Millennials are too young to remember Monty Hall’s original “Let’s Make a Deal” game show, unless they’ve seen reruns on cable. So it might not be immediately clear to these voters that baby boomers are asking them to play a version of that game right now. Or that this political version is rigged.
Behind door number 1: the “car” of $1.6 trillion in student-loan relief, plus free college for all. Behind door number 2: the “goat” of uncountable tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded Social Security and Medicare liabilities to benefit boomers.
This is the best way to understand the flamboyant debt-forgiveness proposals lately put forward by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. These programs are presented—not least by the sponsors themselves—as a form of old-style, rich-versus-poor class warfare. Mr. Sanders says he can fund $2.2 trillion of debt forgiveness and free public-university degrees with a financial-transactions tax on “Wall Street speculators.” Ms. Warren says her relatively modest $1.25 trillion debt-and-tuition deal can be financed by a wealth tax.
Stipulate that what we’re talking about here, on student loans or any other issue in the resentment sweepstakes of the Democratic presidential primary, doesn’t really help the poor. The audience for the class-war rhetoric from Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren is the middle class, which is the intended recipient of most of the redistribution they promise. Even with the income limits on eligibility Ms. Warren builds into her plan, 58% of the debt relief would flow to households with incomes between $42,000 and $111,000. Mr. Sanders imposes no limits at all—his proposal is a subsidy for doctors and lawyers more than anyone else.
No surprise here. Redistribution to the middle class is a conspicuous feature of the European social-welfare states American leftists admire. This is why it doesn’t matter that the student-debt fiasco is mainly a middle-income crisis. That’s a trenchant but not entirely relevant observation raised by some conservative critics befuddled that Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren are investing so much political capital in a giveaway for the better-off. The middle-class nature of the new entitlement is the whole point. That’s where the votes are, and also where any sense of economic hardship lingers in developed economies that already have solved the worst problems of extreme poverty.
What these politicians aren’t telling millennials, though, is that the middle class always pays for its own benefits in some way. Financial-transaction taxes chronically underperform estimates of the revenue they’ll generate, and wealth taxes are so ineffective that even France scrapped its version in despair in 2017.
Much heavier middle-class taxation is what feeds European social-welfare states. The taxman takes well north of 30% of the total labor income of the average single-earner household in France, Germany, Sweden and Norway, compared with 19% in the U.S., according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.
And if you think middle-class boomers are lining up to pay their “fair share” toward student debt relief once all the wealth-taxation gimmicks have failed, think again.
The federal government is running a deficit today, and politicians of both parties show little willingness to balance the budget in the immediate future. Absent entitlement reform, the task will become impossible in the 2030s once the youngest boomers have retired and started drawing the Social Security and Medicare benefits they never bothered to fund. After wealth taxes fail to generate the expected revenue, the Bernies and Warrens will turn to borrowing to finance student-loan relief—those new government debts to be repaid, naturally, by the millennial taxpayers of the future.
What’s the point, then? A cynic would suggest the student-loan gimmick is primarily an inducement for younger voters who’ll unwittingly assent to assume the fiscal burdens of old-age entitlements.
Those programs might be at least partially reformed, and their fiscal drag on the young ameliorated, by rebalancing their benefits away from middle-class boomers, perhaps via means-testing. But boomers have always staunchly resisted such reforms, and no politicians have been as fearsome tribunes of that refusal as progressives of the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren variety.
So faux debt relief is likely on offer in order to induce millennials to elect either of two progressive presidential candidates who will absolutely never, under any circumstances, ease the fiscal burdens of the much larger old-age entitlements distributed to the elderly tranche of the middle class.
Think a student-debt write-down and free college is a great deal? Wait until you see what you’ll have to pay in return.