...Archive for November 2020


Should a Biden administration unilaterally forgive student debt?

On the one hand, higher education has grown into an ugly mechanism for transmuting the hopes, dreams, and fears of young people into revenue for a sanctimonious, often destructive, industry, via a debt overhang that ruins lives. With legislative gridlock likely in 2021, forgiving Federally held student debt is one of the few ways that a Biden administration could make a direct, material, positive difference in people’s lives. The President could do it with the stroke of a pen.

On the other hand, the potential side effects seem terrible. The Democratic Party is trending towards becoming a party of the educated professional class alone. I view that as a horrible development we should move heaven and earth to reverse. So long as we are (miserably) a two-party system, the complement of a professional-class party is a fascist party. The Republicans we detest are the obverse of what we are allowing ourselves to become. Letting the working class remain in hock — underwater on unforgiven credit card debt, kiting paycheck loans to feed the kid and make the rent — while we unilaterally forgive higher education debt strikes me as an almost cartoonishly perfect wedge issue to polarize the college and noncollege elements of the Democratic electorate. Republicans would ruthlessly demagogue and exploit student loan cancellation to build their new “multiethnic, multiracial, working-class coalition.”

On technocratic rather than political grounds, there are big problems with just forgiving student debt. Come next fall, an unreformed higher education finance system will remain. Kids will sign on the dotted line for new Federal loans, just after the last round has been wiped away as a remedy to the same predatory regime they are joining. Will the obligation embedded in those new loans be legitimate, then? Regardless of where you stand on that ethically, will there be an incentive to max out loans — rather than spend out of family means, or take work to minimize indebtedness — on the theory that new debt might be forgiven in a next round students (and their families) might reasonably predict? Will that end up harming kids even more, if a second round of forgiveness fails to emerge? If a new round of forgiveness does appear, will it end up being perceived as a grift by well-to-do families, many of whom may have suddenly opted to finance college with debt rather than out of savings?

For all of this, I can’t persuade myself to simply oppose unilateral forgiveness of student debt. The last thing Democrats need is, yet again, to find technocratic grounds to persuade themselves not to directly, materially help humans desperate for relief.

My suggestion (which owes everything to a conversation with the remarkable Carlos Mucha) is that Democrats push for what Steve Keen describes as a “modern jubilee“: a flat per-capita transfer to citizens and permanent residents that must be used to pay down debts. Any balance that remains after debts are repaid becomes money recipients can bank. (Mucha suggests this difference be remitted as savings bonds, which could be structured to mature over time in order to prevent a destabilizing spike and then withdrawal of new spending power.)

Ordinarily, this kind of jubilee would be unlikely to get through a Republican, or even closely divided, Senate. But, as we’ve seen, a Biden administration could implement part of it — an effective “pay down” of Federally-held student debt — with the stroke of a pen. My suggestion is that Democrats do that at the same time as they pass, in the House, a bill universalizing the transfers to the rest of us. They should pick a number (Mucha suggests $10K; I might go for $20K), and forgive each student their loans up to that amount. The House bill would specify that the student loan forgiveness constitutes a first tranche of payments under the proposed jubilee. The write-offs would be irreversible; student debt relief would be a fait accompli. The burden would then be on the Senate to pass the bill and resolve the equity issues, by authorizing payments to everyone else (as well as payment of any excess balances owed to student debtors). If noncollege humans get angry, understandably, that college types got bailed out and they didn’t, Mitch McConnell’s would be the number to call. The Democratic coalition would be ostentatiously fighting like hell so they get theirs too. Instead of letting student debt relief become a wedge by which Republicans can even further peel the working class from the Democratic coalition, this would flip the table. Relief to some would be a done deal. Republicans’ choice then would be to complete the work, or to leave desperately felt, easily remediable, inequities unremedied, against a Democratic Party fighting for the working class.

This proposal would not reform the predatory grift that higher education finance has become, alas. But it wouldn’t place existing system in a strange netherworld, either. Student debt would not be specifically delegitimized; it would become just one of many forms of debt per-capita transfers might pay down. The proposal would not create counterproductive incentives to expand indebtedness, student or other, in hopes of profiting from future forgiveness. As a tactic, the proposal represents a useful compromise between barreling headlong towards an “imperial Presidency” or accepting the gridlock of a dysfunctional legislature. The President would not, by the stroke of a pen, try to give himself just what he wants, and then hope for legislative and judicial acquiescence. Instead he would overcome the status quo bias of Congress by upending the status quo in a way that demands legislative action. The comfortable in Congress would be forced to act, if they are to retain their comforts. They can’t win by just pocketing inertia.

What do you think?

Update History:

  • 18-Nov-2020, 3:45 p.m. EST: “…yet again, to find technocratic grounds to persuade themselves not to directly, materially help humans in need of desperate for relief.”; “the same predatory regime they will be are joining.”
  • 27-Dec-2020, 6:35 p.m. EST: “Student debt would not be specifically delegitimized;”

Social democracy or feudalism

Yesterday, I attended a Zoominar featuring Matthew C. Klein and Brad DeLong, which was unsurprisingly excellent. The conversation was inspired by Klein’s book with Michael Pettis, Trade Wars are Class Wars, which I’ve not read yet, but hope to very soon. The conversation skewed sweeping and historical, discussing dual themes, first balance-of-payments wonkery and the challenges associated with managing international financial flows, then elite and government incentives, are better choices possible and why haven’t they been taken? Delong and Klein are more sane and sensible than I tend to be. Both pointed out, in different ways, that managing the swelling waves and yawning canyons that emerge when funds can be lent and spent across borders, and withdrawn at the drop of a hat, presents challenges even for the best placed and most well intentioned governments. Coordination problems rather than conspiracy might explain some of the ugly outcomes (fragility and inequality) these flows have been let to engender. But judging from Klein and Pettis’ title, I think they have more than a little sympathy for my less sane and sensible view that, while not choreographed as conspiracy, our failure to manage these flows and their costs has something to do with the interests of those to whom the costs are paid (incompletely, for sure, but the deadweight losses fall elsewhere).

Very Delong-ianly, the conversation ranged over a sweep of centuries rather than decades, with discussions of the historical transition from overt imperialism and strategies where colonial powers coercively outsourced demand and indebtedness to conquered peripheries, into parallel dynamics that have emerged between (notionally) independent nations today with less explicit recourse to the point of a gun. (This is a tale told in bleedingly broad watercolor brushstrokes, but it places the contemporary United States in an interesting, paradoxical position.) Things change, things stay the same, in international (trade) affairs then also perhaps in social (class) affairs. Trade wars are class wars.

This got me to thinking that if we should recognize an echo of empire in contemporary trade imbalances, should we not also recognize an echo of feudalism in contemporary class dynamics? The class wars embedded in trade wars of the past generation have provoked growing chasms of inequality (within societies inscribed by nation-state borders), along with (oh Gatsby curve) declining mobility and dynamism between classes.

Nothing has grown so stale, I think, as the argument between “capitalism” and “socialism”. It is, in the scheme of things, a quarrel between cousins, a squabble among friends. Adherents of capitalism and socialism both share a deeper enemy, traditional caste-ordered society in which ones station is fixed and determined by birth, and social relations are ordered by customary — but coercively enforced — obligations between classes. Marx, at least in my vulgar Cliff-Notes understanding of his oeuvre, predicts a progression like

Feudalism ⇒ (revolution of the bourgeoisie) ⇒ Capitalism ⇒ (contradictions of capitalism) ⇒ Socialism.

But perhaps it’s more parsimonious to imagine that, in the face of contradictions, society might revert to its most historically stable prior form, rather than inventing a new one. Maybe rather than a progression, we risk a cycle

Feudalism ⇒ (new technological possibility yields a revolutionary bourgeoisie) ⇒ Capitalism ⇒ (contradictions of capitalism yield conflict and backlash) ⇒ Feudalism (at a new technological level, but with uses controlled and further development suppressed).

During the early capitalist period, feudalism is mocked as primitive, a “dark age”. During the late capitalist period, it becomes appealing, a source of order, stability, community. The contradictions of capitalism yield social pathology, and a caste-based communitarianism offers remedy without revolution, appealing to the winners of the capitalist period. Feudalism can derive from experiments in socialism. That was the experience of Soviet communism. Feudalism can also arise from liberal capitalism. That is the precipice on which we stand right now. It is modernity itself that is at stake, this conceit of a continually dynamic society upon which the contours of power are not rigidly and durably inscribed.

Delong asked, when I made an inchoate attempt to express these reflections after the Zoominar, whether I wasn’t echoing Rosa Luxemburg’s “socialism or barbarism”. I wish I was, because that’s a pretty easy choice. One might be optimistic that the humans, like Winston Churchill’s probably apocryphal Americans, will do the right thing after exhausting all the alternatives. The choice between modernity and feudalism is actually a difficult choice, one to which there is not a universally agreed better answer. Lots of conservatisms are tacit calls for feudalism as the practical grounding of an ordered community. If you call it “feudalism” it has few defenders, but by other names it is an ascendant creed. Over the past few years, in the United States, it has become fashionable among modernists — liberal capitalists and left-ish socialists both — to use the term “fascism”. At least in part, this can be understood as a desperate attempt to blunt the appeal of feudalism by tarnishing it with its most garishly malignant strain. But the appeal of feudalism, along with the social forces that are drawing us towards it, is not a messaging problem.

For a while, in the West, we thought we had proved Marx wrong. We had experienced contradictions of capitalism, but rather than succumbing to revolution, we coordinated via democratic states to work towards reasonably just, reasonably stable, still dynamic, hybrids of capitalist forces and socialist solidarity. Within the modernist camp, there are lots of capitalists and lots of socialists who consider a social-democratic hybrid not viable, inherently unstable. After all, if social democracy was sustainable, why did it prove vulnerable to the neoliberal turn that destroyed it? Why have we “retrenched” so far from the great societies we were building?

However, one historically contingent datapoint constitutes pretty thin grounds to discredit a whole class of social experiments — by far the most successful of modernity’s social experiments, while it lasted. Despite tremendous correlative forces that move “the West” together, despite decades of pressure towards a Washington consensus, social democracy survives and thrives in Scandinavia in a form stronger than anything that ever took hold in the United States. Social democracy is certainly no more discredited than capitalism (which has now failed spectacularly at least twice), or socialism (to which some responsibility for the catastrophes of Soviet communism and Maoism must be ascribed). Perhaps there are better capitalisms or better socialisms that we have not tried. And perhaps there are better hybrids, better social democracies. Rather than thinking of social democracy as a point between, a detente or armistice of two implacably opposed systems, maybe it’s best to think of it as a union, a full surface at whose opposing edges sit “pure” capitalisms or socialisms in their many varieties, between which lies a field of points that draw in different ways and degrees from both. That surface is a map of modernity, and its undiscovered best sits more likely in the interior than at an edge.

The choice before us, then, is not capitalism or socialism, not socialism or barbarism, but social democracy or feudalism.

(Or perhaps there are syntheses there, too. Perhaps China is an emerging example of a country neither modern nor feudal, but a hybrid, with social democracy and feudalism together proving adaptive if not quite appealing. As a positive matter, it remains to be seen how durably the contradictions of such a hybrid can be assuaged. As a normative matter, I am ideological. I’d rather explore the full space of social democracy before making any kind of peace with a journey, however partial, towards legitimating permanent hierarchy and caste warily enforced by deployment of coercive violence against internal threats.)

Update History:

  • 15-Nov-2020, 12:35 p.m. EDT: “…maybe it’s best to think of it as a union, a full surface at whose opposing edges sit “pure” communisms capitalisms or socialisms…” Thank you commenter Ivan!