There was a quiet revolution in the University of North Carolina higher education system in August, one that shows an important limit of current liberal thought. In the aftermath of the 2014 election, there’s been a significant amount of discussion over whether liberals have an economic agenda designed for the working and middle classes. This discussion has primarily been about wages in the middle of the income distribution, which are the first major limit of liberal thought; however, it is also tied to a second limit, which is the way that liberals want to provide public goods and services.
So what happened? The UNC System Board of Governors voted unanimously to cap the amount of tuition that may be used for financial aid for need-based students at no more than 15 percent. With tuition going up rapidly at public universities as the result of public disinvestment, administrators have recently begun using general tuition to supplement their ability to provide aid. This cross-subsidization has been heralded as a solution to the problem of high college costs. Sticker price is high, but the net price for poorer students will be low.
This system works as long as there is sufficient middle-class buy-in, but it’s now capped at UNC. As a board member told the local press, the burden of providing need-based aid “has become unfairly apportioned to working North Carolinians,” and this new policy helps prevent that. Iowa implemented a similar approach back in 2013. And as Kevin Kiley has reported for IHE, similar proposals have been floated in Arizona and Virginia. This trend is likely to gain strength as states continue to disinvest.
The problem for liberals isn’t just that there’s no way for them to win this argument with middle-class wages stagnating, though that is a problem. The far bigger issue for liberals is that this is a false choice, a real class antagonism that has been created entirely by the process of state disinvestment, privatization, cost-shifting of tuitions away from general revenues to individuals, and the subsequent explosion in student debt. As long as liberals continue to play this game, they’ll be undermining their chances.
First Limit: Middle-Class Wages
There’s been a wave of commentary about how the Democrats don’t have a middle-class wage agenda. David Leonhardt wrote the core essay, “The Great Wage Slowdown, Looming Over Politics,” with its opening line: “How does the Democratic Party plan to lift stagnant middle-class incomes?” Josh Marshall made the same argument as well. The Democrats have many smart ideas on the essential agenda of reducing poverty, most of which derive from pegging the low-end wage at a higher level and then adding cash or cash-like transfers to fill in the rest. But what about the middle class?
One obvious answer is “full employment.” Running the economy at full steam is the most straightforward way of boosting overall wages and perhaps reversing the growth in the capital-share of income. However, that approach hasn’t been adopted by the President, strategically or even rhetorically. Part of it might be that if the economy is terrible because of vague forces, technological changes and necessary pain following a financial crisis, then the Democrats can’t really be blamed for stagnation. That strategy will not work out for them.
The Democrats (and even many liberals in general) also haven’t developed a story about why inequality matters so much for the middle class. There are such stories, of course: the collapse of high progressive taxation creates incentives to rent seek, financialization makes the economy focused less on innovation and more on disgorging the cash, and new platform monopolies are deploying forms of market power that are increasingly worrisome.
Second Limit: Public Provisioning
A similar dynamic is in play with social goods. The liberal strategy is increasingly to leave the provisioning of social goods to the market, while providing coupons for the poorest to afford those goods. By definition, means-testing this way puts high implicit taxes on poorer people in a way that decommodification does not. But beyond that simple point, this leaves middle-class people in a bind, as the ability of the state to provide access and contain costs efficiently through its scale doesn’t benefit them, and stagnating incomes put even more pressure on them.
As noted, antagonisms between the middle class and the poor in higher education are entirely a function of public disinvestment. The moment higher education is designed to put massive costs onto individual students, suddenly individuals are forced to look out only for themselves. If college tuition was largely free, paid for by all people and income sources, then there’d be no need for a working-class or middle-class student to view poorer student as a direct threat to their economic stability. And there's no better way to prematurely destroy a broader liberal agenda by designing a system that creates these conflicts.
These worries are real. The incomes of recent graduates are stagnating as well. The average length of time people are taking to pay off their student loans is up 80 percent, to over 13 years. Meanwhile, as Janet Yellen recently showed in the graphic below, student debt is rising as a percentage of income for everyone below the bottom 5 percent. It’s not surprising that studies find student debt impacting family formation and small business creation, and that people are increasingly looking out for just themselves.
You could imagine committing to lowering costs broadly across the system, say through the proposal by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall to make the first two years free. But Democrats aren't doing this. Instead, President Obama’s solution is to try and make students better consumers on the front-end with more disclosures and outcome surveys for schools, and to make the lowest-income graduates better debtors on the back-end with caps on how burdensome student debt can be. These solutions by the President are not designed to contain the costs of higher education in a substantial way and, crucially, they don’t increase the public buy-in and interest in public higher education.
The Relevance for the ACA
I brought up higher education because I think it’s relevant, but I think it also can help explain the lack of political payout for the Affordable Care Act. It’s here! The ACA is not only meeting expectations, it’s even exceeding them in major ways. Yet it still remains unpopular, even as millions of people are using the exchanges. There is no political payout for the Democrats.
Liberals chalk this up to the right-wing noise machine, and no doubt that hurts. But part of the problem is that middle-class individuals still end up facing an individual product they are purchasing in a market, except without any subsidies. Though the insurance is better regulated, serious cost controls so far have not been part of the discussion. Polling shows half of the users of the exchange are unsure if they can make their payments and are worried about being able to afford getting sick. This, in turn, blocks the formation of a broad-based coalition capable of defending, sustaining, and expanding the ACA in the same way those have formed for Social Security and Medicare.
Any serious populist agenda will have to have a broader agenda for wages, with full employment as the central idea. But it will also need to include social programs that are broader based and focused on cost controls; here, luckily, the public option is a perfect organizing metaphor.
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