Economist Thomas Piketty used post-election polls from France, the UK and the US to create a remarkable evolution in left-wing political parties: “From the workers’ party to the higher education party.” He noted in a 2018 paper that in the mid-20th century left-wing parties depended on less educated and lower income voters to form their electoral base. But more recently, these parties have become dependent on graduates. Mr. Piketty refers to this new base as the “Brahmin left”, as in the Indian upper caste.
The Democratic Party’s transformation is aptly summed up by Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, who bragged in 2016, “ For every worker Democrat we lose in Western Pennsylvania, we’re picking up two moderate Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs, and you can repeat that in Ohio. and Illinois and Wisconsin. The strategy did not work for his party that year, but it paid off in the 2020 presidential election. Strong performances in the educated suburbs allowed Democrats to conquer new territory, including Arizona and Georgia.
Political parties are voter coalitions; as bases evolve, so do policies. It is hardly surprising that Mr Schumer, who has urged Democrats to embrace a suburban strategy, is now advising the president-elect
to forgive each graduate up to $ 50,000 in federal student loan.
Forgiveness of student debt would play well with the growing number of educated elites in the Democrats. But how much would it help the workers who were once the backbone of the Democratic Party? Senator Elizabeth Warren argues that canceling student debt would be “the greatest stimulus we can add to the economy.”
But Jason Furman, a chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama, writes that this remission “probably has a multiplier close to zero” because it would be taxable. Matt Bruenig, founder of the left-wing People’s Policy Project, writes that student debt cancellation is “perhaps the least effective incentive imaginable on a dollar-for-dollar basis” because “normal incentives try to put money in people’s pockets so they can spend it.” But forgiveness of student debts does not. It’s like spending $ 1 + trillion dollars, which is then immediately garnished by creditors, leaving households with no extra cash to spend. “
Some would argue that forgiveness will help relieve Americans who suffer from student debt. But notice which Americans will benefit the most. Like Adam Looney of the Brookings Institution
found it Last year, Ms. Warren’s proposal to forgive up to $ 50,000 in debt to Americans whose households earn less than $ 250,000 a year is regressive. Under her plan, the bottom 60% of households would receive only 34% of the benefit. That’s because college graduates – even those who have gone into debt to pay for their degrees – are relatively wealthy. If the government were to forgive $ 50,000 for all Americans without Ms. Warren’s $ 250,000 limit, the result would be even more money being sent to wealthier Americans.
A general student debt cancellation would be a Brahmin bailout, yielding economic benefits to the upper class while doing nothing for the truck driver in Toledo, Ohio, or the waitress at Waffle House in Atlanta. It would increase divisions between the higher educated and the rest of the country without reforming the student finance system or the bloated universities that caused the debt problem.
The federal government could instead allow current borrowers to refinance their loans at lower rates, allow student loans to be offloaded through bankruptcy, or require colleges and universities to repay a portion of the loan balance of students who cannot do so themselves . These ideas, offered by senators as ideologically diverse as Ms. Warren and Missouri Republican Josh Hawley, recognize that student debt is a real problem. But they don’t propose a major income transfer to some of the richest people with the best prospects in America.
Stopping Brahmin’s bailout would draw a line in the sand for the Democratic Party. It could choose to spend up to $ 1.6 trillion on taxpayers to cancel all student debts – as socialist flag bearer Senator Bernie Sanders suggested during his presidential campaign – or it could devote resources to the least of us. Brookings’s Melissa Kearney has estimated that we could eliminate most of the child poverty in the US by setting Social Security benefits for poor children at an annual cost of $ 179 billion.
In search of votes and campaign money, Democratic politicians have rightly decided that America’s university-educated elite is a key to both. But if they build policies around the narrow interests of this elite, they run the risk of further polarizing Americans along the class divide. That’s a recipe to fuel a populist movement that would make Democrats look back fondly on the Trump years.
Mr. Jilani is a freelance journalist based in Arlington, Virginia.
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