College-educated voters have shifted to the Democratic Party in recent years, and Democratic leaders think it would be ungenerous not to reward their change of heart. Joe Biden wants to help people with student loan debts by forgiving up to $10,000 per borrower. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts wants to go big, setting the amount at $50,000, an idea endorsed by several Senate Democrats.
In the heady aftermath of Biden's election victory, his party is gripped by the impulse to take dramatic actions involving large sums of federal money. His plan would cost $429 billion. That's not counting the help borrowers have gotten since March, when the federal government told them they could stop their payments, without incurring interest, until September — later extended to the end of the year, and likely to be renewed.
Besides the cost, the student loan forgiveness proposed by Biden and others suffers from three major flaws: It's not targeted to help the people most in need, it wouldn't help the economy and it wouldn't solve the massive underlying problem.
Progressives are pushing this remedy despite the inescapable fact that bailing out people with college educations is the opposite of progressive, given that more education generally yields more income. Student loan forgiveness does nothing for Americans whose education ended with high school.
You might assume that lower-income people who attended college would incur far more debt than their higher-income peers. But a report from the liberal Urban Institute found that "the most affluent households — the top 25 percent of households with the highest earnings — held 34 percent of all outstanding education debt."
Those are households whose annual income exceeds $97,000. The average person who holds only a high school diploma, by contrast, earns $37,000 per year. Do we really want to deliver a $10,000 gift — much less a $50,000 gift — to someone with a six-figure salary? It should be possible to find ways to ease the burden on borrowers who are hopelessly overwhelmed without enriching people of means.
Another element of unfairness is that the erasure would deliver a lump of coal to borrowers who diligently discharged their obligations. Many of them would legitimately resent having made sacrifices that others will be spared.
One major rationale for loan forgiveness is that it would stimulate the economy. "Student loan debt is holding back a whole generation from buying homes, starting small businesses, and saving for retirement — all things we rely on to grow our economy," tweeted Warren, who says canceling student debt "would be a huge economic stimulus during and after this crisis."
Not so. Most of the relief would go to people who don't need it and would merely sock it away. "This is the worst macro policy I've ever heard of," said Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan and the left-leaning Brookings Institution. It would make far more sense to funnel money to low-income and unemployed people, who would be likely to use it for food, clothing and housing.
We can deduce this from the $1,200 stimulus checks sent out this year to Americans largely without regard to need. Only about 40% of that money actually got spent, partly because so much went to the well-to-do.
It's true that student loan debt has mushroomed and that many borrowers are crushed by it. Worse, a lot of those who owe money never got a degree, leaving them with the worst of both worlds.
But erasing these debts doesn't cure the larger malady, because it leaves the existing loan program intact. "People currently enrolled in college will get their loans forgiven and the next semester will take out loans again," Jason Delisle, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told me. "It's a one-shot fix for a problem that's not one-shot." We could forgive all these debts and then face the same problem a few years from now.
He proposes an ingenious new system in which borrowers would pay a small, fixed percentage of their income for 25 years, allocating burdens to match means. Someone who drops out of a state university and makes $30,000 a year would get a break, while someone who gets an MBA and makes $200,000 would not.
After capturing the White House, Democrats can hardly be blamed for being eager to address problems that have been neglected. But they should make sure that their remedies would actually fulfill their aspirations.
Steve Chapman blogs at www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at www.facebook.com/stevechapman13.