Four promises

In his1941 State of the Union Address, President Franklin Roosevelt promised his fellow Americans four fundamental freedoms 1freedom of speech, 2. freedom of worship 3. freedom from want 4. freedom from fear. But with our nation still recovering from the effects of the Great Depression, and the growing likelihood of being drawn into the rapidly spreading Second World War, it would be hard to fulfill these promises. During the Democratic presidential primary of 2016, he Vermont Senator made four equally far-reaching promises: 1. a fifteen-dollar federal minimum wage 2. free tuition at the public colleges 3. full forgiveness of the college student debt 4. Medicare for all

Hillary Clinton, the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, partially endorsed some of these goals. In the current Democratic primary, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and a few others have followed Sander’s lead in advocating for all these goals.

federal minimum wage

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Federal minimum wage basics

But no matter who is eventually elected as our next president, I can guarantee that during that person’s first term, the only measure that might be enacted is the fifteen-dollar minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage was last raised ten years ago to its current hourly rate of just $7.25 an hour – far too low to support a family of four back then – and with our steadily rising cost of living, even more inadequate today.

During the last decade, Congressional Republicans have very successfully blocked every attempt to raise the minimum wage. But 29 states have raised their own minimum hourly wage rates above the $7.25 federal minimum. In fact, a handful are on course to reach fifteen dollars an hour in the near future.

A substantial increase in the federal minimum wage is long overdue. But the best we can hope for, even with complete Democratic control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress would be a substantial increase, albeit initially well short of fifteen dollars.

Tuition

To understand the difficulties of providing free tuition at the public colleges, forgiving the student loan debt, and Medicare for all, we just need to look at the electoral math.

Assume a progressive Democrat is elected to the presidency and a somewhat larger majority of Democrats control the new House of Representatives. Perhaps the best that could be hoped for in the Senate is a two-seat majority.

How likely will this new government provide free tuition at our public colleges and full forgiveness of the college student debt? Neither promise will be fulfilled.

There are good reasons. First, there is no justification to give the offspring of the rich and the upper middle class a free ride at public colleges and universities. By the same token, if the children of the rich and upper middle class racked up huge student debts, why should the general taxpayer have to pick up the tab?

Student loans

But there’s surely a great deal of room for compromise. Let’s base public college tuition entirely on ability to pay, with the children of the poor paying nothing and the children of the rich paying full freight. Not only would that save taxpayers a ton of money, but it would be much more equitable than making public colleges free to the rich and poor alike.

Forgiveness of the $1.6 trillion college student debt also calls for compromise. Surely this imposes a tremendous burden on millions of young families being forced to put off marriages, having children, and buying homes. Compounding the problem is Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos – a woman eminently unqualified for her job – who has made it virtually impossible for hundreds of thousands of college graduates to have their loans forgiven if they choose employment in public service jobs. Madame Secretary has managed to renege on 99 percent of those loans. Which proves that nobody’s perfect!

There is little justification for asking taxpayers to pick up the tab for an expensive private college education – and still less if it’s for the children of the well-to-do. Instead, I would limit a college debt forgiveness program to a limit of $20,000 of debt for any graduate earning less than $75,000 a year. To discourage future college students at private colleges from racking up huge debts, I would have the debt forgiveness program expire in five years.

Federal minimum wage coupled with medicare

Now we come to the promise of Medicare for all. I completely support this concept. It is outrageous that we spend twice as much per capita on healthcare as most other economically advanced nations, but deliver what is in many ways an inferior product.  Worse still, tens of millions of Americans either have no medical insurance or have plans with such high deductibles and copayments that they end up providing little or no healthcare at all.

Medicare for all could cut our nation’s $3.4 trillion healthcare bill by at least one-third, while extending excellent heath care to all Americans. The only problem is that there is not yet enough public support to get enabling legislation even when the legislative and executive branches are firmly under Democratic control.

So, the best we can do over the next few years is to create a voluntary opt-in to Medicare for anyone who wants to join. Ultimately, as increasing numbers of Americans enroll in Medicare, support for Medicare for all would mushroom. In the meanwhile, let’s just take what we can get.



About the Author

Steve Slavin
Steve Slavin has a Ph.D. in economics from NYU, and has written twenty math and economics books, including “The Great American Economy: How Inefficiency Broke It, and What We Can Do to Fix it.” The 12th edition of his introductory economics text came out in September.