Grand Theft Education

A story, in three parts.

First, what they’ve done going backwards, and what it lays the rhetorical groundwork to do in the future to help make things worse.

Second, what they’re doing going forwards to actively make things worse.

Third, a bird’s eye view of how much worse things were made.

Part 1: Loan Forgiveness Present

Those defending student loan cancellation are aggressively attacking anyone who disagrees with them, usually (but far from always) by pointing to their involvement in PPP – ‘This you?’

The implications are not great, including this obvious one.

This is indeed how I am interpreting the claim – that because the government once gave out a bunch of money to people, no one can ever object to giving other bunches of money to other people.

The argument flips freely between implying PPP was just and implying PPP was theft.

The White House is taking point on this.

I appreciate the brutal honesty here and also here:

A lot more than 51% of Twitter, and Democratic circles generally, approves of this.

The sky is blue. Also, the sky is blue.

It is far worse than this, because PPP loans were not functionally loans at all. They were grants for disaster relief, to be repaid if not spent, and when the government is handing out trillions it is rather expensive to simply turn down your allocated share. Drawing a parallel here implies that student loans were also ‘loans’ without intention of repayment. And any future loans are the same. There will be a scramble to take on and keep as much forgivable debt as possible, and things like tuition will adjust accordingly. The sky is the limit, the debtors’ revolt is complete, the treasury doors are open.

The response to this objection seems to be alternating between ‘the word loan is right there, checkmate (classical) liberals’ and ‘the outgroup’s words don’t have meaning so it is completely unfair to point out that ours also do not have meaning.’

If this general maneuver succeeds, it is also strong evidence that loan forgiveness, even fake ‘loan forgiveness’, leads to such spirals.

(Freddie DeBoer says the question of whether PPP was loans is irrelevant, what matters is the spending, except the whole point of the attacks is to say PPP ‘loans’ were loans and this justifies forgiving other loans. Back at the motte, he says this is a question of where the federal government spends money. He says PPP was justified by the need for ‘stimulus’ and this was a mistake because we overstimulated the economy, then seems to argue that this means we should overestimate it more because it’s fine to overstimulate, or something. And he explicitly says that because PPP wasn’t precisely targeted, that justifies precisely targeting a new group now and giving them money.)

More generally, assuming it deals with its other existential threats, Democracy survives until the public realizes it can vote itself money from the public purse in unlimited quantities. It is not hard to solve for the equilibrium.

Also more generally, the pattern of ‘launch personal attacks on everyone on the other side’ suddenly being the baseline argument does not exactly bode well. Nor does ‘force everyone to survive by accepting government funds then use this to attack anyone who objects to giving out more government funds.’ You should not (and cannot effectively in any case) sue over any of it, though.

There is also the widespread belief by those talking this way that they are helping to elect the candidates of the party they prefer. They think that no, this will not give their opponents a successful line of attack or make anyone all that angry. Intellectually, I know that they think this, and I even understand how they got there. It still boggles my brain every time.

Then again, perhaps they are right, and this will bribe voters (‘energize the base’) more than it enrages other voters. This is not an ‘explain the anger’ post such as this link, it is an analysis of what happened and what might happen next, and I am not the master of voter psychology.

This post argues that loan forgiveness is not a gift to higher education but only to the students who get relief. The school already has the money. What does it care if the students are in debt or not in debt? The argument that this is not a one-shot game, and the possibility of cancellation was anticipated and is now more anticipated, is dismissed as not something students care much about and not the central thing. This does not seem right to me, but if students already don’t much think ahead to their debt repayments then the problem is already terrible but adding forgiveness makes it less worse. 

The same dilemma will apply to the IDR modifications in Part 2 – if students don’t adjust their behavior based on prospective debt, then reducing their prospective debt does not change their behavior, which again means the changes do less marginal harm, but means that more marginal harm (especially to students) was already in the existing system. The resulting final system we have going forward (until it is fixed) is more, not less, broken.  

Another important point from Matt Darling is that graduate student debt was likely included in forgiveness because ‘college debt without graduate debt’ isn’t A Thing from the perspective of the administrative state. The system has no way to differentiate between the two.

A lot of the arguments for loan forgiveness, and policies that enable it, are a lot less absurd when confined only to undergraduate debt. It is for graduate debt where the whole thing goes over the top patently absurd.

Part 1a: Full Loan Forgiveness Implies Not Giving Out More Similar Loans, You Would Think

A note many have missed is that if you went to an especially terrible college then your entire loan is forgiven. Before I check or you check whether it is true, how many of them do you expect to still be taking students and offering loans?

Either at least these programs are frauds and/or utter failures, or they’re not.

If a single dollar of taxpayer money goes, at any point in the future, to subsidize the University of Phoenix, how is that anything other than pure theft?

I propose that if your program is so bad that any money borrowed to pay for it needs to be forgiven that, at a minimum, we do not offer any forms of federal loans, loan assistance or loan guarantees, or anything else that would enrich the program in question, to any future students of such programs, forever. If after this a student chooses to still go, it should be at their own risk and cost, full stop.

Ideally, of course, such places would all lose any and all accreditation. Alas, the government has outsourced accreditation. This would have suggested a simple solution to this problem, of course. If an institution loses accreditation, then loans would be forgiven. Which then creates a proper interest group to ensure it happens.

The president is taking at least some steps in this direction.

And yet I can’t help but notice that this should not count, not remotely, as ‘holding colleges accountable for jacking up costs without delivering value to students.’ Almost all colleges are doing this. We are ‘holding them accountable’ by forgiving student debt? And offering larger subsidies to future debt? I’d love to be ‘held accountable’ like that.

You know who got terminated? One of the accreditors. Not that they reliably used that accreditor, or that alternatives will be hard to find. That’ll show the bastards.

Part 2: Loan Forgiveness Future

And now for the second part:  The Income Driven Repayment Program (IDR), along with the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, where Grand Theft Education potentially truly comes into its own.

From Matt Bruenig (Fortune Magazine also covers the issues here based on his post):

The IDR changes are four-fold:

  1. Increase the amount of income not subject to IDR from 150 percent of the federal poverty line to 225 percent of the federal poverty line.
  2. Eliminate any accrual of interest on IDR-enrolled loans.
  3. For undergraduate debt, reduce the IDR rate from 10 percent of income beyond the threshold in (1) to 5 percent of income beyond the threshold in (1).
  4. For IDR-enrolled debts with original loan balances below $12,000, reduce the repayment period from 20 years to 10 years.

Under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, law graduates that go on to work in the public sector, which is a lot of them as the public sector employs many lawyers, only have to pay 10 percent of their discretionary income for 10 years in order to have their debt forgiven.

Law schools figured out many years ago that, for a student who is planning to enroll in PSLF upon graduation, prices and debt loads don’t matter. Ten percent of your discretionary income is ten percent of your discretionary income regardless of what the law school charges you and how much debt you nominally have to take on.

Law schools also realized that they could make the deal even sweeter by setting up LRAPs [repayment programs, AT] that give graduates money to cover the modest repayments required by the PSLF.

The LRAP schemes work as follows:

The school increases their tuition.

The student takes out federal loans to cover the tuition increase.

The school squirrels away the debt-financed tuition increase into an LRAP fund.

The school disburses money from the LRAP fund to cover PSLF repayments.

Summarized:

Did you get that? Here’s a stylized example. Suppose a student will make 150k per year for 10 years working in the public sector. If they have 200k in debt they pay 15k every year to the government for 10 years and then 50k is “forgiven.” But now the law school comes to the student and says ‘heh, I have a deal which will make both of us better off. We are going to raise the price of law school to 400k but don’t worry not only won’t that cost you a penny more than the 15k a year you are already obligated to pay it will actually cost you much less because we will pay your payments of 15k per year!’ This indeed is a great deal for the student who pays nothing and it’s a great deal for the law school which gets 200k more revenue immediately in return for 150k of payments paid out over the following 10 years. Win-win! Except for the taxpayer of course.

(Note that legal salaries are bimodal, the job in question likely pays substantially below 150k.)

When I say Grand Theft, I mean Grand Theft.

I do think it is importantly less dire than this makes it sound. These are not true 0% interest loans. If they were, that would be completely insane – here’s someone gaming it out in real time. Fun stuff. Free money. Come get some.

Instead, this is (again, I think, we no longer are under Rule of Law here, the president thinks he has the power to snap his fingers and make things up so who can ever truly know in advance) a normal interest-bearing loan, except that if you fail to owe all the interest this month due to having insufficient income, they don’t tack the extra interest onto the loan – it cannot accrue.

That actually seems pretty fine, as long as the interest rate is adjusted accordingly and we do a good job collecting payments when they are owed. It makes it closer to a true income sharing agreement.

Not that I expect either of those conditions to hold, at least you tried cake, etc.

An interest rate, if substantial, at least puts some downside on the whole thing.

Without one, anyone who does not take advantage is a fool. Free money. Come get some.

Notice that the percentage of income owed never changes, so the bigger the loan you take out, the smaller the percentage you’re likely to end up paying back before being ‘forgiven.’

Image

This is still, if the understanding is correct, an open invitation to schools and students to take out the absolute maximum in Federal loans for every student. The more is borrowed, the larger the percentage that will ultimately be forgiven. Tuition is raised to match, and the profits shared between students and schools.

If, previously, a student was being offered need-based aid, but would have been instead eligible for Federal student loans, the school now has every incentive to insist upon student loans instead, even if this means covering all the payments. There is free money, and these are well-enough educated folk to realize this.

Also, as Matt Bruenig points out, a college student can and should (assuming some combination remotely sane interest rates and lack of expectation of truly huge amounts of future income) take out the maximum in loans regardless, since they do not need to be spent on tuition, invest the money, then use some of the money to pay back the loan and bank the rest as profit.

(One of the first two people to read a draft of this confirmed that they in fact did exactly this.)

I actively like the idea of true Income Sharing Agreements where you share a portion of your income, especially when offered by the school. Those are very good incentives. We pay for your education, you pay us based on your success. If you do not succeed, we don’t get paid. If you do succeed, you can end up paying a lot more than you borrowed, but you succeeded, so you can still come out far ahead.

The trick here is to make it a one-sided deal, and tack on loan forgiveness. You borrow a lot of money. If you don’t earn a lot, a lot of the loan gets forgiven, and also forget those pesky interest payments. Tons of free money. If you do earn a lot, it depends on the interest rate, but you’ve been making a lot of money, so you are not so unhappy you bought cheap insurance.

The other trick is that repayment amounts do not depend on loan size, at all, and forgiveness timing only has a threshold at $12k.Every dollar you borrow is a better deal than the dollar before. This is, of course, highly regressive. It seems completely crazy at the high end.

If I borrow $200k, does it make any sense that I only owe 5% of my discretionary income? Some quick math seems in order. Interest rates vary between 5% and 7.5%, so interest alone should be $10k/year minimum to start. Federal poverty line for an individual is $13,590, so 220% of that is $30k. To pay even the interest on the loan you would need to make $230k/year. To pay off the loan within 20 years you would need to be making more like $400k/year over 20 years. The average doctor, in 2019, made $300k.

This is not a loan. It’s a grant. You didn’t steal the money. We gave it to you.

So, yes. Going forward it really is like PPP.

The extension of all this to PSLF rewards students even more than before for going into public sector jobs. Thus at least part of this seems to go something like:

  1. Take out loans.
  2. Take a public sector job.
  3. That requires a college degree.
  4. Get loans forgiven after 10 years (instead of 20).
  5. Instead of the job paying more money?

Thus, this could perhaps be best thought about as a raise in pay for public sector workers in their first ten years combined with a hike in tuition, with extra steps. Such workers save 5% of their discretionary income for 10 years. The average federal employee makes $108k/year, so this saves them about $50k.

Note that right now this program is quite tiny, only $290 million through the end of 2020. A lot of this is only 6.7% of those eligible applied for it, and also a lot of applications are pending or got rejected for bad paperwork. There’s a lot of room for this to grow, and with benefits scaled up presumably more people will take advantage. 

In any case, why the extra steps?

  1. Increase reliance on Federal government largesse and patronage.
  2. Stick it to the other college students who pay higher tuition.
  3. Make sure no one who doesn’t need loans goes into public service.
  4. End run around unions to move pay down the seniority gradient.
  5. You get to spend money without Congressional approval or paying for it.
  6. Or people noticing what is happening.
  7. Which is good, since most people would rather tuition be lower, not higher.
  8. And they’d prefer the government give away less money, not more.
  9. But hey, their fault. Should have studied harder in college.
  10. What do you mean, a lot of people don’t go to college?

I do expect this obfuscation to largely succeed, in the sense that the theft will be sufficiently disguised to mitigate much of the outrage that would have otherwise occurred. Not all, by any means, but quite a lot. Which means this may be politically smart, if they didn’t succeed too well and have the beneficiaries also not notice, as an estimate below implies is likely.

Part 3: How Bad Is This Going To Get?

I mean, it’s not good, but magnitude is always tricky. So is the counterfactual, and so are the implications for future rhetoric and policy and culture and norms. We need to both estimate the true direct cost and the indirect costs.

I’ve laid out some of that above, but it’s time to put it together.

What will the final bill be? (direct link)

Summary: President Biden’s new student loan forgiveness plan includes three major components. We estimate that debt cancellation alone will cost up to $519 billion, with about 75% of the benefit accruing to households making $88,000 or less. Loan forbearance will cost another $16 billion. The new income-driven repayment (IDR) program would cost another $70 billion, increasing the total plan cost to $605 billion under strict “static” assumptions. However, depending on future IDR program details to be released and potential behavioral (i.e., “non-static”) changes, total plan costs could exceed $1 trillion.

As usual, this is scored over a 10-year window, because no one can envision a real future so the world always ends after 10 years. The bulk of the cost from loan forgiveness (part 1) is right away but then it starts going up again. The new IDR program (part 2) slowly grows over time, so with a ~5% discount rate but a >5% growth rate per year the technical long-term cost is limitless.

This analysis caps the cost of the IDR plan at $70 billion over 10 years by assuming that most people won’t take advantage of it because they won’t know to do so.

The new features in the new IDR proposal, however, could sharply increase take-up rates. Even many borrowers who anticipate not being qualified in future years would typically be better off enrolling in the intermediate years in which they are qualified. There would also be financial incentives for future borrowers to shift education financing toward more borrowing to take advantage of the 5% repayment threshold. If the Department of Education simply auto-enrolled borrowers for which it had sufficient information (i.e., switched from “opt in” to “opt out”), the additional costs of the IDR program alone could reasonably exceed $450 billion.

Thus, the $70 billion assumes ~15% uptake among the eligible. It also does not factor in any behavioral adjustment. The sky is potentially the limit here.

How regressive or progressive is all this?

By current income it is slightly progressive.

If current income is this close, by future income it is doubtless regressive, since those who have loans will have higher incomes in the future relative to now than those who do not have loans.

Also note that in general, whenever a program requires people to know to take advantage of complex stuff like IDR, the well-off tend to take advantage more often.

Thus, the final direct cost of these changes is somewhere between ~$600 billion and north of $1 trillion, depending on how much behavioral adjustment we expect and the extent to which we allow a lot of people to fail to enroll in the IDR program. With extensive IDR adjustments, it could get even bigger than that.

How big could it get going forward? The biggest-cost scenario is that IDR gets automatically applied to all loans. I keep trying to find flow estimates and getting stock estimates for everything, which makes estimation tricky. Then you have to factor in behavior and tuition adjustments. I am guessing that ~250 billion of loans get started every year right now, of which ~100 billion is graduate level and would mostly not be paid back, whereas the undergraduate debt that stays reasonably sized would be more of a mixed bag on getting repaid – if you borrow the average of $30k you only owe ~$1500 in interest per year, so past about $50k you start repaying, and average college graduate makes $68k, so they’d pay $900 principal a year to start, which is close to paying it back in 20 years, but the bigger loans are going to have big issues and some people won’t pay anything back at all even on smaller loans. And anyone going into public service is going to get a lot of forgiveness.

This then needs to be compared against the amount of forgiveness and non-payment that previously existed, since that doesn’t represent the situation getting any worse.

And then, you need to adjust for all the increases in tuition and loan size as a result of the changed incentives. All of this on, currently, something like (order of magnitude estimate only because Google wasn’t making it easy) $100 billion/year in graduate loans and $150 billion/year in undergraduate loans.

So, yes, this could all get very expensive, if we assume half or more of that is going to get ultimately forgiven, every year, forever. While getting bigger faster than inflation, every year, forever. Of course, when something can’t go on forever, it won’t.

That still excludes additional policy responses. How should we think about that?

The pessimistic case here is spelled out in Part 1 above. When you spend a bunch of money from the public purse to buy off your supporters, a logical consequence is that you justify and raise expectations for future buyoffs of supporters out of the public purse. People treat those who do not seek to become favored insiders and steal from the treasury as suckers, and both sides justify their bad behavior by pointing to past bad behavior. Loans are given out and prices charged based on the expectation that they can be used as leverage to steal from the public purse.

The optimistic case is that there may be a limited amount of low hanging fruit, a limited amount of money available to be stolen from the public purse, a limited amount of tolerance for such theft, and/or a subsequent demand for fundamental reforms.

My analysis of the Inflation Reduction Act found it to largely be picking low hanging fruit and using up limited capacities. Yes, several provisions were designed poorly or were ill-conceived, and would make things worse. The compensation is that it included a bunch of ways to save money, both in reality and as measured by the CBO, while only spending some of that money. The remaining savings were banked and will be hard to reclaim. Finding additional ways to record accounting savings, or find actual savings, will be more difficult, especially politically. Political capital was spent and ‘something was done,’ without that something being worse.

Could a similar case be made here?

Biden promised loan forgiveness during the campaign. He has now delivered loan forgiveness. It was larger than was strictly promised, as it includes IDR generosity and expansion, increasing Pell Grant forgiveness to $20k, and full forgiveness for victims of predatory programs. 

Their plan to do anything about those predatory programsseems to be confined to revoke the authority of ACICS as an accreditor. My spot check of two places showed they were using the Higher Learning Commission, so I doubt this change will have much effect. WTF?

In exchange, payments on student loans are set to resume within a few months. The pandemic has effectively been over for a while and that rule kept going, so this was by no means a given. There were worlds in which student loan forgiveness didn’t happen, but all payments and interest stayed paused for another two years or more, and that could end up vastly more expensive as well as vastly more regressive.

Thus, there were arguments about whether to measure against ‘current law’ or some reasonable expectation of potential future law, such as expecting all temporary government programs to be permanent, since there is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.

One could interpret the resumption as saying ‘all right, that’s enough, you’ve gotten your gift from the public purse and we’re done now.’ That doesn’t fix the system or anything, but perhaps it does buy some time.

We did not do anything to fix the broken system, yet we did acknowledge that it is broken. There is little argument there. We highlighted this, and used it as justification to spend quite a lot of money. That should strengthen calls to reform, even if doing it at the same time was a missed opportunity, perhaps?

Another parallel is the PPP ‘loan’ ‘forgiveness’ being vilified. This can end up going either way. On the one hand, the nightmare scenario laid out in Part 1, where any further thefts are considered justified by past thefts. On the other hand, perhaps this immunizes us so we can defend against future thefts, because we’re all so sick of them?

Consider TARP. TARP was very unpopular (although this was largely due to being seen as a far bigger giveaway than it actually was in expectation, and in the end the program made money in our particular Everett branch). Elected officials paid a political price to ensure it would pass anyway, to avoid what they feared (I believe quite correctly) would be an economic collapse if they hadn’t done it. One possible result would be that now it could have encouraged lots of moral hazard and giveaways to big banks. Another is that it could have used up the public’s tolerance for such measures, making a future TARP much harder rather than easier. That it would cause a crackdown on potential moral hazard rather than encourage more.

Given how we reacted to Covid, with bailouts and giveaways aplenty, one could reasonably say we very much did not learn our lesson. But circumstances were very different that time, on many levels. If we had needed something close to TARP 2, rather than a bailout aimed at what people like to call Main Street, would we have been able to do it? My guess is no, with potentially disastrous results. I do think the reaction here was protective rather than enabling. A counter response is that the Fed did a bunch of asset buying and market interventions that at least rhymed, so it’s not clear cut, but I do think we ended up in a reasonable place.

What about the impact on inflation?

When it comes to inflation of the true cost of higher education,Not Great, Bob.’

That’s the answer when you include the costs borne by the Federal Government. The quantity of loans will rise, aid will shift into loans, and the sticker price will rise. The people, collectively, will have a bigger tab to pay.

However, what happens to the effective price paid if we look only at what future students will pay, and we assume they get to not pay the majority of their loans?

From the perspective of the student only, a loan that is a grant is no different from a grant. A loan that only gets paid back when the student makes lots of money is still a lot like a grant. Loan money that was already expected is forgiven more, so that’s a pure win. Tuition will go up, but tuition will presumably go up by less than the increase in loans taken out. So for the average student, it does look like they will be better off.

It’s not an efficient way to help students pay for college, because of all the additional money that will be seized by universities via tuition, a lot of which then will get spent in various unproductive ways, much of it in pure paying more money for the same things as before. There are ways to make the price paid cheaper without this effect (or without as much of this effect) but they involve something other than restricting supply and/or subsidizing demand.

What about inflation overall? What effect will this have? To some extent, humans are able to adjust their consumption based on anticipated future resources, so forgiving money owed in the future leads to more consumption now and thus to more inflation.

The flip side of this is that those with student debt are often importantly liquidity constrained, and lack the ability to borrow new funds on similar terms to the loans that were forgiven. Repayments have been paused for a while and will restart soon. The federal debt will increase, but it will take a while before this forces the printing of more money. I do think this will all combine to blunt the inflation effects somewhat, at least in the short term, and less consumption will be shifted than the headline costs would imply.

Finally, what effect will this have on tendency to steal in the future from the public purse? That is the hardest question to answer, especially in magnitude. I presume that it makes it easier, but considerations do, as noted above, go both ways.

Getting permanent modifications to the system in at the same time that were a further giveaway that made the problem worse, rather than waiting, was smart provided the changes were deemed necessary.

If and when Democrats try to ‘go back to the well’ a second time on student loan forgiveness, it would become impossible to continue pretending student loans were mostly loans rather than mostly grants. What kind of fool repays their grants? What kind of fool doesn’t apply for as many as they can get, or design their service to help others so apply?

Remember that originally there was pressure to do $50,000 per borrower. I am predicting that doing $10,000 now, then $40,000 later, would be harder than doing $50,000 up front, unless it is clear that theft is simply a political winner so it pays to do as much theft as possible, and the floodgates fully open.

Whereas I do think this makes further theft of other types easier, for both sides. If and when Republicans find a way to steal (ahem, ‘transfer money’) from blue voters to red voters, objections will be that much easier to laugh off. One possibility is that they will do this by going after higher education.

What Could Be Done Now?

I am exploring this and many other policy problems. As you would expect, it is hard. None of this is meant to imply I have a great solution to the problems in the cost and expansion of higher education, let alone issues with its content.

I can still brainstorm, so it seems like a good time to do that.

Signaling games and job requirements force our children to spend ever longer, and ever more money, on college. College is a positional good and students don’t feel its cost so schools largely compete on prestige and student appeal rather than price even before the student loan fiasco. Then the fiasco makes sure they really see all these prices as fake, and also makes them actually fake, so they keep going up, and life starts later and later and in more and more debt, so that everyone can stay where they would have been anyway.

(The exception is that cutting off loans, or at least loan assistance, to places where we are giving full forgiveness, is a pretty damn easy call. Not everything is hard.)

The solution starts with distinguishing costs from benefits. Going to college is not a benefit to society. It is a cost to society, which we subsidize and which prevents you from doing other things like working or starting a family. The benefit is if you get a useful education. Allowing students to signal via their education forces others to signal in expensive ways to keep up, whereas in a different equilibrium this would be a lot cheaper, so it is mostly a cost but it is important not to double count that cost.

We should not be trying to get every student into the most prestigious school for as long as possible, even at high cost, even when this drives a different student out because of lack of space. That is not helping.

Nor is providing additional subsidies to universities via student loans. Students cannot be charged more than they can afford to pay and can take out in loans. More loans encourage more price discrimination, allowing the universities to extract more money for the same product, or offer a luxury product students wouldn’t want to pay the marginal costs for in order to increase the university’s positional prestige.

The loan is helping the individual but each loan is a cost to society that makes things worse. The more subsidized the loan, the worse it makes things. Thus, the logical thing to do is to stop the Federal government from originating or subsidizing student loans going forwards, and allow any future student loans from other sources to be subject to ordinary bankruptcy proceedings at least after 5-10 years, and shift the administration of all grant programs to the university level to avoid bad incentives. Tuition will drop, grants and need based aid will replace many loans, and students will be better off overall.

If we think tuition would still be too high, we can offer per-student tuition aid across the board that reduces in size as tuition rises past a reasonable level, so raising sticker prices reduces the local pie size rather than increasing it.

Or we could, you know, cap the price of tuition outright, if schools want to benefit from the IDR program or student loans at all, or any of the other things we can condition on. In general price controls are terrible, but when the customer is not paying and the good is this positional I am willing to make an exception. 

Would all this be regressive on the margin? This is unclear because among college students it is, but transfers from those who don’t go to college to those who do are highly regressive. My guess is it is net progressive. If that’s not good enough, it would be very easy to fix by taking some or all of the savings from not subsidizing loans and using it for a progressive tax cut. If necessary we can flat out make the tax code more progressive. When a child goes to college seems like a very odd time for a radical tax increase on families and their wealth. I presume we can do better than that. Reducing various educational job requirements, and some combination of restricting the requirement of an unnecessary college or graduate degree with easing restrictions on alternative ways to show you are the right one for the job, would also be a big help.

Would this reduce resources given to universities? Yes if we don’t compensate for it sufficiently, but it is not as if they use their resources on the margin to help students, or increase diversity, or lower tuition, or enroll more low income students. Again, they use it to compete. I do not see the value in that.

Again, take this section the least seriously in its details. The point is that the current system is deeply screwed up, is steadily inflating costs and driving everyone into debt and making them dependent on the whims of those who ‘forgive debt’ and what mechanisms lead to that. It isn’t the best possible solution, but if we basically scrapped the whole student loan system going forwards, we could reduce real total spending on higher education without sacrificing quality, and also not leave future children drowning in quantum debt.

In conclusion: It could be worse, we have paths forward available, and there is at least some upside to all this.

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18 Responses to Grand Theft Education

  1. David W says:

    I hate to say this, because I hate the program, but this is still Rule of Law. Congress specifically wrote in the discretionary authority to the Executive Branch that Biden is using here, and Congress could certainly pass a new bill to revoke that authority. There’s a colorable argument that Congress didn’t mean to authorize something this big with that provision…but it would be straightforward for them to clarify it instead of waiting for the court cases. The program isn’t going to start until October, so they have time to act. If they choose to. They’re playing a shell game with the blame, just like they’re playing a shell game with IDR appearing to be details tacked on rather than the bulk of the money.

    It’s true that revoking the authority would probably require a veto-proof majority, rather than the 51% that was required to put the discretion into the law in the first place, but that means only about a third of the Democratic Party would have to be convinced to oppose it.

    • magic9mushroom says:

      If the President were to veto Congress retracting a delegation of Congressional power to the President, that’d very definitely go before the Supreme Court (and could potentially set off the powder keg entirely). I think either the Congress wouldn’t go for it or Biden would let it through; Constitutional crises are bad.

      • davidwwall says:

        Getting even a filibuster-proof majority, while technically easier than a veto-proof majority, is not exactly a slam dunk.

        But in any case I’ve long given up on Congress ever doing anything substantial to retract its delegation of powers to the Executive. What’s in it for them?

      • Doug S. says:

        This has been settled by the courts, sort of, and the answer is yes, the President can indeed veto it. (Congress wrote into “state of emergency” laws that Congress can overrule the President’s declaration of emergency by a majority vote; the courts ruled that the President can veto such an overruling, making the actual threshold to overturn a bogus state of emergency 2/3 of Congress.)

    • George H. says:

      Yeah, Congress needs to claw back the power it gave away to the executive branch. Unfortunately I don’t see any sign of that happening.

  2. Yrro says:

    I just want to add one terrifying detail of all this — it’s subject to change according to the political winds. I have one friend who finished up his X years as a public school teacher in a bad school district … mere months after a similar program that applied to him was cancelled with no grandfathering. He’s stuck with all his loans. He likely would have transferred to a nicer district if it weren’t for that program.

    • Forced Bets says:

      I mean, maybe you know this and thought it was too obvious to say, but…that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. You don’t *want* to just purely offer someone a bribe for your political victory; you want to force them to mortgage more and more of their future on your political victory, so that they’ll be utterly screwed if you lose.

      Tom wants the support of Lucius, so Tom doesn’t want Lucius to feel like Lucius could survive Tom’s downfall. (A hard-learned lesson.) Tom wants to force Lucius into a position where Lucius will be ruined if Tom loses. The more Lucius is forced to mortgage his future on Tom’s victory, the more lines Lucius will be willing to cross to bring about that victory.

      Ensuring your clients lack the means to escape your patronage network has been an important part of maintaining a patronage network since the time of the Romans.

  3. Anonymous-backtick says:

    “More generally, assuming it deals with its other existential threats, Democracy survives until the public realizes it can vote itself money from the public purse in unlimited quantities. It is not hard to solve for the equilibrium.”

    Well hot damn, if moderates understand this now, maybe they can also wrap their heads around “Democracy survives until the parties realize they can avoid accountability by importing their own voters” and “Democracy survives until the parties realize they can rule forever by creating permanent bureaucrat positions that elected officials can’t fire” and “Democracy survives until you have an entirely zero-sum party conflict along largely racial lines, instead of two friendly similar parties playing positive-sum Mistake Theory” and “Democracy survives until one group owns the entire media and shuts down all dissent” and “Democracy survives until you can just go around collecting ‘mail-in’ ballots from the senile and the imbecilic who would never have shown up to the polls on their own and don’t understand the candidates” and “Democracy survives until it runs giant deficits and destroys the value of the currency” and “Democracy survives until your mysterious shadow agencies that you use to subvert other countries’ elections realize there’s nothing stopping them from doing that at home too”.

    In short, we haven’t had a legitimate democracy since FDR if not earlier, and when the people pushing all these things start waxing all moral about “threats to Our Democracy” that’s perfectly optimized to break people’s brains.

    But if moderates can start understanding these things, maybe we get to build something that doesn’t totally suck after this system finishes collapsing.

    • Doug S. says:

      The thing that actually ends democracy is one side deciding it would rather fight a civil war than lose an election. This has happened twice in American history. The first time was when Abraham Lincoln was elected President. The second was on Jan 6, 2021. Fortunately, the Second American Civil War only lasted one day.

  4. kronopath says:

    One big potential loser would be international students coming to study in the US. Those students aren’t eligible for federal student loans, but presumably their tuition will go up anyway.

    Going to school in the US and then getting a job in your field of study is one of the few ways prospective immigrants have of getting a (slow, risky) path to permanent residency and eventually citizenship, so this could be net bad for high-skill immigration.

    • greg kai says:

      I had the impression (from Europe) that high skill immigration is already educated (in their country of origin) – that’s the whole advantage for US (and problem for countries of origin). It’s (to me) the whole difference between high skill and low skill immigration. This would (possibly, depend on how tuition is paid in those cases) makes harder for foreign students to study in the US, but those are (again, my outsider impression) either from rich families (impacted, but they were already paying a lot of money for prestige), gifted students with special scholarship (likely not impacted), or using student visa as a way to put a foot inside the country and hope for the best (not sure they are impacted, as they are likely not targeting anything with high tuition)…

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  6. Roger Rabs says:

    Unfortunately an entire generation of children were told a lie: that college would make them smart and valuable contributors and that they would be paid handsomely for it. It may have worked that way for a minority–the 10% of people who would have gone to college anyway (plus a marginal set who would not have gotten that opportunity)–but for most it just made them more disconnected with reality.

    The result is there’s an entire set of people with mediocre intellects who’ve never* raised a mother hen but claim that motherhood is a sociological cultural phenomenon; who’ve never managed workers but claim that all people are equally smart and motivated; who’ve never renovated a building but claim that land ownership is a purely rent-seeking exercise; who’ve never truly known hunger but claim that central planning is the best economic structure.

    * Not them, not their friends, and not their friends’ friends.

  7. Craken says:

    But how does this affect total factor happiness? Do these financial transfers increase the factors of happiness?

    These specific handouts will cause more unqualified people to spend more time in school and encourage increased provision of classes with no clear economic utility. Perhaps schools will design more classes that low IQ people enjoy. I do not predict that they will offer more classes that will increase their economic value; such classes would be déclassé. They could teach plumbing, solar installation, CNC machining, uber driving, cam modeling (actually, under this regime, I bet this last one is already a curricular option somewhere)–except these sweaty labors are icky and leach away prestige. We can safely predict useless and enjoyable classes for the low IQ type. The more capable are likely to increase their enrollment in equally useless, yet socially prestigious classes. I think their actual enjoyment of such classes is mixed, much of it being derived from the prestige itself.

    Those who were fooled into selecting a useless major at the age of 19 will face less punishment for a sin that today is de facto among the least forgivable in the American econo-legal system–not to speak of the relief for those who at the age of 17 made the wrong decision to attend college. Let’s not forget that the former error in particular is common even among intelligent 19 year olds. These people will be partially relieved from the consequences of their errors = more happiness.

    Financially, we are cycling money from the older affluent to the younger middle class and affluent. This might increase the birth rate by subsidizing family formation for these younger groups. Offsetting this financial boon is the time delay from more schooling. Those of us on the Right are less likely to linger on campus, behind enemy lines. On net, I suspect it’s slightly positive for birth rates, which is a positive happiness factor, especially given whose birth rates are likely to rise.

    It should be obvious that this program harms total factor economic and political productivity, entailing some large cumulative negative happiness factors.

    That chart showing benefit to income groups from taxpayer handout is a nice piece of propaganda–courtesy of the direct beneficiary of the propaganda, a university. They could have just shown 5 quintiles. Instead they showed 4, then split the last quintile into 5 pieces to suggest “progressivity” without explicitly claiming such. As Zvi mentioned, it’s also misleading in that it charts current income, not future or lifetime income–both of which would be higher. The peak in the chart is around the 45th percentile. In lifetime income the peak is probably closer to the 65th. And probably 10% goes to the top quintile. All this expense of money and mendacity encourages more of the people to spend more of their years in America’s madrassas.

    The What is to be Done? section has some intelligent suggestions. Political feasibility exists assuming ruling class removal.

    As Anonymous-Backtick partially enumerates above, the American communist regime continues to multiply the nation’s “internal contradictions” and bleed all the favorable characteristics they inherited 90 years ago from the real America: political credibility, elite loyalty to nation and people, competence, capitalism, freedom of thought (which depends on freedom of speech), apolitical spheres of life, anti-monopolism, salus populi broadly understood (more are trapped in addictions and obesity than ever, and is anybody not on prescription or recreational psychotropic drugs today?–Brecht was wrong. You don’t need to dismiss your population and elect a new people when you can arbitrarily drug the current people.).

  8. benquo says:

    The argument that this is not a one-shot game, and the possibility of cancellation was anticipated and is now more anticipated, is dismissed as not something students care much about and not the central thing. This does not seem right to me, but if students already don’t much think ahead to their debt repayments then the problem is already terrible but adding forgiveness makes it less worse.

    If students are looking around at their peers to see what’s normal and imitate that behavior, rather than calculating the future debt burden and comparing it with the expected benefit of college education, then they’re already following a strategy that assumes that too-big-to-fail coalitions get bailed out and doesn’t worry about the details.

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