Free college is a philosophical flashpoint for progressives

Governor Andrew Cuomo recently made New York the first state to offer free college tuition at public universities. But this impressive policy achievement is dividing liberals over whether the goal of progressive public policy should be to provide universal benefits to all, or to target benefits to the poor.

Cuomo’s program takes a modified universalist approach. His program—dubbed the “Excelsior Scholarship”—makes college tuition at the State University of New York campuses free for every student in a household earning less than $125,000.

Though seemingly good on its face, progressives have fretted over the wrinkles to Cuomo’s plan. First, it only zeroes out tuition, which is relatively modest for in-state students at public colleges, and doesn’t assist with daunting room and board costs. For instance, at my alma mater SUNY Geneseo, tuition is $6,470, but room, board, fees, and supplies run in excess of $17,000. Cuomo’s “free college” plan leaves students on the hook for the bulk of these total costs, which could deter many from taking advantage of it.

Second, Cuomo’s plan contains a punitive catch that students who benefit from the Excelsior Scholarship must work in New York for up to four years after graduation or else must repay the entire scholarship. This risk might deter students who can’t predict where they will wind up in four years. But it was the kind of provincial hook that may have been politically necessary to get the state legislature on board with the idea at all.

The bigger issue is that the structure of Cuomo’s program will provide little help to New York’s poorest students, and much more help to middle-class students. The Excelsior Scholarship is structured as a “last dollar” program, meaning it kicks in only after other sources of financial aid, like federal Pell Grants, are exhausted. Pell Grants help low-income students pay for college up to nearly $6,000 per year. That means a low-income Pell Grant recipient gains little to nothing from Cuomo’s free college program.

At the same time, students from families earning six figures get a massive windfall. They’ll each derive thousands of dollars in annual benefits by getting to attend school for free.

In actuality, Cuomo’s plan is a gap-filling policy, extending subsidized public college to the middle-class. Indeed, he expressly pitched his program as “Free-College for the Middle Class.” The program essentially functions as middle-class insurance against earning too much to qualify for Pell Grant assistance. As Mark Huelsman of Demos explains, “the new program when combined with federal grant aid ensures that middle-class families receive the exact same subsidy as working-class families.”

The distributive weight of Cuomo’s program—skewing away from the poor and toward the middle-class—has left many progressives fretting. The New York Times editorial board diminished the program as a “Free* College Plan” for only “one slice of the middle class,” noting that “even though the cost of room and board and books is what’s keeping many poor students out of college, the Excelsior Scholarship covers none of that.” Slate’s Jordan Weissman argued that cutting the poor out of the program’s benefits “somewhat undermines one of the big rationales behind making college tuition-free in the first place.”

The angst over Cuomo’s program is a miniature rekindling of the debate that flared throughout the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed to make college free for everyone. Hillary Clinton criticized this plan as wastefully “paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college.” Clinton instead guaranteed only debt-free college, meaning that those who could afford it would still have to pay their own way. (Toward the end of the Democratic primary, Clinton ultimately proposed free college for families earning below $125,000—the direct predecessor of Cuomo’s plan.)

Proponents of free college argue that higher education is a higher good that should be demonetized so as to be available to all. We let rich and poor alike attend K-12 schools for free, it’s thought, so college shouldn’t be treated any differently. Any regressive impact can be countered by levying progressive taxes on the wealthy. As the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal noted, “We don’t charge upper-income families more to ride the subway or visit a public park in order to ensure that these are public institutions available to all who have the ability and desire to participate in them.”

Critics argue that free college proposals squander resources by needlessly subsidizing the rich. The rich gain the most from free college because they tend to go to expensive schools. Free college also wipes away the sort of private progressive redistribution that exists in college financing today, where the tuition paid by wealthy students goes to subsidize the tuition waived for poorer students. Because wealthy students are the ones paying full tuition today, they’d get the largest windfall if college suddenly became free. New America’s Kevin Carey called Sanders’s free college plan “wasteful, unfair, and ultimately undermines the long-term interests of low-income students.”

There’s no right answer here, because this is ultimately a debate about values. And those values will dictate the future of American progressivism. Do progressives want an agenda that will create more universally shared public goods? That would divorce more essential goods and services from ability to pay, providing free access to rich and poor alike.

Or do progressives want to redistribute resources to provide assistance to those who need it most? This would target public spending toward the poor, cutting out wealthier Americans through means tests and income cutoffs.

That’s the deeper philosophical debate rankling progressives over New York’s new “free” college program. Cuomo took a side, building on federal aid to low-income students to make SUNY schools public goods universally available to all middle-class students. He has made his state a laboratory for one way of expanding affordable access to higher education. Progressives nationwide will have to decide if that’s the policy angle that they want to replicate.


How progress happens

The Democratic primary race has pitted two different visions of progressivism against one another. Hillary Clinton represents the center-left tradition of late twentieth-century liberalism in American politics. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, offers an unapologetic social democratic vision, a throwback akin to Franklin Roosevelt’s muscular New Deal liberalism.

These policy differences are real, but they are ultimately matters of degree. Sanders demands nothing short of single-payer healthcare; Clinton is willing to build upon ObamaCare’s market-based approach. Sanders wants free college for all; Clinton prefers to guarantee a debt-free education for the poor and middle-class. Sanders wants a $15 minimum wage; Clinton is more comfortable with a gradual increase from $12. Clinton’s progressivism is a cautious one, whereas Sanders’s is unflinchingly bold, but they both share a progressive vision for the direction of the country.

The real disagreement is over how much progressivism we can expect in the near term. And at the core of this disagreement are two very different understandings among the candidates and their supporters about how policy change happens.

Clinton believes systemic change happens incrementally—a belief grounded in cold-blooded political realism. In 2008, Clinton was the candidate tossing buckets of cold water on Obama’s audacity-of-hope campaign. “Maybe I’ve just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be,” she said. “You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear.”

Clinton more readily accepts the political status quo and looks for openings and opportunities to advance progressive priorities. The GOP-controlled House with safe, gerrymandered districts; the filibuster-plagued Senate; the message and money of special interests in the legislative process—these are all structural impediments that are unlikely to change. Recognizing these constraints, Clinton intends to grind away at a Republican Congress and private sector stakeholders to extract just as much progressive reform as the system will bear.

Clinton largely accepts the political structure as it is and aims to buckle down for hard-fought battles for partial but significant gains. Sanders, on the other hand, wants to upend the political structure entirely. He sees change happening through bursts of progressive legislation on the heels of active and popular mobilizations that rock the system. According to Sanders, D.C.-led political change is hopeless because “it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway. You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before.”

With the people mobilized, all progressive change is possible. The structural impediments—Republican obstruction in Congress, special interests buying up the seats at the table, big money in politics—would be swept away by a populist electoral wave. When the people hold the politicos’ feet to the fire while demanding real reform, there is suddenly far less resistance to progressive change in the political system, producing policy outcomes that are more purely progressive. Single-payer instead of ObamaCare. Free college instead of tax credit subsidies. Ashes of big banks instead of tighter regulations.

Sanders draws inspiration for this type of transformative change from Roosevelt’s New Deal. In a speech last fall laying out his conception of social democracy, Sanders harkened back to the 1930s when “Roosevelt implemented a series of programs that put millions of people back to work, took them out of poverty and restored their faith in government. He redefined the relationship of the federal government to the people of our country. He combatted cynicism, fear and despair. He reinvigorated democracy. He transformed the country.”

Clinton, on the other hand, positions herself as an inside-the-game technocratic do-er in the vein of Lyndon Johnson. In the 2008 race, she stirred up a mini-controversy by negatively comparing Obama’s hope-and-change campaign to what it took to pass the Civil Rights Act, casting herself as LBJ and Obama as Martin Luther King. “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” she said. “It took a president to get it done.”

This time around, Clinton again made it clear that she has little interest in fundamentally changing hopes and dreams. When she met with a group of Black Lives Matter activists, she opened up to them with her beliefs about how policy change happens. “I don’t believe you change hearts,” she said. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not.”

This argument over how change happens—Clinton’s theory of steadfast incrementalism, Sanders’s case for a populist surge—was nicely distilled recently by a debate among the commentariat centered on health reform. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones wrote a provocative piece accusing Sanders of conning his supporters with his theory of change. “[I]f you want to make a difference in this country,” Drum wrote, “you need to be prepared for a very long, very frustrating slog. You have to buy off interest groups, compromise your ideals, and settle for half loaves — all the things that Bernie disdains as part of the corrupt mainstream establishment.” To Drum, progressive change in the United States is the product of “work[ing] your fingers to the bone for 30 years and you might get one or two significant pieces of legislation passed.” Sanders’s assurances to the otherwise were fanciful deceits from a pol who should know better.

At The Week, Ryan Cooper rose up in defense of Sanders by blasting Drum’s “Abandon Hope, All Ye You Enter Here” (Cooper’s terms) style of center-left politics and the policies it has produced. He pointed to ObamaCare as the epitome of half-loaf liberalism failing to fully capitalize on political opportunity: “ObamaCare — a basically mediocre program that is still a big improvement on the status quo — reflects its political origins. It’s what milquetoast liberals had settled on as a reasonable compromise, so when George Bush handed them a great big majority on a silver platter, that’s what we got. It was Bush’s failed presidency, not 30 years of preemptively selling out to the medical industry, that got the job done.” To Cooper, under the true arc of change, “[t]he left half of the political spectrum decides on a compelling set of ideas, and through a combination of luck (read: conservative failure), strategy, and popular mobilization, wins a brief mobilized majority that passes lots of good stuff very fast.”

Drum replied to correct Cooper’s truncated history of health reform in the United States, detailing a half-century slog beginning with JFK’s proposal (and failure) to provide guaranteed care of the elderly, through plans from Nixon, Carter, and Clinton, to Obama finally enacting the best version of health reform that he could muster through Congress. (Though Drum could have reached all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt’s calls for universal healthcare in 1912.) “[T]housands of Democrats—politicians, activists, think tankers, and more—have literally spent decades working their fingers to the bone creating plan after plan; selling these plans to the public; and trying dozens of different ways to somehow push health care reform through Congress. [. . .] [I]n the end, all of these hacks and wonks have made a difference and helped tens of millions of people.”

Drum’s account best fits with the actual history of health reform. Liberal presidents from FDR through Johnson pushed for universal healthcare, but only ended up achieving coverage for the poor and elderly. Medicaid and Medicare may have been half-loaves of universal coverage, but were still two of our great progressive achievements.

Senator Ted Kennedy spent his career fighting for universal healthcare, but when comprehensive reform proved politically untenable, he settled for positive, incremental reforms like coverage for the unemployed and guaranteed treatment for those with emergency illnesses. When President Clinton’s push for universal care collapsed, Kennedy picked up the pieces to at least extend coverage for children.

As I’ve written, these half-loaves and incremental reforms ingrained little by little the principle in American life that health care is a right and not a privilege. After Kennedy’s wins on behalf of the ill, the unemployed, and the young, “the ethos behind [his] slew of small-scale healthcare achievements made it much harder to deny granting the right to healthcare to the rest of the country.”

In 2009, the Obama administration and congressional liberals were determined to finally extend this right to Americans writ large. With a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate and a large majority in the House, liberals enjoyed the most favorable political conditions imaginable in our political environment. Admittedly, these conditions were brief and tenuous, hanging in the balance by Al Franken’s razor-thin and contested victory to a sixtieth Senate seat and Kennedy’s deteriorating health. But even with control of both chambers of Congress, the best health reform liberals could heave over the finish line was ObamaCare’s market-driven, three-legged stool, no-public-option approach.

To Clinton and Drum, this is what policy change looks like: a century-long fight for reform; piecemeal progress arising out of large-scale defeats, culminating in a compromised version of the liberal ideal limping to the president’s desk.

In his defense of Sanders’s political revolution theory, Cooper draws on the work of Princeton historian Matt Karp. Karp argues that progressive reform arises from short fits and bursts. “The simple truth is that virtually every significant and lasting progressive achievement of the past hundred years was achieved not by patient, responsible gradualism, but through brief flurries of bold action,” he writes. “The Second New Deal in 1935–36 and Civil Rights and the Great Society in 1964–65 are the outstanding examples, but the more ambiguous victories of the Obama era fit the pattern, too.”

This is undoubtedly true—the political stars must align for any progressive change to happen in Congress. Even so, the bygone eras of progressive triumph had their ambiguities, too. As Karp acknowledges, the great social insurance programs of the New Deal only saw the light of day because liberals made a devil’s bargain with Southern Democrats to cut predominantly black professions out of the benefits. After universal care was stymied under FDR and Truman, Medicare and Medicaid were strategically pushed by LBJ because they provided the greatest degree of universal coverage that could survive medical industry opposition. The “ambiguous victories of the Obama era”— financial reform that leaves big banks intact, health reform that doubles down on private insurance, stimulus that’s too small—fit comfortably in this tradition of liberal pragmatism.

Sen. Kennedy began pushing for universal health insurance in the 1960s, advocating for a single-payer scheme that would cover everyone. In 1971, President Nixon countered with a plan not all that dissimilar from what ultimately became ObamaCare: a mandate on employers to provide private health insurance to their workers, coupled with subsidies to individuals who could not afford insurance.

Kennedy turned down Nixon’s deal, insisting on single-payer. He came to regret this decision as one of the biggest mistakes of his life. “That was the best deal we were going to get,” Kennedy said. “Nothing since has ever come close.”

Kennedy ultimately realized that single-payer care just wasn’t going to happen in the United States. Insurance industry opposition, systemic path dependency, and widespread individual satisfaction with private health insurance all meant that single-payer was a nonstarter. It was then that he turned toward his incremental accomplishments—CHIP, COBRA, EMTALA—that made up some of the ground lost in the missed opportunity in 1971.

For those who wish for a more progressive—even social democratic—America, the perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good. The reform on the table might not be perfect, but quite often it’s one worth taking. When Kennedy passed up positive compromise health reform, millions remained without healthcare for another forty years, waiting for a political revolution that never came.

It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind in 2016 when sorting out whether progressive change Feels the Bern or Trudges Up the Hill in America.

Bernie’s soda stumble

Sen. Bernie Sanders has managed to run a wildly and unexpectedly successful presidential campaign not just as a proud democratic socialist, but as a democratic socialist who unabashedly wants to raise your taxes.  While he leans most heavily on raising revenue out of the highest earners, he would also increase taxes on low-income and middle-class families to pay for a host of new government programs.

And a growing legion of Democratic primary voters have decided they are completely okay with this.  The Sanders campaign has insisted that voters consider both sides of the ledger, arguing that tax increases are worth it to pay for new government-provided goods like single-payer healthcare with reduced out-of-pocket costs, and like free college with no out-of-pocket tuition.  Millions of voters seem to agree.

This is a revolutionary political achievement.  Sanders has cracked the decades-old Democratic taboo that says it’s political suicide to even suggest middle-class tax hikes.  He has asked us to embrace not just Scandinavian-style policy, but a Scandinavian-style mindset that tolerates higher taxes in exchange for more collective goods and, in turn, more choice and freedom.

Which is why it is such a disappointment to see Sanders seemingly abandon these principles in the Pennsylvania Democratic Primary.  Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney has proposed to provide universal preschool for the city’s four-year olds.  He has also proposed paying for this initiative by implementing a soda tax, levying a 3 cents-per-ounce on sugary drinks.  As Margot Sanger-Katz of the New York Times explains, “That means a tax of $4.32 on a 12-pack of soda, which typically costs between $3 and $6 at the grocery store. It would come to 60 cents of tax on a 20-ounce bottle, which usually retails for about $2.”

Hillary Clinton came out in favor of the plan, implicitly arguing that universal pre-K is sufficiently important to justify the tax increase.  But Sanders strongly opposed the mayor’s plan.  He argued that it’s a regressive tax that disproportionately hits low-income consumers, who tend to buy more sugary drinks. “Mayor Kenney deserves praise for emphasizing the importance of universal pre-kindergarten,” he wrote in a Philadelphia op-ed.  “But at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, it should be the people on top who see an increase in their taxes, not low-income and working people.”

There are a few curiosities about Sanders’s position.  For one, a tax on soda would hardly be the first sin tax to disproportionately impact the poor.  Mayor Kenney’s plan is reminiscent of the Clinton administration’s Children’s Health Insurance initiative, which provided healthcare for low-income children and was funded by an increase in the excise tax on cigarettes.  Yet low-income Americans tend to be heavier smokers than the wealthy, meaning that the poor bear the brunt of higher cigarette taxes.

In their recent legislative biography of 1990s era Ted Kennedy, authors Nick Littlefield and David Nexon explain the political strategy behind this funding scheme for CHIP.  By paying for a new government program through a tax increase targeted at cigarette smokers and manufacturers, congressional liberals were able to catalyze public health groups as a constituency backing the proposal as a counterweight to opposition conservative anti-tax interest groups.  When tax increases are more diffuse, the anti-tax groups often go unopposed during the legislative process.  In this way, liberals were able to ride the momentum of the anti-smoking push of the 1990s to finance an important new social program.

Today in Philadelphia, Mayor Kenney is attempting to replicate this strategy by garnering support from public health organizations to counter the anti-tax messaging of conservative groups and the American Beverage Association.  Like cigarette taxes, a soda tax can be pitched as not just a funding stream, but a good in itself as a health-improving deterrent against bad consumption habits.  Kenney is making the same calculation today that Kennedy, Clinton, and other liberals made in the 1990s: that any regressive impact of a sin tax is outweighed by both the health gains from the tax and the gains for poor children from the program the tax is funding.

This is a quintessentially Sanders style of analysis, which is why it’s so odd to see him dispensing with it at this stage of the game.  Take Sanders’s proposal for free college tuition.  Sanders has proposed treating public college the same way we treat K-12 education, where all students can attend for free.  It turns out that this is a fundamentally regressive proposal.  The rich reap most of the benefits from free college, largely because they tend to attend more expensive schools, and because colleges already impose a sort of private progressive redistribution via financial aid packages.

Sanders justifies his free college plan by arguing that any regressive impact is counteracted by his progressive tax plan—that the rich will more than pay their fair share through higher taxes.  Specifically, he plans to pay for free college through a tax on Wall Street high-frequency financial transactions.  Here, Sanders asks us to consider both sides of the ledger, arguing that it’s worth enacting a somewhat regressive social program—one that disproportionately benefits the rich—coupled with a progressive funding scheme.

Philadelphia’s pre-K plan is the opposite: a progressive social program coupled with a somewhat regressive funding scheme.  But Sanders isn’t evaluating both sides of the ledger now.  It would be one thing if he was arguing that the value of universal pre-K is too uncertain to justify a regressive new tax.  Given the uneven findings around the long-term impact of pre-K, it’s a case he certainly could be making.

But Sanders isn’t making that argument.  He agrees that pre-K is important, but nonetheless rejects Philadelphia’s plan out of hand because it relies on a “totally regressive tax.”

Bernie is better than this.  He has done wonders to shake the Democratic Party out of its fear-driven Tax Pledge Lite dogma.  Just five months after saying “I don’t see how you can be serious about raising working and middle-class families’ incomes if you also want to slap new taxes on them—no matter what the taxes will pay for,” Hillary Clinton herself has come around to embrace a tax that impacts low- and middle-income Philadelphians.  That quick evolution, however slight, is directly traceable to Sanders proving that it’s not a political death knell to raise taxes outside of the top 5 percent.

To get a robust social insurance system in the United States, our debate can’t just focus on taxes in isolation.  Instead, Americans must look at both costs of a policy and its benefits, and decide if a given program is a good deal.  If they come to agree that new social insurance programs are worth paying for, that’s a far bigger achievement for liberalism than telling Americans they can have new benefits paid for entirely by the rich’s money.

That is the reasoned calculus the Sanders campaign has been offering throughout the 2016 primary.  While a progressive tax code should of course tilt toward taxing the rich, the scope of Sanders’s social democratic vision also requires broad-based buy-in from working Americans.  He shouldn’t abandon a message with massive long-term political import for the sake of a futile last-ditch effort to win cheap political points.

The innovation/inequality false dichotomy

At his campaign kickoff event last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders raised some eyebrows when he connected over-abundant consumer choice to child poverty:

If 99 percent of all the new income goes to the top 1 percent, you could triple it, it wouldn’t matter much to the average middle class person. The whole size of the economy and the GDP doesn’t matter if people continue to work longer hours for low wages and you have 45 million people living in poverty. You can’t just continue growth for the sake of growth in a world in which we are struggling with climate change and all kinds of environmental problems. All right? You don’t necessarily need a choice of 23 underarm spray deodorants or of 18 different pairs of sneakers when children are hungry in this country.

Defending the deodorant point as “one of the most substantive of the campaign so far,” Matt Bruenig of Demos smartly framed Sanders’s argument as taking the morally righteous side in the inequality vs. innovation debate: “Whenever someone argues that we should distribute the national income more evenly so as to reduce poverty and inequality (as Sanders does),” Bruenig writes, “the very first thing someone says in response is that doing so will reduce growth and innovation. Sanders is mocking this argument, saying he’d gladly cut poverty and inequality even if it meant a reduction in superficial product innovation.”

To be sure, it’s refreshing to hear a candidate even obliquely push back against this line of argument.  Conservatives reliably play it to defeat a whole host of inequality-cutting social insurance programs, drumming up fears that business will be burdened, growth diminished, and innovation stifled.  It’s good to hear Sanders refuse to let this be the end of the argument, and to assert the moral claims of those being disserved by our economy.

Yet Sanders may be inadvertently giving credence to a false dichotomy.  That’s because, contrary to what conservatives might insist, there is no inherent tradeoff between fighting inequality and promoting economic innovation.  We don’t need to tolerate exorbitant inequality for the sake of protecting economic dynamism.  Nor do we sacrifice entrepreneurial spirit by growing our social safety net.

The truth may be just the opposite, in fact.  By tolerating poverty and deepening inequality, we shackle much of our population with economic insecurity that holds back innovation and ideas.  The lucky ones get social insurance protections — retirement plans, health insurance, family leave — through their employers, making them hesitant to take a chance on jumpstarting a novel idea.  But as I wrote in The Week last August, combating inequality via the public provision of social insurance protections “would provide greater individual economic security, allowing more people to venture out as entrepreneurs and put good ideas into practice[, and] would free individuals to take a chance at a new startup instead of playing it safe at an established firm.”  A bigger safety net, liberating individuals from job-lock and boosting their sense of economic security, would empower more people to act upon their entrepreneurial dreams.

Also at The Week, Jeff Spross surveyed the slowdown in innovation during the last thirty years and concluded that rising inequality was a big culprit.  “Our economy is giving some people lots more time, but little job security or access to knowledge and resources,” Spross wrote. “It’s giving others the security and the resources, but little of the time. [. . .] If we want more innovation and dynamism, then we need to democratize the ability and opportunity to innovate.”  Our widening income gap and the financial strain that its placing on an ever larger share of the population are suffocating our ability to break new economic ground.

And at The Atlantic, Walter Frick cited studies based on food stamps, CHIP, and Medicare showing that the availability of public benefits boosted entepreneurship.  For example, states that expanded their food stamp programs in the early 2000s saw, on average, a 16 percent rise in entrepreneurship.  And most of these entrepreneurs didn’t actually take food stamps, as Frick points out: “Simply knowing that they could fall back on food stamps if their venture failed was enough to make them more likely to take risks.”

“When governments provide citizens with economic security, they embolden them to take more risks,” Frick argues.  “Properly deployed, a robust social safety net encourages more Americans to attempt the high-wire act of entrepreneurship.”

It’s powerful to hear Bernie Sanders take on the false innovation trump-card in the debate over how far we can go in fighting inequality.  But liberals shouldn’t simply accept the zero-sum tradeoff between innovation and egalitarianism that conservatives have contrived.  There’s plenty of reason to believe that reducing inequality — and the policies favored by those (like Sanders) who worry about inequality — will make our economy more just and more dynamic.