higher ed marketplacethe new elite is like the old elite; etc..

social class in the French election

The left should represent the lower-income half of the population; the right should represent the top half. When that happens, the left will generally advocate government spending and regulation. Such policies may or may not be wise, but they can be changed if they fail and prove unpopular. Meanwhile, the right will advocate less government, which (again) may or may not be desirable but will not destroy the constitutional order. After all, limited government is a self-limiting political objective.

When the class-distribution turns upside down, the left will no longer advocate impressive social reforms, because its base will be privileged. And the right will no longer favor limited government, because tax cuts don’t help the poor much. The right will instead embrace government activism in the interests of traditional national, racial or religious hierarchies. The left will frustrate change, while the right–now eager to use the government for its objectives–will become genuinely dangerous.

This class inversion is evident in many wealthy democracies, although usually with exceptions and complexities. For instance, in the USA, Democrats now represent the 17 richest congressional districts and most of the richest 50. Put together, Democratic districts are wealthier than Republican ones, although Democratic candidates often win a bit more of the vote below $50,000/year than above that income level. It’s in this context that we now see Republicans eager to use state power against private companies on cultural issues.

A similar inversion was evident in France this week. The class called “cadres” could be translated as executives, although I understand that it is a larger category than that English word implies. Among the cadres, Macron (a centrist technocrat) won and Melenchon* (from the left) came in second, with Le Pen (right-wing) drawing only about 12%.

The “intermediate professions” split their votes about evenly. This is a large and diverse group (26% of all employees), ranging from teachers to technicians. I would guess that sub-groups within this 26% voted quite differently from each other.

At the bottom of the scale–the ordinary employees and workers–Le Pen won by pretty substantial margins. Melenchon edged out Macron among these two categories, but he ran far behind Le Pen. If we look instead at wages, Macron performed better at the higher end, while Le Pen and Melenchon split the lower end about evenly. Macron won the most retirees and came in third amongst the young.

In the first round, French voters had numerous choices, and three candidates finished pretty close to even. That makes the outcome somewhat difficult to compare to a two-party contest between left and right, as in the USA. But one could envision Biden as a kind of hybrid of Macron and Melenchon (we can debate which one he is closer to), and Le Pen as Trump. Then the class inversion is clear.

This pattern is by no means exclusive to France, but it presents dangers wherever it appears.

I do perceive France as combining relatively egalitarian economic policies with a particularly sharp gradient of prestige and power. As the figure below shows, France uses taxation and spending to transfer far more cash than the US does (albeit mostly to pensioners), yet an extraordinary proportion of French business, cultural, and political elites attend a few Parisian schools. This means that a welfare state that redistributes a great deal from rich to poor has a culturally elite look. That may be a refined version of an international problem.

Joumard, Pisu & Bloch 2012

*This blog isn’t letting me use accent marks, unfortunately. See also: the social class inversion as a threat to democracy; what does the European Green surge mean?; and why the white working class must organize

the social class inversion as a threat to democracy

It is important for left and center-left political parties to rely on lower-income voters, who–nowadays–are also people with less educational attainment. Then the left’s political leadership will be accountable to disadvantaged people. Since they identify with the left, they will try to serve their core voters by promising more funds and more regulation. I generally favor such policies, but even if you do not, you should acknowledge that taxing, spending, and regulating are compatible with a constitutional democracy. If you want to oppose the left, you can vote for the right.

It is equally important for center-right parties to depend on people with higher incomes (which generally means more education), because then they will have incentives to advocate lower taxes and less regulation. I tend to oppose such policies, but I would acknowledge–and urge others on the left to accept–that trying to shrink the size of government is compatible with constitutional democracy. People who have reasons to shrink government need a political outlet. Again, the way to oppose their position is to vote for the other side. This debate is a good one.

As long as the parties split the electorate this way, they will have incentives to act reasonably on matters outside their core interests. A pro-business party rooted in the upper stratum of society can easily support civil liberties and a safety net. A left party dependent on working class voters will want to protect economic growth. Both should defend the basic constitutional order.

Unfortunately, this neat arrangement has been scrambled in many developed, democratic countries. Considerable numbers of highly educated people vote left, even forming the base of the center-left parties, while many working-class people have shifted to the right. Democrats now represent the 17 richest congressional districts and most of the richest 50. In the aggregate, Democratic districts are wealthier than Republican ones. (Race is certainly relevant in the USA, and I will say more about that later.)

Mark Muro and Jacob Whiton, Brookings

This situation is dangerous because of the incentives it creates. A center-left party that relies on highly educated people will want to preserve the society’s most advantaged institutions: its most dynamic industries, thriving communities, and elite universities. Since it’s on the left, it won’t explicitly defend inequality, but it won’t really undermine it, either. It will prefer symbolic gestures of inclusion and equity that don’t shake the social foundations. Basically, advantaged individuals will assume that they can retain their own nice neighborhoods, good schools, and satisfying jobs while allowing some newcomers to join them. If such voters represent the main force on the left, social transformation becomes impossible.

Nevertheless, the center-left party will offer the least-bad option for people of color, since diversity and inclusion are better than outright exclusion. Thus Biden drew 70% of voters of color along with a majority of college-educated white voters.

National Exit Polls 2020 (CNN)

For their part, right parties that are based in working-class, low-income communities will have incentives to turn ethno-nationalist, xenophobic, and authoritarian. Being on the right, they cannot embrace social democracy. They could offer libertarian alternatives: getting the state off people’s backs. Unlike authoritarianism, libertarianism is compatible with constitutional democracy. However, surveys never show much support for truly libertarian policies–and less so today, after the neoliberal revolution has played out. Ethno-nationalism has much wider support.

When the parties invert in this way, the left tends to become moderate–excessively so, in my view–but it also generates a critical flank. Right now, the Democrats’ critical flank is led by younger politicians of color who represent urban communities with many lower-income voters of color. They have incentives, as well as genuine commitments, that anchor them on the left. But they are outnumbered within their own party by politicians who represent and reflect high-income communities. If we had a multi-party system, these factions would split and then negotiate about whether to form a coalition in Congress. In our duopoly, the strife occurs within the party and is constrained by difficult calculations.

Meanwhile, the Republicans have strong and palpable incentives to move in a racist and authoritarian direction, jettisoning their libertarian impulses. Debate is less evident on their side of the aisle, since Trump supporters truly dominate the GOP’s elected ranks. Only a significant electoral defeat can re-empower the traditional conservatives, and that seems unlikely.

A similar inversion has been evident in several other countries, including Germany, where the Social Democrats (SPD) now attract highly educated knowledge-workers, while many blue-collar workers have moved right. (I graphed some historical trends here.) One election does not make a trend, but the results from the recent German election are somewhat encouraging. The SPD performed best among people with lower education: the working class. That is how a social-democratic party should perform. The Greens drew almost entirely from the top educational stratum. A red/green coalition would combine working class voters with the liberal intelligentsia, but with the working class in control because of their larger numbers. That coalition would resemble the Democrats if the Progressive Caucus were three times as big.


On the other hand, the hard right (AfD) is disproportionately working class, as is the center right (CDU). Although I do not expect the CDU and AfD to form a coalition in the near future, the temptation is real.

It will not be easy to get out of this situation. The Democrats could offer more tangible benefits to working class people of all races and ethnicities. One problem: policies that I would regard as beneficial are not always seen as such, for a variety of reasons. Besides, there is always a loose connection between policy and public opinion, given the genuine difficulty of discerning the effects of policies plus the low level of attention that most people give to public affairs.

To make matters even harder, Democrats are a loose group of entrepreneurial politicians who have their own constituencies–disproportionately wealthy ones. This means that Democratic leaders are not the best group to reach out to working-class voters, nor are their core supporters likely to support really bold policies. That is why I have been interested in tactics like investing in the Appalachian cities, whose mayors are Democrats.

See also: what does the European Green surge mean?; and why the white working class must organize

who wants less government?

The General Social Survey asks respondents whether the government should do more or whether it already does too much. Here are the responses over time for representative samples of Americans (omitting those who place themselves halfway between those two views):

The balance of opinion swings back and forth. Sometimes, more people want to expand government; sometimes, more people think it already does too much. Obama saw a rise in government skepticism; Trump saw the opposite trend, culminating in the strong Democratic year of 2018.

And here are the results for two groups that are much debated right now.

First, white members of the working class, here defined as white people with family incomes in the bottom quintile.

These are the people who, according to progressives, would benefit from more government but don’t see things that way. Maybe progressives are wrong about the advantages of government; maybe white working-class people are wrong about the drawbacks of government; but either way, it is hard to build a party of the left if the largest racial group in the lowest income stratum wants less government.

Note, however, that the anti-government stance of this group is not hard-wired. In several years, a plurality of them have wanted more government. That was clearly true in 1975, and the next year, Jimmy Carter won the whole of Appalachia and the whole Gulf Coast. Instead of (only) complaining about the tilted electoral map, Democrats should be asking–as some are–why they aren’t the majority party in the country’s poorest states.

And here is the trend for African Americans. Combining all the years together would suggest that Blacks are more favorable than other Americans to government. But note their rising level of support for “government does too much.” I wouldn’t read much into the zigzag pattern; given the number of African American respondents, the margin of error for each year is +/- 8 points. But pretty clearly, African Americans were more favorable to government until ca. 1992 than since.

Finally, I should acknowledge that the question is very simplistic. The government should do more of what? Banning abortions? Stopping-and-frisking? Sending me checks? Covering the cost of seeing private-sector physicians? Curing cancer? I’m treating the results as proxy measures of support for social welfare, but that is not necessarily accurate.

See also: white working class alienation from government; what do the Democrats offer the working class?

the significance of the progressive primary victories

Representative Eliot L. Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, appears to have lost a primary to Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal:

This is part of a significant trend: relatively conservative incumbent Democrats in relatively safe Democratic states and districts are falling to more progressive newcomers, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.-14), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.-07), and Marie Newman (IL-3). These insurgents are more diverse and younger than the incumbents. To be sure, a majority of progressive primary challengers have lost, but the net shift is toward a larger bloc within the Democratic caucus.

We should now see assertive progressive caucuses grow in the US House and in many city councils and state legislatures–mirror-images of the House Freedom Caucus on the right. They should and will help to maintain and expand Democratic Party control of as many legislative chambers as possible, while acting as the sharp, leading edge of Democratic majorities. (Jamelle Bouie made this argument in the New York Times.)

The country is becoming more diverse, and people of color tilt heavily toward the Democratic Party. As a result, the Democrats are about to cease being a white-majority party, although many of their national leaders still are white, especially in the Senate.

In 2016, half of the voting delegates at the Democratic National Convention were people of color. These delegates were not appointed as a gesture to symbolic representation or diversity. They were elected by their own power bases. When a party that elects these delegates wins national elections, white dominance is at risk. That is potentially a shift of global significance, bookending 1492 and 1619.

But the party’s leadership must represent its own electorate better. A 58% white Democratic House caucus is a bit too white for a 54% white party, and the party is getting more diverse. The main opportunities to diversify the caucus are districts with Black or Latino majorities. (The Senate represents a bigger problem.)

If you’re not as far as left some of the progressive insurgents, I still think you should welcome their voices in government. The national deliberation is enriched by their ideas, experiences, and agendas. A legislature that excludes such perspectives lacks legitimacy.

What if you were a Bernie voter in 2020? Do a few primary victories offer a disappointing consolation prize? I think not. Electing progressive Democrats in left-leaning districts was always a more promising strategy.

I’ll acknowledge that if you are a democratic socialist, you should have voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. He is, after all, a socialist. I didn’t vote for him because my political philosophy–for whatever that’s worth–does not fully align with his. At the same time, if you are a democratic socialist, you would have fundamental reasons not to expect the Sanders campaign to carry your agenda forward. You should be primarily interested in the path that AOC, Jamaal Bowman, and others represent.

Although socialist thought is vast and varied and mostly beyond my personal knowledge, I have never heard of a socialist theorist or strategist who believed that capitalists would back down in response to an individual politician who won a majority vote in a national election. Just because actual socialism would cost the ruling class trillions of dollars, they would be expected to resist it with all their power. That is why socialist strategists have often emphasized strong unions linked to a broad-based left party with internal democracy and ideological discipline (a hard pair of principles to combine), plus a left version of the mass media. Once you build that combination, you have a chance at a more-than-symbolic political campaign.

Michael Walzer writes:

Socialist politicians usually emerge from powerful social movements like the old labor movement or from political parties like the Labour Party in the United Kingdom or the Social Democrats in Germany. Sanders does not come out of, nor has he done anything to build, a significant social movement. That wouldn’t be an easy task in the United States today; in any case, it hasn’t been his task. He has, moreover, never been a member of a political party—not even of the Democratic Party whose nomination he is now seeking. He has never attempted to create a democratic socialist caucus within the party. For all the enthusiasm he has generated, he has no organized, cohesive social or political force behind his candidacy. If he were elected, it is hard to see how he could enact any part of his announced program.

One response is that Sanders is not a socialist in a significant sense, and therefore socialist theory would accept that he could have won the election. He just needed to play his cards a bit differently and receive more help from people like me (and millions of others) who resisted him.

As I once noted, Sanders’ platform is less radical than Harry Truman’s was in 1948. In that sense, Sanders stands in the mainstream of the 20th century Democratic Party. Richard Wright puts Bernie Sanders in the tradition of Victorian moralizing socialists, like William Dean Howells (who voted Republican) or Frances Willard. This is a highly mainstream American tradition, and Bernie’s only difference is the “socialist” brand. To explain socialism, Sanders sometimes cites Denmark, which the Heritage Foundation ranks very high on measures of business freedom, investment freedom, and property rights. I like Denmark’s social contract but would describe it as liberal.

Sanders has never passed any socialist legislation but is part of Chuck Schumer’s leadership team in the Senate. In the 115th Congress, Sanders and, e.g, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) agreed on 90% of their votes–all their rare divergences relating to Trump’s executive branch appointments, plus H.R. 2430, “a bill to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act,” and H.R. 3364; “A bill to … counter aggression by the Governments of Iran, the Russian Federation, and North Korea.” You could argue that if Sanders is a socialist, so is Merkley and most of the Democratic caucus.

Although Sanders made major economic proposals, they had little chance of passage, which made him sort of a notional or symbolic socialist. Yes, if Bernie had won in a landslide–carried to the White House by a wave of grassroots enthusiasm and activism for the substance of his agenda–he could have passed his bills. But the primary campaign showed no evidence of a dramatically new electorate. A capable Democratic administration pressured skillfully from a growing leftwing caucus can do much more.

See also three views of the Democratic Party when democracy is at risk; Bernie Sanders runs on the 1948 Democratic Party Platform; and democracy is coming to the USA