Friday, April 8, 2016

Heart Bern: Evaluating Sanders

Let me begin by saying how much I like Bernie Sanders. Having someone who looks and sounds like one of my cantankerous uncles going on about some idee fixe running credibly for president rather than making us nuts at the Seder table is pretty fun and cool.

However, I am not a socialist.

I also reject the apocalyptic arguments around Sanders. In a choice between Trump and Sanders I would choose Sanders without any second thoughts whatsoever. First, Sanders is a democratic socialist. He is working within the system to achieve his ends. In fact by some measures he has been pretty effective as a legislator. This is legitimate activity within our system. He is not talking about storming the barricades our seizing the means of production. He might turn the U.S. into something a bit more Scandinavian (Euro-style mixed economies aren't all they're cracked up to be, but they have their virtues). These are still societies with vibrant private sectors, it is something we could vote for. Also, it won't happen. Our system makes it very, very hard to move things much. This has benefits and costs, but in our system it is a feature not a bug. The founders had studied history and knew the ancient democracies and republics had destroyed themselves.

(I fear Trump might damage our democratic processes - not fatally, but it won't be much fun to watch.)

Finally, I understand and sympathize with the broader forces driving Sanders' candidacy. A lot of people have been really screwed economically. Most young people who graduated since the 2008 crash see few prospects for moving forward. Further, there has been a broad decline in wages for certain kinds of labor. I have been personally fortunate, but I sincerely want to see policies that help address some of these problems.

However, I am not a socialist.

What I mean is that I sympathize with Sanders' goals, but I fear his means will actually make things worse. 

Let's put aside that (based on his recent interview) Sanders himself might not have thought through his proposals. He was incredibly vague about his signature issue of breaking up the big banks, nor did he make a terribly clear case that breaking them up would actually help anything. I want to insure everyone is benefitting economically. I have no love the big banks, but if it isn't going to move the ball forward, don't waste energy on it.

Peace, Land, Tuition!
Let's take a major Sanders idea and break it down. He wants state universities to be free.

What is the purpose of this proposal? It seems to me that there are two. The first is provide a better educated population overall and the second would be to improve people's employment prospects by making college more accessible.

I don't think the first purpose is what we are really discussing. As a small c conservative, I am skeptical of the ability of education to magically make people wiser and smarter. College is simply not for everyone. Many people do not wish to go to college. In terms of receiving a broad liberal arts background and broadening their perspective on the world, I am not sure people clamber for this. If we want a better educated public, let's figure out how to make our high schools work better.

Caveat: I'm not saying we should keep anyone out of college, I am just skeptical if it actually achieves the kinds of positive social ends desired.

As far as I can tell, we are talking about college like a trade school, it helps employment prospects. The problem is that it is a hideously expensive trade school and, for the most part, it does not actually teach a trade. College is a signal to an employer that you have some basic aptitudes, rather than specific skills.

This lecture will be standing room only in Bernie's America
So if we want to improve people's employment prospects is sending more people to college the way to do it? Since it is a vague signal, rather than a hard credential, it may not be the right way. That is, there is an employment market for people with college degrees. If a lot more people have college degrees, does that magically mean that there are a lot more jobs for people with college degrees - or - will it lower the value of these degrees and make employers choosier. Will a Masters be the new Bachelors? In that case, you've started an education arms race that the well-to-do are destined to win.

But, my small c conservatism aside, I do want more people to go to college and I don't doubt that there are many people who would benefit from college who cannot hope to attend now. My fear is that Bernie's plan would not help them - it would hurt them.

If state colleges and universities are free they will receive a huge number of additional applications. They will have two choices about dealing with this - they can either raise their standards and pick and choose who they accept or they can accept a lot more people.

If they choose to do the former, it will be much harder to get in and this could benefit the well-to-do at the expense of the less fortunate. The very rich will remain rich and send their kids to whatever private colleges they wish. The well-to-do however, will have had their taxes raised substantially under Bernie. This will make private colleges harder for them to manage, so if a free state university is an option it will become extremely attractive. These are parents who can insure that their kids receive the violin lessons, tutoring, and private coaching needed to get into the now more competitive state schools. Again, you've created an educational arms race that the well to do will win.

Alternatively, if the state schools don't raise their standards and accept anyone that can afford it that raises different challenges. Student bodies would expand very quickly and school would struggle to manage them. Here the concern is broader. Right now the U.S. higher education system is the best in the world. It is a tremendous engine of growth and innovation. Further it is an export (when a kid from another country comes here to study, he is putting money into the U.S.) I would rather not take risks with something that is working pretty well. If we break it, it may not be easy to fix.

But I do want to make college more accessible. I'd rather see it means tested. For the well-to-do state colleges and universities are bargain. You can raise the prices some and it would still be a bargain, while using that to subsidize the less fortunate.

Further, I'd like to see more creative approaches taken to preparing the workforce such as more apprenticeships and trade schools that were far cheaper and provided a better return on the public's investment.

But Bernie, as compelling as he is, offers simples cures that may prove worse than the disease.

We have entered an age of magical realism politics - and it isn't just the GOP.

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