The GOP hates students, loves their debt payments.
I don’t think this is just the GOP’s fault, so I’m not going to jump on that bandwagon (but, yes, the recent incarnation of the GOP is particularly prone to the sin I’m about to point out). The real underlying problem is that we’ve all bought into a poorly made analogy about how government budget is “like a family budget” (a terrible analogy trotted out by everyone).
Many economists will point out that governments enjoy many privileges that families (or even businesses) don’t enjoy: Governments can print money, set interest rates, and otherwise affect the basic economy under which we all operate. Once you “get” the concept that all wealth is really just a fiction—that the concept of money and all its associated subconcepts—are mere inventions (and inventions only made possible by governments, or more precisely states, btw) then it all makes sense. States (what most of us call “governments”) are sovereign. That word derives from a European theological notion. States are the ultimate authority on earth—they are a secular replacement for The Lord God Almighty. Once you fully internalize this, you realize that the “rules” of a household budget simply can’t apply to governments. After all, governments make the law and they also make the money.
Anyhow. All this short sightedness has made both parties blind to the sheer fact that states were created originally to make life better. If you believe in a Hobbesian state of nature, then the state emerged because we desperately needed it for security—to protect us from a real world in which life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” If you believe in a Rousseauian state of nature, then states emerged because we willingly exchanged our unlimited freedom (the kind that wild animals have) in order to build civilization (we became slaves to market forces, to consumerism, to fashion, etc). For Rousseau, the “slavery” of civilization could be tamed by democracy, of course—and it was the hope of our Founding Fathers (peace be upon them) that they had devised a formula to both have freedom and civilization.
But what that means is that it was only states that made life not only safer, but also better for humanity. Keep in mind that the estimated median income for a person in sub-Saharan Africa and a person in Europe was about the same for most of human history (until about the 1600s or so). It was the rise of states in late medieval Europe which facilitated a tremendous expansion of human wealth. It’s also no coincidence that capitalism emerged first and then thrived in the very countries known for having strong states (Britain, Germany). To this day there’s a strong correlation between the strength of the state and the vitality of the economy. How else do you think South Korea went from having the same standard of living as Angola in 1960 to being one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
So where am I going with this? Easy. Those early states rose to prominence not by spending little, but by spending a lot. It was Germans who invented the publicly funded education system and universal health care. And not democratic Germany, mind you, but Bismarkian Germany of the late 1800s. The reason was simple: Investments in health, education, and general welfare would ensure a strong military and workforce, and give German industry a decisive edge. Between 1800 and 1900 Germany went from a backwater farmland to a major world power (heck, Germany didn’t even exist prior to 1860!).
Today, our government has decided that investments in health, education, infrastructure, etc. are too expensive. It’s more important to give easy access to credit to business or tax breaks to the wealthy. But what are the long term consequences? Where will America’s workforce be in 20-30 years?
If you really want to use the family analogy, then you have to consider that when a family tightens its belt, it also looks to the future. The father and mother give up new clothes or amenities in order to pay for their children’s education and food. The father may sacrifice a meal before he takes food or clothes from his infant child. After all, the only shot at escaping poverty in the long term is for that child to grow up smart, healthy, and strong and help lift the family out of poverty.
Today, we hear about the government as a family analogy all the time from politicians on the left and the right. It’s a terrible analogy. But, when you hear it, ask yourself one simple question: Is the person making the analogy suggesting that the family cut spending on its children’s food, medicine, and education to ensure that the father and mother have more disposable income? Or are they suggesting that the father and mother sacrifice a little bit (perhaps they don’t go out to dinner as often or stop buying expensive lattes on their way to work) in order to ensure that the kids have their basic needs met. In other words, are we investing in our future? Are we working to expand the market and our citizens’ productive abilities?