The Undercover Capitalist: A Deep Dive into Bernie Sanders’ College for All Proposal

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Photo by Nick Solari

In 2016, while running for the Democratic Party nomination for president, Bernie Sanders was known for two things — messy white hair and “radical” progressive policies. He was criticized for being non-pragmatic and his ideas unachievable. Today, just three years later, some of his proposals have become part of the official platform of the Democratic Party. (Which they label the “most progressive” in party history). He doesn’t seem so radical now.

He argued then, and now, that a college education was crucial to success in today’s knowledge-based economy and that, for this reason, it should be accessible to all US citizens regardless of income. That is, his “College for All” proposal promises to make all public colleges, universities, apprenticeship programs, and trade schools “free for all” regardless of race, disability or immigration status. Instead of placing the burden of cost on individuals and families, says Bernie, a college education should be entirely paid for by tax money.

On top of free higher education, the proposal offers additional funding to low-income students through Pell Grants and requires states to cover all costs not covered by the federal government. And, for students who aren’t classified as low-income, Bernie proposes the tripling of “work-study” funding which would “build valuable career experiences for students that will help them after they graduate.” And, although the plan proposes a cap on school loan rates at 1.88 percent, it eliminates the need for students to go into massive tuition debt which often takes decades to be paid off. He even proposes the cancellation of all existing student debt — about $1.6 trillion worth of it.

At the root, Bernie argues that a college education has become unattainable to many Americans because of skyrocketing costs — “We have failed a generation of our young people.” Thirty years ago, a college degree cost an average of $3,360 per year in today’s dollars. Today, it costs about $10,000 per year. Even so, college graduates far outearn high school graduates and benefit from lower unemployment rates. Many are forced to take out hefty student loans which prevent them from pursuing economic endeavors. The idea is that free access to college degrees leads to more equitable access to higher-paying jobs. Forgiving their debt liberates them to participate in the economy and help stimulate economic growth.

Yet, calling his proposal “free college” would be misleading. It has to be paid for somehow. For this, Bernie proposes a tax on all “Wall Street Gambling,” but that phrase is also misleading. In actuality, this is a tax on all stock and bond transactions of about .5% and .1% respectively regardless of whether they are purchased/sold for speculative reasons or for long-term investment. This plan, according to economists at the University of Massachusetts, would raise about $2.4 trillion over a period of 10 years, which Sanders claims would cover the cost to fund all the programs proposed.

But, Bernie isn’t offering free college just because he wants you to learn lots of stuff. He believes it’ll lead to a better, more fair, country. Those who disagree argue that this is a “socialist redistribution of wealth” away from those who earned their living towards those who don’t deserve it. Others say that colleges have become nothing more than “liberal indoctrination” centers run by leftist professors. Still further, there are those who argue that these policies are a burden on capitalist society and only serve to slow things down — the market is much more “progressive” than any politician.

Most fundamentally, the question we should be considering is: are these policies conducive towards a “healthier” and more equitable capitalism, or do they hold back true progress?

Left-wing ideological arguments against Bernie Sanders overlap with left-wing pragmatists who are for him in this way: They both believe his policies are supportive of capitalism. In 1926, journalist and philosopher Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned by the fascist Benito Mussolini for espousing dangerous Socialist “propaganda.” Within his jail cell, Gramsci pondered and wrote about how a country could grow to become the fascist state that Italy had become. Why would the people allow it? How was Mussolini so successful in gathering their consent?

In what would be called his “prison notebooks,” Gramsci arrived at the idea of “hegemony” as a means for a ruling class to dominate over society. That is, fascists were able to gain power because of their ability to manipulate the perceived status quo — by altering language, morality, and culture. They did this by infiltrating institutions that have the power to spread hegemonic ideas far and wide; institutions like mass media, education, and most importantly, the political party. Through controlling these things, Gramsci argued, one can come to dominate society at large through what appears to be consent but is in actuality a form of coercion — controlling society by making people adopt ideas that primarily benefit those in power.

Gramsci would argue that the reason why much of the media, and Democratic political party establishment, is against Bernie Sanders is that his ideas challenge the interests of the economic “ruling class.” Yet, he would simultaneously criticize Bernie’s “political revolution” for being faux; it doesn’t go far enough to produce real systemic change. For Gramsci, pushing for policies that help workers better prepare themselves for the market only serves to sustain capitalism. Bernie’s proposal is intended to help people be more employable and useful for capitalists. That is, his policies only help to reform capitalism — to keep it alive — and indirectly help the ruling capitalist class remain in power. For real change, argued Gramsci, you need to build up a hegemony that contradicts capitalist ideas, not push for policies that help stabilize capitalism; you need to accelerate capitalism's self-destruction so that we can pick up the pieces and form a new kind of society — communism. But, not everyone agrees that capitalism is something that should be discarded.

In a talk on the UC Berkeley campus promoting his book, Robert Reich opened up with, “When I give this talk in the red states, people are offended at the notion that I’m implying capitalism isn’t perfect. When I give this talk in the more blue states, people are offended at the notion that I think capitalism is something worth saving!” Reich argues — like thinkers like Karl Polanyi before him — that we must intervene in order to “save” capitalism from itself. That is, without the government to step in and prevent capitalism from imploding in on itself, capitalism is doomed. Capitalism on its own cannot produce what it needs to survive; it needs the government to step in to fill in for its deficiencies and play referee. Friedrich Engles himself, the co-author of many of Karl Marx’s works, helped cement this idea.

“But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in sterile struggle, a power seemingly standing from above society became necessary for the purpose of moderating the conflict, of keeping it within the bounds of “order”; and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it, and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state.” — Friedrich Engels, The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State.

More fundamentally, Polanyi’s argument, which Reich mirrors, is that the rules of the market are not built into it, and the economy doesn’t exist in isolation from other aspects of society. Politics and government are inseparably intertwined with markets and there is no such thing as a “natural” market; we create the rules. And, because we create the rules, we can change things so that they aren’t “rigged” in favor of the ultra-rich and corporations. Polanyi would agree with Gramsci that our market society shapes our minds and has the power to define the status quo. Gramsci also is right that the elite will always have relatively more power in society and that capitalism is built on exploitation. But, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help the middle and working classes gain some leverage. We must — using the government — lessen the market’s destructive dominance over society. Not doing so leads us down a path towards destruction due to class warfare and massive inequality.

But where does Bernie fall on this spectrum? Clearly, and despite his self-described title as a “Democratic Socialist,” he’s not a true socialist. He doesn’t argue that the “proletariat” should take over the means of production so that we can transition into “communism.” He doesn’t want to restructure the government as a whole but instead to reform it. Yet, by taxing Wall Street and the super-rich, Bernie is clearly challenging the interests of the capitalist elite. His “revolution” is not one that aims to generate a completely classless society as the one Gramsci would want. Instead, his revolution aims to give working-class Americans a seat at the table in the democratic process. He wants to free the government from its subordination to corporate interests.

And, by pushing for things like “College for All,” he acknowledges that capitalism is not perfect. It, alone, cannot produce the number of skilled workers that employers demand as well as the salary which helps people sustain their families. Yet, he also knows that there are some things which markets can do better than the government. That is, Bernie wants capitalism to work for as many people as possible. Without these policies, both Gramsci and Polanyi would agree, capitalism would implode under the weight of massive inequality and class warfare. He’s working to save and revitalize capitalism. An undercover capitalist, indeed.

Today, most people who are in support of Bernie Sanders’ “College for All” proposal aren’t in support because they’re participating in the philosophical debate on whether maintaining capitalism is good or bad. They‘re supporting the policy because they believe it makes for a more functional society. To them, capitalism is a given; we might as well work towards making it work better. That is, they argue that making college more accessible to more people leads to better outcomes for more people — both employers and employees.

Take, for example, that many employers claim that they have trouble filling job roles because not enough people are qualified for them. People are not educated in the fields which employers demand most — math, science, engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence, healthcare, and programming. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences identified a “rising tide of mediocrity” in the US and linked it to a lack of specialized knowledge and education. In other words, Americans are falling behind, even at early ages, in comparison to the rest of the “developed” when it comes to education— especially compared to Asian countries. Employers are in demand for employees with skills and, clearly, US citizens need education and training to be able to meet this demand.

According to a recent report by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, of the 55 million job openings through 2020, 35 percent will require at least a bachelor’s degree. This is a trend that has been increasing and is expected to continue to do so. A college degree is becoming essential. Simultaneously, the cost of college is rising at a pace much faster than inflation and almost 8 times faster than wages can keep up with. Still, the cost of not attending college is higher than attending. A recent Pew Report found that 91% of college grads said that their college education has either already paid off or is expected to pay off soon, that the college-educated tend to significantly outearn the high school educated and have much smaller unemployment rates, and that the gaps between these two groups are only expected to rise.

Because of this, students and parents are willing to make the investment and are having to go into massive debt — and has created a ripe opportunity for scam artists looking to prey on the poor and uneducated. This debt often prevents people from being able to participate in activities that allow for economic growth. For example, many college grads aren’t able to purchase their own homes because of student loans looming above them. Others are unable or unwilling to start families because they don’t feel capable of whilst having to pay down these loans. Further, these loans are often preventing people from being able to move out of their parents’ house.

And on the macro-scale, student loan debt is beginning to look like a “bubble.” The federal reserve projects that by the year 2024, student loan debt will be at $2 trillion nationally and by far outweigh other types of debt (if things continue as they are). This hurts the middle-class the most because these people often don’t qualify for financial aid from governments. Theoretically, making college free would eliminate this need for debt, help produce and maintain a healthy middle class, and free up money that would normally would go towards paying off debt to be pumped into the economy.

Some, like Andrew Yang, argue that the current college education system is ineffective at producing a more skilled workforce. They point out that many of these college grads are actually ill-prepared for the demands of the market. They cite, for example, statistics that point out that a whopping 53% of college grads are either working in jobs that don’t require a degree or are unemployed. Yet, these criticisms are directed at the current college system’s effectiveness and not on the idea that higher education should be made free. That is, we can both reform the college system by making it better at providing training while also making it freely available to all. They also fail to address the fact that “College for All” proposes not just free college, but also free trade schools and apprenticeship programs for those who want strictly specialized knowledge and a more clearly defined path towards employment.

And, US citizens are no longer just competing with each other for jobs; they’re competing with the global market. Meanwhile, countries around the world, who recognize that there is a whole world outside of their borders, are doing a much better job of preparing their citizens for the realities of globalization. Germany, for example, spends about 25% of its GDP to provide its citizens with higher education and trade schools; Germany also reports a lower unemployment rate, much less economic inequality, and a higher level of competency in math, science, and reading than the US. The same is true for other countries that also provide citizens with access to higher education, such as Finland, Denmark, Canada, and others. Employers, who are in demand for skilled workers are having to rely on immigrants in order to fill roles that Americans aren’t qualified for. In essence, as Sanders argues, more equal access to higher education is associated with more well trained and competent individuals and lower levels of inequality at the country level of analysis.

So, in theory, and in other parts of the world, “free college” seems to be a success. But, could it ever actually work in the US?

In the 2000s, a city with a funny name in Michigan, once sprawling, starting looking a lot like a ghost town. Kalamazoo’s economy was once supported by all kinds of factories — for cars, musical instruments, medical devices, etc — which helped create the jobs that helped citizens feed their families. That all changed in the 1970s when globalization started going into full gear and factories started to move overseas; the jobs disappeared too. The people decided to move to the cities and suburbs. In their wake, they left abandoned buildings, empty schools and a loss of the tax revenue that allowed the city able to reinvest in itself. In 2005, the city of Kalamazoo decided to experiment with something new — Free college for all its citizens.

This initiative wasn’t kicked off by some “radical socialist;” It was the brainchild of a group of wealthy and anonymous residents looking to spur economic activity, population growth, and a more employable workforce. They wanted to save their city by providing everyone with 100% free tuition at any public college, and 15 private schools, in the state of Michigan for students who began in the Kalamazoo school system; it was intentionally designed to benefit all students who could maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, not just the poor. Since the program officially got started, the donors have spent about $124 million in tuition for over 5700 students. Clearly, these wealthy elites believed that free college was conducive to a more “healthy” capitalism — as did Polanyi, Gramsci, and do Robert Reich and Bernie Sanders. Were they right?

In the first year after “The Kalamazoo Promise” began, the population size of Kalamazoo grew by a whopping 10%. And, with an increase in population came an increase in spending and an increased need for housing; which created an increase in investment. Homebuilders and construction companies started applying for permits to build and created more revenue for the city. The increased revenue, in the form of taxes and more funding from the state due to a larger student body, allowed the city to improve its schools. People who planned on moving away from Kalamazoo instead decided to stay and many decided to invest in renovating their home. A higher percentage of Kalamazoo are employed relative to the rest of the country and their rate of poverty has dropped significantly. Thanks to “free college”, the city of Kalamazoo’s economy has been revitalized. But, that’s not all it did.

The care and attention that these donors put into their city, and the buzz it created around the state, created a sense community in the city. It also spurred on growth in college enrollment across all races and groups; overall enrollment rates went from 58% before the program to 75% in 2017, and more high school graduates are going on to graduate from college as well. Many students, who would’ve never even thought of going to college, are now going and exploring opportunities that would’ve never been available to them. All of this in a city which, just over a decade ago, looked like it was on the brink of disappearing off the map.

Yet, free college is not a “silver bullet” for solving the problems of inequality and a more productive education system. In fact, their program has revealed other factors that contribute to inequality. For example, white students in Kalamazoo still earn degrees at about three times the rate as black people do. However, research has shown that, when controlling for factors that often prevent minorities from attending graduating, the program has actually led to an increase in their graduation rates as well; the bigger issue is economic. The upper and middle classes benefited most, in terms of the dollar amount spent on them, because structural advantages help them achieve higher rates of enrollment than the poor — also often because of things like teen pregnancy, absent parents, or higher rates of crime. And, although the city’s rate of poverty has dropped, its rate is still higher than the national average at 31%. Some academics have even argued that, contrary to Bernie’s claims, free college would actually increase inequality.

Other regions, like San Francisco, have also discovered that providing “free college” doesn’t solve all problems; and in fact, sometimes it can create some. San Francisco made their community college free for all citizens but have found it difficult to manage their expenses and their budget. A successful free college program depends on the localities’ ability to manage funds. Some argue that not charging tuition causes resources to be spread thin and classes to become overcrowded. This was the case in Germany, where the cost to taxpayers went up as enrollment went up and some universities complain that not being able to charge tuition prevents them from generating the revenue they need to continue to survive. And, especially in cities like San Francisco, free college plans have done nothing to help the cost of living and it could even be a contributing factor in making inequality worse.

Still, despite all of these drawbacks, there are some clear benefits. There is empirical evidence that free college reduces poverty, helps inequality, and is generally good for the economy. It might be worth the investment; we can deal with the drawbacks as they arise. Also, the effectiveness of college as a means for preparing students for the marketplace needs to be considered. That is, without reformation of the college system itself, which often fails to produce graduates and even when they do graduate are sometimes not prepared for the demands of the market, free college might end up not being as fruitful as we’d hope.

And, arguing that “Free College for All” won’t solve all of society's problems isn’t a good argument against it. By that logic, we should never take any positive step towards improving society because no single step will bring about sweeping positive change. Change of this sort, argue people like Bernie Sanders, is incremental. Step by step we can address sources of unfairness and can work towards a capitalism that works for as many people as possible with as few negatives as possible. We design the rules so why not design them in a way that benefits many instead of just a few? Until we start reframing the way we look at markets and people’s role within them — structuring markets so that they work for us and not just us working for them — we are doomed to repeat many of our same mistakes.

If you liked this article, read a similar analysis on Andrew Yang and his Universal Basic Income Proposal.

Thank you to David Riggs, Andrea Grainger and Chris Richardson for their valuable feedback.

Sociology and Demography guy with hobbies in the finance world. Fatherhood and family structure research.

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