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What's 'Free'? Democrats Espousing a Republican Worldview

In spite of the impressive achievements tuition-free public higher education and other programs like it, Secretary Clinton and the Democrats affiliated with her campaign continue to subvert the political conversation by characterizing tax revenues spent on ordinary Americans as "free," denigrating these programs as some sort of hand-out.
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In light of Secretary Hillary Clinton's attacks on Bernie Sanders' proposal for tuition-free public colleges and universities -- as well as her widely repeated (and I think intentional) mistake of leaving out "public" when she discusses his plan -- one would think that Sanders has concocted a tragic hoax designed to seduce the young and naïve. Time and again, Clinton returns to the point that a tuition-free entitlement would apply to the children of the fabulously wealthy in just the same way as it would to the abject poor, a criticism she casts as an objection to funding Donald Trump's progeny through college, though she could easily substitute her own last name to make the same point. Her derision echoes that of her surrogates, chief among them the mainstream press, who remind Americans of the sobering truth that there is "no such thing as a free lunch." As a matter of fact, as I write this blog post, longtime Clinton ally Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe just appeared on my public television station to scorn Sanders as an untenable candidate appealing only to the ignorant or willfully deluded, and "free college tuition" was the first item enumerated to support his belief.

Yet Senator Bernie Sanders is not proposing something new, but a return to something old, and the Clinton campaign's response, including Clinton's specific attempts to provoke disgust for subsidizing the wealthy, also have historical roots that trace back to the Republican backlash against the New Deal.

What's Free?
Let's first address the question of "free." When California Governor Ronald Reagan launched his steady and ultimately successful campaign to dramatically scale back the state's support for its public higher education system in 1967, he chided educators that there was "no such thing as a free education."

Nobody ever thought that there was, and perhaps the absurdity of so describing tax revenues spent on supporting the state's flourishing education system lulled Reagan's antagonists into complacency as they dismissed the new governor's gambit. Though the state charged "fees" for incidental expenses and students spent money on room and board, the legislature in California appropriated money for state schools and the University of California system (community colleges were paid for by local taxes) in amounts that enabled the schools to remain "tuition-free" for those enrolled. When they graduated and earned salaries in the state of California, alumni of public colleges and universities joined other taxpayers in paying "tuition" on an annual basis via their tax contribution. The schools were never free; the fact that students paid no tuition while attending them simply represented a calculation on the part of the state that it would gain much more in the long term, fiscally and otherwise, if it opened the doors of higher education to its residents. The history of Silicon Valley alone would seem to bear this wisdom out.

In spite of the impressive achievements tuition-free public higher education and other programs like it, Secretary Clinton and the Democrats affiliated with her campaign continue to subvert the political conversation by characterizing tax revenues spent on ordinary Americans as "free," denigrating these programs as some sort of hand-out -- and rendering other kinds of spending, and costs, invisible. It does so in two ways: first, by focusing fiscal concern exclusively on domestic social services and investments, other kinds of revenue spending escape scrutiny -- even when they cost more. Former Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner griped about the $800 billion bill for Obama's stimulus package, but no establishment politician denounces the $1.7 trillion spent on the war in Iraq that has accomplished only chaos. In the United States, we have money for some things, but not others. No one can have the "free lunch" of public higher education, but apparently the cost of war is so reasonable, and the cause so just, that it's indiscreet to make those costs (and others like it) visible, let alone hold decision-makers accountable for its tragic failures.

The second kind of "cloaking" performed by those who deride tax revenues spent on ordinary Americans as "free" is harder to detect, but even more damaging. Narrowing the analytical focus to the point of purchase (or consumer transaction) is one of the most successful tactics adopted by Republicans interested in framing policy debates on terms favorable to them. Just as an example: the cost of a Big Mac might sound attractive to a McDonald's customer, but once agricultural subsidies, food stamps for employees living on depressed wages, and the healthcare costs incurred by people who eat a lot of them are factored into the equation, that's not a cheap meal. Shielding costs (and consequences) incurred well before or well after the point of transaction enables Republicans to present many of their policy options as more efficient when, in fact, non-public service provision (like charter schools) and social policy (like 401k retirement plans) have accumulated unimpressive track records. They cost taxpayers more and do less. Like a contractor who secures a job with a low bid and then overruns the estimate and does shoddy work, private social policy sounds good at a particular moment in the process, but it has not held up well when the account comes due.

Subsidizing the Rich
Let's not leave this subject before inspecting Secretary Clinton's claim that the tuition charged at public universities should be means-tested -- meaning, only if your parents' income falls below a certain level should you be eligible for public support. In the world of social policy, these programs are distinct from social insurance or other policy entitlements, where eligibility is determined by some criteria other than income level. For example, if you paid into certain programs (like Medicare or Social Security), you are eligible to receive a corresponding level of benefits; or if you graduate in the top 10% of your class, you may be eligible to attend an elite public university in your state, regardless of your family's wealth or lack of it.

Students well versed in the history of social policy will recognize Clinton's line of attack well; it comes from the Republican backlash against New Deal social policy programs, especially Social Security. As President Franklin Roosevelt's Committee on Economic Security mulled the question of whether to make government pensions for senior citizens means-tested or social insurance, the election season popularity of a grassroots movement in favor of the latter helped them to decide, and the 1935 Social Security Act, including old-age pensions paid for by a new payroll tax, was born. But Social Security years took many years to come to fruition. The program had to pass constitutional muster before the Supreme Court (like Obamacare); just as important, large groups of workers excluded from the original bill were gradually added during the war and throughout the postwar period.

All the while, throughout these many years, the Republican Party platform and a variety of Republicans called for paring Social Security down to a means-tested benefit -- that is, to giving government old-age pensions to only the very poor. They did the same thing during the Medicare debate. In fact, the "fundamental difference," according to political scientist John P. Bradley, "to the initial establishment of old-age benefits, disability benefits, and health benefits was that the Republicans sought to limit the benefits to the persons needing them."

Social Security proponents developed an aphorism to describe and repel these repeated attacks: "a program for the poor," they would recite patiently, "is a poor program." They understood that in the American political system, under disproportionate influence from powerful special interests, poor people alone would never have sufficient political recourse to challenge cuts in programs intended only for their benefit. To place a program on a means-tested basis is to place it on the path to extinction.

History has rewarded the insight and resilience of Social Security's earliest defenders, who insisted on the legitimacy of directing tax revenues to bolster the security and prospects of ordinary Americans; these programs endure to this day because of it. In fact we had a name for people like them; we called them Democrats.

I recently returned to Ken Galbraith's classic, The Affluent Society, and was reminded by him that the sacred truths of "conventional wisdom" are not so much overturned by intellectuals as they are discredited by discomfiting realities; that is, the things once accepted as sacred no longer seem to apply. And I wonder if this doesn't account for so many things, including Hillary Clinton's failure to connect with voters, especially young ones. The uneven and grossly unjust allocation of the costs of higher education driving young people into debt -- just like the unimpressive returns from privatized social policy -- is simply unsustainable. Perhaps young people have been drawn to Sanders' campaign in such high numbers not because they are overly simplistic, but because the failures of the kludge-y world of social policy are most apparent, and most consequential, in their lives.

If so, then the contempt shown for Sanders by establishment figures also seems predictable by Galbraith's reckoning. In the long run, truths can serve to organize a consensus, Galbraith tells us, but he also warns us that in the short-run, when challenged, "acceptability" or "conventional wisdom" mobilizes, and often prevails. This sets up well one moment when Secretary Clinton mocked Bernie Sanders' plan for tuition-free public higher education by noting that it would rely upon governors like Wisconsin's Scott Walker, a Republican who has implemented deep cuts in his state's stellar public university system, to reverse course and spend more. That is exactly what Sanders' plan would do, and that is exactly what is necessary to save public higher education in this country.

The Senator is articulating a truth; Hillary Clinton is reciting what is acceptable. What's astonishing is not the suggestion that the government direct tax revenue to a public purpose, or that politicians should organize a consensus around doing so, but that such ideas are characterized as outlandish, when, until recently, they have been an organizing principle of American politics and the Democratic Party.

Not so anymore -- and, not by coincidence, new voters no longer flock to the Democratic Party. If the party's establishment in thrall to a political world captured by privatized or means-tested social policy, they may find themselves unable to connect to people eagerly waiting for their perspectives to be heard, and for realities of their lives to be acknowledged.

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